With the number of developer focused companies and products growing, building communities among engineers has become a key strategy to stay competitive. Augmenting and often surpassing traditional marketing techniques, this approach—although challenging—can be an incredibly effective way to engage users and get engineers excited about a product.
Since our inception over six years ago, DigitalOcean has worked to establish a robust developer community around our product through a variety of channels. This includes our public open-source focused Community, which attracts more than 3 million monthly visitors.
It Takes a Village to Make a Community
Beyond creating a product developers love (that always comes first), here are some best practices and lessons we’ve learned for cultivating a great developer community.
Develop Personal Relationships
A community implies connection, so first, look for ways to form connections directly and show people you care. In its early days, Twilio did a great job at getting out of the office and doing meetups to speak to devs directly, and I would argue this was essential to it becoming as successful as it is today.
This also involves finding ways to shine light on individuals in your community. When we found out one of our community members recently had a baby, we sent them a onesie for their newborn. Chances are, you also have community members who are doing amazing things, and would love the recognition for it—either on social media or your blog.
Taking the time to meet users where they are and working to establish closer relationships with them creates a virtuous cycle: these users help the community grow with their contributions, suggestions and feedback, and therefore feel more empowered to continue to invest in the community. Everyone benefits in this scenario and, equally important, your communication out to the community is genuine because you gain a deeper understanding of exactly who you are talking to and building for.
To that end, it’s important to have someone or a team (for example: developer advocates or community managers) ready to engage directly with your community and bring the lessons back to the company. You’ll want individuals who are capable of responding, both offline and online, in an authentic way.
Create Avenues for Them to do Meaningful Work
While many developers enjoy their work, they often have far-reaching interests beyond code. Companies that find ways to help their communities meld code with what’s important to them personally will see much more stickiness and retention.
For example, developer analyst firm RedMonk has done a good job of creating conferences (MonkiGras and Monktoberfest) that go beyond technical presentations and instead create discussions around issues such as the intersection of society, culture and technology. This provides a forum for the developer community to connect over shared interests and experiences—not just code or languages.
We created a program called Write for DOnations that not only pays contributors for writing technical articles, but also matches this payout with a contribution from us to the author’s choice of tech-focused nonprofits. This not only incentivizes our community to remain active, but makes them feel they’re making a difference. Because we take time to build a relationship with each of our authors, they know that they can help make a regular investment in those organizations.
Make Product Development Decisions a Two-Way Street
If you’re creating products for developers, their needs should be top of mind. Using a product feedback forum allows developers to ask questions and make product requests while giving them a faster feedback loop for their product development. We launched our object storage solution “Spaces” last fall in large part because of the flood of requests we received via our User Voice voting system. We’re not alone by any means in creating two-way streets: GitHub has an extensive forum forum for users to talk about different elements on GitHub and get advice. Stripe allows its community to chat directly with its own devs on Freenode as a way of further fostering their own community.
Providing visibility into your own product road map is also critical — by sharing in advance what you’re planning with your users, you can help them make much smarter long-term decisions.
Meet Them Where They’re At
Connecting with developers in person is incredibly powerful, and meetups are a great avenue for this. However, if geographic barriers arise, broadcasting these meetups live is a nice way to engage people dispersed across multiple locations and ensure they too get value from your meetup programming.
On the more tactical side, sharing swag helps keep your product visible even after the meetup or event has completed. A nice shirt or cute sticker allows your community to feel connected and effectively act as brand ambassadors. We’ve seen this to great effect with our Hacktoberfest effort: After sending t-shirts to individuals helping out with open source projects, we often meet people later at conferences still sporting their well-earned tee.
Building a community takes effort. When beginning to forge one, it is invaluable to consider how your specific audience enjoys connecting and how the company can serve them best. There is no one formula for creating a vibrant, engaged community, but with some experimentation and a lot of listening, you can create something truly special around your product.