Building out your Developer Relations and Marketing Strategy

Draw from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to craft a winning strategy.

This is part 1 of a multi-part series on the developer relations marketing strategy. 

In my last post, we looked at the importance developers play, especially when it comes to technology purchases. To sum it up (unless you want to go back and read the entire post), developers have the power to make or break a business.

That means we need to take developers, and their needs, seriously. Yet, despite a focus on developers, many companies struggle to build out programs that not only meet their developers’ needs, but provide a return in the process.

The primary challenge is how to get in front of developers in a meaningful way (not just hosting an event like a hackathon without thinking through the reason). But while hackathons tend to be one of the biggest investments made by companies (with good reason), it is often an investment that is made too early, and one that doesn’t actually address the Hierarchy of Developer Needs.

Say what!? The Hierarchy of Developer Needs? Just like humans have needs (think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), developers have specific needs. These needs allow them to understand your technology, use your technology, feel a sense of community, and grow. Without understanding and focusing on their needs, you cannot build out a successful developer strategy.

The Hierarchy of Developer Needs

The Hierarchy of Developer Needs, like the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, starts with minimal needs (understand the technology) and moves upward until they reach the kinds of in-person events that help them use a product in the most optimal way.

Referring back to events and hackathons, they are important, but you need a base that starts with Basic Enablement, followed by Community, Education, Expanded Enablement, and last, events. This means that if you focus on an event-only strategy, you are not only missing your developers’ needs, but wasting your time and money.

image of pyramid illustrating the hierarchy of needs

Basic Enablement

Basic Enablement is the bare minimum developers need to use your product or service successfully. This includes basic steps such as how to get an API key or a developer account, how to begin making calls to your API (or how to use your product or service), and finally how to build out a production-grade solution based on your technology.

Without Basic Enablement, it doesn’t really matter what else you do as your developers (in general) are not going to be able to succeed.

Why this is so important is that this core function, the base of our pyramid, is often the most rushed and receives the least amount of attention. Many API companies simply generate API docs from code comments (whether they are accurate or not) leading to out-of-sync, unusable documentation.

If your API or service isn’t usable, imagine how much money you’ll waste building out a community, creating and marketing partner webinars, or sponsoring events.

Just as Basic Enablement is the base of the Developer Hierarchy of Needs, it needs to be the base of your strategy. This is the very reason that one of our primary focuses at RingCentral is our developer website and our documentation.


Community, in this sense, is a feeling of fellowship with others that relates to having common attitudes, interests, and goals. In fact, community is so important that it also makes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, proceeded only by Physiological Needs and Safety Needs.

Despite common misperceptions developers are highly social and very active in their communities. They rely on community to do their job every single day. Ask a developer how they solve their programming issues and you’ll probably receive answers like “I googled it” or “Stack Overflow.”

In other words, if they can’t find the solution in your documentation (and let’s be honest, you can’t cover every edge case – and if you did your documentation would be completely unusable!) they turn to their peers, other developers. They search and read other developer’s blogs, jump on developer forums, and look for a solution they can use (preferably one they can copy and paste).

However, this behavior creates another challenge for your company. While there are generic developer communities such as StackOverflow where you should be present — they’re not necessarily “safe” communities for your developers.  What I mean by this is that while your developers will ask questions there, the answers may not be accurate, have solid or secure code, or worse – may be written by your competitors trying to coax them away under the guise of being a “community” answer.

For this reason, community has to be central to your Developer Marketing and Relations strategy. How are developers in your community going to be able to connect with each other, to share their successes, to help each other through their challenges?

And how will you create safe harbors or communities where developers can engage with your team? By standing up your own developer forum where questions and needs are addressed in a meaningful way that benefits both your developers and your company. Beyond ensuring accuracy, hosting your own community also gives your company the chance to get to know, on a personal level, the developers in your community. It also provides a strong sense of belonging for your developers.

More than just providing a sense of belonging, community also addresses the next two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy: Esteem and Self-actualization. By being part of a community, your developers will not only develop friendships with each other and members of your company (creating a sense of connection and building loyalty) but build respect and status in the community as they contribute. This creates an endless symbiotic relationship — the more they help the community (and your company) the more they are rewarded for their efforts. This recognition helps drive self-actualization; or their desire to be all that they can be.

To list just a couple examples of community done right, take a quick look at the RingCentral community (where our developers help each other in the forums, with articles, videos, and more) and GitHub (where developers share code, help fix each others’ bugs, and provide code to others for free).


The next tier, Education, is all about helping your developers grow and become experts in their field. One common mistake in Developer Marketing and Relations is to chase after the existing thought leaders and influencers. While you will want to have influencer marketing as part of your strategy, you’ll find it is far costlier to go after a share of established influencers (in which everyone ends up with a handful) than it is to help developers grow and become influencers in their field.

This means providing education beyond your product or service. In the case of Kubernetes, both Google and IBM do an incredible job of explaining what the cloud is, and why taking a cloud-native approach is the best approach. And they tell you when cloud native might not be the best approach.  Not only are they helping developers justify and explain their technology and the reason for it internally to their business (remember, developers can make or break a business), but they’re also creating influencers in the space with their messaging.

Another great example of Education done correctly is Digital Ocean. They offer a Community Tutorials series (see that word community again) that tackle some of the most common challenges developers and DevOps face while managing a server. Need to know how to set the right permissions for a file? For many Digital Ocean is the first place they look – and if not, it’s one of the first results in Google due to the SEO value of all of these tutorials, which were written by their community. As you build out your strategy, keep Education top of mind and ask yourself how you can utilize the first two tiers to help you grow and expand your educational resources for developers.

Expanded Enablement

With the three tiers in place, you’re now ready to help your hungry developers grow.  I say hungry developers because as you climb the pyramid the number of developers you’ll reach starts to get smaller and smaller – and each action becomes less and less scalable.

For many programs, this includes building out webinar programs, video tutorial programs, interactive online workshops, office hours, and other programs to help developers ascertain more knowledge.

These programs not only help your developers continue to grow their skills, but assist in brand awareness, sense of community, and provide valuable resources your developers can share with others in the company.

In Person

Finally, we reach the peak of the Hierarchy of Needs: In-Person events.  In-Person events and activities are truly unique in that they are the least scalable, often the most costly, and usually reach the smallest number of developers.

However, with a strong foundation in place, they can also be instrumental to building a robust developer community around your brand.

At RingCentral we take a very simple approach to developer events: we want to be part of the developer community.  These events give us the unique ability to reach and meet new developers, but also to help developers grow through our sponsorship of conferences.  Drinkups  (like meetups except we’re literally grabbing drinks and light bites) let us get to know the developers in our community on a personal level, and get more candid and honest feedback.

It also demonstrates that your company is real and that you are a real person that cares about them not just as a persona, but individually. You’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.

But as I stressed in my previous article, it’s also understanding that it’s their community. You’re not there to sell them or force them to be your next customers. You’re there to build relationships, even friendships.

With these types of events, you might not see instant ROI – but you’ll gain the respect of the developer community as a whole as they see you as someone who cares and is part of the community (not just someone who uses the community). And you’ll be the first company they recommend, because they trust you to do the right thing, and can reach you if you don’t.

A Final Word

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow focuses on the basics first. A human cannot thrive if their basic needs are not being met.  They need food, water, shelter – just to survive. They need to be able to live safely and have protection in order to persist.  And they need love and belonging to develop socially and build strong relationships while having a sense of community.

For developers to be successful with your platform their needs need to be met, first on the most basic of levels, second in the sense of having a community, and third, in terms of education.

If you build a program without taking your developers’ needs into account or establishing the first three tiers, it really won’t matter how much effort, money, or resources you pour into your program.

After all, regardless of what program you’re trying to build, a developer relations program, a developer marketing program (see previous post about “leads” verses “relationships”), or a combination thereof, the requirement for all of them is “developer.”