Mariya Delano, Founder of Kalyna Marketing, a boutique agency for B2B tech companies, talks about why developers don’t like marketing and what actually works for them.

You can listen to the full podcast interview here, as well as on Spotify and Apple or enjoy the highlights of our convo in this article.

‎DevMar Debugged Podcast: Mariya Delano | Why do developers complain about marketing (and what actually works)? on Apple Podcasts
‎Show DevMar Debugged Podcast, Ep Mariya Delano | Why do developers complain about marketing (and what actually works)? - Mar 1, 2024

We work a lot with deep tech and SaaS, and we help people out with content-oriented marketing.

It's not all content creation - we also do content strategy, content operations, and distribution. But everything's organized around organic growth, thought leadership, and in-depth, expert-driven content. 

We do a lot of interviews with SMEs, which often means talking to developers.

From technical writing to agency success

I started my marketing career when I got hired by a B2B fintech startup that had a lot of money. They’d just raised a round of capital and they were hiring just anybody. I had no idea what marketing was, I just needed a job.

I went up to them and asked, “Can you hire me?”

They asked me, “What can you do?” 

I said, “I can write.” 

“Are you scared of code?” 


“Okay, you're in. “

The job they gave me was initially an internship to write full API documentation from scratch, which meant that I started out doing technical writing. 

I did the Google technical writing course, which is free, I was reading books on technical writing, reading everybody's documentation, diving into Postman, and learning about all of the languages that they were using.

I had to make API calls. I spent hours and hours on calls with their head engineer who was guiding me through every aspect of how their software worked, how it was built, and why. That was their back-end person, and then I went to the front-end people. 

Starting my marketing career was like how some people learn to swim, by being tossed from a boat into the deep end of a river or lake. I started with the most technical you can get, and then I made my way through everything else after that. 

This meant that when I started working on my own, doing freelancing, and then made an agency, deep, developer-focused tech was the most comfortable place for me because that's what I knew how to do and I wasn't scared of it, and I noticed how many other marketers were. 

The top two reasons why developers hate sales and marketing

There are two reasons why developers hate sales and marketing more than most people. Firstly, there are a lot of privacy-focused developers. They absolutely despise being tracked, and to them, marketing is what tracks them online. 

They think about their information being sold to advertisers. They think about Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal from a few years back. They think about cookies and pop-ups that ask you to accept a thousand different things.

They think about ads that suddenly know what else they've been doing. These are people that are so averse to any of that, and they're really conscious of it. 

Also, if they’re actual InfoSec practitioners, they usually have a lot of knowledge of how many hackers, bad actors, and malicious parties use these kinds of advertising, tracking techniques, and technology to do all of the bad stuff that they do. 

I follow somebody on Mastodon called Brian Krebs. He's a very famous InfoSec journalist who often does research on spammers and malware-propagating groups from Russia and elsewhere that are using advertising to try to lure victims in. When you see enough of that, you start to distrust every marketer. 

People start talking about surveillance capitalism a lot too. They're talking about facial recognition everywhere, everybody's trying to get your fingerprint, so there's a level of paranoia that kicks in where they think that any tracking is bad tracking, and none of it can ever be consensual.

And then on the other side, I started with the really technical, in-depth API documentation, which means that I’m prone to producing the kinds of content that developers are actually interested in because I talk to them first.

But a lot of marketers don't start that way. They started by doing marketing. Maybe they learned on the job, maybe they learned it at university. And when they get to the developer side, it's another persona. I've seen a lot of agencies that apply the same methods to everybody, and that doesn't often work with technical people. 

If you're used to the typical approach of doing the top traffic keywords on Google and the most basic questions that everybody asks to target that beginner audience, you're talking about the most basic concepts and explaining them in the most general, most easily understandable way. 

If you're a developer who’s been working in the field for years and years, you don't need to know what JavaScript is. You don't need to know what an API call is. You know the difference between front-end and back-end. You know what debugging means. 

When you have all of these marketers putting out content for you that's explaining things that you learned when you were in diapers, it feels condescending. 

So, I think that's where a lot of the concern comes from too, especially when people talk about fluff. It's content-oriented for beginners, students, and marketers who are trying to learn about developers, rather than the actual developers themselves.

You don’t need to forget about keywords and SEO necessarily, but I think you need to approach it differently. Part of the problem is this focus on these high-trafficked ones because they're the most basic ones. You might want to focus on the more specialized ones because even though they get less traffic, the traffic they get is the traffic you want. 

One of the mistakes I've seen with SEO firsthand, having initially partnered with an SEO agency before realizing we didn't agree on things, was when I worked on a lot of developer content initially. What we ran into with one client is we managed to rank really high for some really big keywords that were very general.

They got extremely high traffic, and we got the snippet, which meant we started getting a lot of traffic to the client. 

And then the client came back two months later, and they told us, “It's great that you got us to rank that high, we're getting a ton of traffic, but none of the traffic has actually qualified. None of these people will ever become our customers. They're all students or competitors who are trying to write the same content.” 

So, I don't see the point in chasing those keywords to begin with because they get too many other people. 

If you’re trying to make content for a developer audience, you have to start with the audience. You have to understand what they’re thinking about, what they read, what they believe in, and what questions they have. 

I often tell my clients when we start out working together that if we're not doing interviews yet, or if for some reason, we're not doing them at all, they need to go and read newsletters. 

There are a lot of newsletters for software engineers and developers in particular that are incredible. They’re often written by one practitioner or a small team who are often working a full-time job alongside doing the newsletter, or they used to and they just switched.

They’re usually extremely in-depth, really well-written, they cite a bunch of things, explain concepts, and you have a ton of people in the comments if it's on Substack or something. 

The way these things are written is nothing like most blogs that an agency or consultant will produce. I often say, “Let's look at this and talk about why this works.” 

I often try to get their technical person on that call, such as their CTO, their head of engineering, or maybe one of their software developers in general. And I ask, “Does this resonate with you? And then I try to dig into why. 

As they say it themselves, they start to realize the mistakes they've been making and why they need to produce content differently.

How to craft an authentic content strategy that speaks to developers

Developers like things that are written by practitioners, or things that at least sound like they’re written by practitioners. You can ghostwrite this kind of stuff, it's not a problem. But the reason most of the ghostwriting stuff doesn't work is because marketers don't do it right. 

Ghostwriting is when you're still using somebody else's words, experience, story, and the points they want to make, but they're just not the ones writing it because they might not have the time and they might not be a good writer. 

A lot of practitioners aren’t good writers, and that's fine. They don't need to be. They need to be good coders. But they have the ideas, and it's not just a matter of sticking this person's name on a piece of content or just going to get one quote from them. You need to know exactly what they’d say on this topic and then figure out how to present it. 

In either case, any points that are made in that content come from somebody's direct experience in the field, because they know things that you won't get from any guide out there, and that's usually the stuff that developers are looking for. 

If you think that you can just Google things and write for developers, have you considered that developers might also be pretty good at Googling? They look things up for coding constantly on Stack Exchange, Stack Overflow, Reddit forums, etc.

So, you’re either going to be way better than them at looking things up, or you going to have to go to the source. And that source can be external or internal. 

We often tend to work with internal SMEs, people like CTOs, heads of engineering, managers for the developers, and software engineers that are building the product because they tend to know most of these things to begin with and they think about them every day. They're just not talking to marketing, because marketing often doesn't try to talk to them.

I recently collaborated with a friend of mine, Carina Rampelt, who’s from another marketing agency called Fenwick. She has a very similar background to me. She also isn't a technical person. She also worked in her college’s writing center, so, teaching people how to write. 

Spilling the tea on writing for developers as a marketer
A lot of the content writing work that’s in-demand is technical in nature. And if you’re not a technical person, what do you do?

We put our heads together because we were both working on projects making content for developers, and we ended up writing a whole piece about how to write content for developers if you're not a technical person, because we both developed a system. It's a system where we've talked to others, we've seen it work, and it works really well with clients.

I personally believe, and she agrees, that it's harder to learn how to write than to do the technical concepts in many ways. It's easier if somebody's already a technical person and knows one language or one framework, it's way easier to teach how to do something in another language or apply another framework or technique than it is to teach somebody how to write well. 

Writing well is so difficult, figuring out what ideas to express, how you communicate to them, what’s actually important, and how you lay it all out. Content is teaching at a distance or teaching at scale in many ways, which means you need to understand how people engage with things, how to keep their interest, and how to get them to retain information. And that's not easy. 

It took me years of teaching people one-on-one, years of thinking about it, years of writing everywhere and talking to writers. It takes way longer. So, I think it's a lot easier to be a writer or to find a good writer and researcher and then add that technical element in by having them talk to people and having them read things, 

Whenever we start a project and whenever I train writers to do something for a technical project, I get them to start reading whatever those developers are reading. We pull up some recent newsletters, blog posts, podcast episodes, webinars, YouTube videos, tutorials, etc., and we spend hours looking at them and getting into their heads. 

Then we get on a call, usually with somebody who knows about it, and we ask them all the questions we've got. If I’m reading something and have no idea what half of the words mean, I'll highlight that list, I'll write out questions, and then I’ll get on a call and clarify them with an expert. 

Beyond that, when we're planning content, every idea, every statement, and every piece of evidence comes from experts, not us. We’re just the ones putting it together, prompting them with the right questions, writing it out, and we get their input again. We're the voice, but we're not the brain.

Engaging developers through education, entertainment, and empathy

Not every piece of content has to be educational. In B2B, it often is, and when it's aimed at technical people, it often is because people are looking up how to do something. But it doesn't have to be.

I like thinking about it in terms of how it can be used to educate, entertain, or empathize

It can do a combination of all three, but it's harder, and you should have a primary one. 

For example, a how-to or tutorial is educational. For something more entertaining, we've made content that's helped clients make memes or put memes together because a lot of developers love them. 

Thought leadership for developers: Go beyond thoughts and avoid leading
As developer marketers, we have to balance competing interests. Empathy for our audience shows that many developers hate marketing but deeper analysis reveals that developers do like blogs and tutorials — partially because developers often don’t consider that kind of content to be marketing.

Empathize is more of the typical marketing stuff in certain ways, but you have to do it right. You have to do it delicately. What are their pain points? What are they feeling? How do you show them that you understand them? How do you make them feel seen and heard? 

That could mean talking to people and pulling their opinions and sharing them, rounding up expert opinions, or featuring an interview with somebody. Or it could mean writing really good copy that makes people feel like you know exactly what they’re talking about. 

Yes, you can promote things, but the key is, what’s your intention? 

I was reading a book recently called Crucial Conversations. It's essentially about how to communicate with people. One of the main goals is talking about how you make people feel safe to trust you. How do you manage to behave in a way where you're safe for people to talk to? And how do you get them to feel safe enough to tell you what they're thinking and feeling and listen to you? 

One of the key principles in this book is called, ‘start with the heart.’ What that means is before you start talking to somebody, think about why. What is your heart telling you? What’s your actual intention? Because people can see right through it. It's very hard to be a good actor. Most people aren’t good actors. They're not good liars, no matter what they think. So, you need to know what you're actually feeling. 

Is your goal to connect with people? Or are you just trying to pretend that you understand their pain points and their perspective because you want to shove a product in their face? 

Good marketing isn't forcing products down anybody's throat. It's helping people see if they’re the right ones for that product. Good marketers are connectors, rather than persuaders. I don't think a good marketer is someone who can trick people into buying something.

A good marketer is somebody who knows who the right people are for a product and helps those people see that they're the right ones, or filter themselves out. 

As long as you start with that goal of trying to promote this, but doing it to help people and find the people that will genuinely benefit from this. Their lives will be better if they have it, and we understand where they're coming from. We want to help them out. They’ll see that and it’ll come through in whatever you create.

At their best, marketers should be advocates and connectors for their audience. They should be the bridge that advocates for both parties, between the audience and the company, and the people within that company. 

Your job is not to force people into buying things they don't want. It's to help be the voice and connect everything that's going on, from everything the company is trying to do, the products and services and why they created them, to what the audience needs and wants. 

Most of our clients that I talk to, whether they're a tiny startup or a huge corporation, want to help people. They believe in their products. I know there are some companies out there that don't, but they're not the majority, and they're not the ones we work with. 

We need to accept as a given that that product or service was designed to help somebody solve some sort of problem. We're not out there doing bad things. We're out there trying to help people improve their lives and careers in whatever way that product or service does that, and it's not a bad mission. It's something we can believe in and take pride in and try to do our best with. 

I don't think that’s something that most audiences would resist, even developers, because if they think, Yes, this is actually what I was looking for, they’ll be very happy about it. That's usually the moment they don't think of it as marketing. They think of it as help.

Mastodon is a Twitter alternative that's very developer heavy because it's open source, decentralized, and coding-heavy. People can set up their own servers and control everything. 

A lot of technical people are on Mastodon and I have a fairly technical audience there, so I asked them:

‘A question for developers: if you don't like marketing, how do you define that? And what do you not like about it?’ 

I got two replies. The first one said: 

"Marketing should be increasing publicity of something because said person wants to know about it. In practice, it’s predatory and invasive. Predatory in the sense that advertisements generally lie, either by omission or outright in exploit of human psychology for personal gain. 
"It’s invasive because to marketers, anything in any way is a moment to market something, and any information about you is theirs to exploit."

This gets into what I was talking about earlier. You have bad actors who have abused trust. You have these spammers that make people very suspicious. You also have a lot of marketers who mean well and want to do well, but they don't know how to do better because a lot of the advice out there is from the loudest people who often are the spammers. 

The advice you get is, “Post as often as you can. Talk about it everywhere. Keep making people feel fear.” 

One of my favorite aspects of marketing is emotional appeals. But if you start looking up how to market in an emotional way, you'll keep getting the same advice - activate their fear. 

Why are we doing that? How often do you think somebody will trust you if your only way of convincing them to do anything is to make them fear you? 

Imagine you’re trying to make a new friend at a party. You're trying to get people to talk to you and want to hang out with you again another day. Are you going to go around trying to make people afraid? Are you going to go up to people and say, “We have to leave this party right now because I saw the smoke alarm go off,” or, “I think that person has a gun. We have to leave. This is not safe.” 

Is that person actually going to want to be your friend? They might leave the party with you. They might take the action that you want them to do that day. But that's not going to build trust or a good rapport, and you're not making them feel good. 

We tend to come back to people, organizations, and products that make us feel good about ourselves and about the world. We're not going to be running to somebody who makes us feel afraid because we don't like feeling afraid. So, it's a shortcut that sacrifices everything else.

And that's how you get people that think that marketing is predatory and invasive, because, frankly, so much of it is.

Here's another answer: 

"From personal experience at a not-so-small company, marketing sometimes has to make hard decisions about which development team gets the spotlight so that we meet our company revenue goals. That can stress other teams out when they're behind on their own goals, which can lead to marketing not giving us enough exposure on our platform."

That’s fascinating because that’s internal politics and internal marketing getting in the way of external marketing. 

Marketing is something that helps everybody. If you're featured, it tends to help your career and your self-esteem. It has this power, which means that people can feel left behind, forgotten, invisible, or not cared about if they're not the ones being put front and center. 

So, that's something to consider too. If you're marketing to developers, consider the feelings internally.

How to advertise to developers in the right way
Developers are often seen as a difficult audience to reach, with many marketers struggling to effectively target this demographic. However, advertising to developers can be an effective strategy if done the right way.

How to connect with developers without any coding experience

It’s sad to see people in marketing who are great writers, great strategists, or great researchers feeling like they can never work with developer audiences or technical audiences because they don't know how to code themselves. It feels like a missed opportunity and so many people shut themselves out when they really don't need to.

I have two pieces of advice. Number one is, if you really just want to be comfortable, pair yourself with technical people. Start talking to people internally if you're in-house, or if you’re a consultant, start getting on calls with technical people. Include that in your engagements. Maybe do some research on what kinds of questions to ask. 

When you start talking to a developer, they're probably going to be very grumpy for the first five minutes because they're going to think you don't actually want to hear anything from them, so they'll give you the boilerplate answer and think you're done. 

Don't do that. Listen, pay attention, and ask them the questions you have. You might think your questions are stupid, but they're probably going to be really interesting. 

The second that technical person realizes you're actually listening to them and you want the real answer, not that boilerplate, first thing that comes to mind, they’ll light up. 

One of my favorite things in the world is watching a technical person go from this grumpy person giving short answers and clearly not wanting to be on the call, to their eyes lighting up and suddenly telling you everything.

They're pulling links and pulling out a scratchpad, and they start drawing things and showing you their code. It's one of the most fulfilling, rewarding feelings I’ve had in my marketing career. 

If people get a taste of it, they’ll honestly get addicted to it and want to do it again and again because it's wonderful. It's wonderful seeing people's eyes light up that way and then learning things. You’ll always learn something fascinating. 

The second piece of advice is, I have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and that’s fundamentally an anxiety and fear-ridden disease. Basically, your brain's fear mechanism breaks down a little bit, so it's faulty. It goes off at really silly things that it doesn't need to. 

One of the main ways you treat it is what's called exposure and response therapy. You're supposed to expose yourself to things that make you feel anxious and trigger your obsessive spirals and compulsions. But you're not supposed to hide from it. You're supposed to sit in it, accept it, and deal with it, because eventually, you learn that it's not as scary, and then the fear starts going away.

So, I guess my recommendation here is a type of exposure therapy for fear of technical concepts. So, I’d recommend people pick up a technical writing project, or even do something for themselves. Again, Google has a great free course on writing technical documentation. 

Writing great technical tutorials for developers
Whether you’re a software engineer who’s been asked to write something for your company’s blog or documentation, or you’re a non-technical marketing person who’s trying to help their contributors improve their skills, here’s how you can write better tutorials.

So, if people can just do that scariest thing in the world, like write extremely technical pieces just for a week, just a small project, you don't have to do it for anybody. If you can help somebody out, that's great. But just do it, do the scariest thing, which is looking at code, explaining that code, and being able to write exactly what that code does. After that, I don't think it’ll be very difficult to write normal content anymore.

Developer marketing is all about figuring out your purpose

Thinking back to the Crucial Conversations book I mentioned, one of the principles was to ‘start with the heart.’ And then the follow-up to that was, once you figure out what your purpose is, ask yourself, if you really want to connect with the developer audience and develop useful content, how would you act if you really wanted to achieve the result? What would you do to get to that goal? 

I think people will find themselves trying very different things other than going for keywords, copying their competitors, or writing another fluffy piece. They’ll suddenly find themselves going through much more creative and honestly more effective ways of connecting with developers, if that's what their lens is, as they're planning their work. 

So, next time you're writing content for developers, ask yourself, If I really wanted developers to find this useful, how would I act to achieve that?

For more great insights into developer marketing, get the State of Developer Marketing Report!