Adam Brandenburger, professor at NYU Stern School of Business, has a fantastic take on strategy. One set on the many realities we encounter during execution. After reading his article on HBR, I wondered how developer marketers could benefit from applying these principles. Developer marketing is a transformative business function with increasing significance across many mission-critical areas of modern organizations. Brandenburger establishes the importance of creativity over isolated analytical models. Most of our work as developer marketers is bespoke and nonconforming to most traditional marketing paradigms. We do employ some traditional tools as they serve a purpose in helping established organizations evolve legacy thinking. Developer marketing strategy is vastly driven by creative thinking — with systematic validation.

Developer marketing has matured over the past 10 years. With it, business models and tools have helped us establish developer marketing as a core function of technology adoption and innovation. Simply implementing these models is not enough for crafting impactful developer marketing strategies. It can feel like perfectly following a recipe in a cookbook, but ending up with a dish that looks nothing like the pictures.

While the Developer Marketing Framework applies a decade of expertise in dev marketing, and many more of traditional marketing, it is not meant to be followed step-by-step to achieve innovation. Innovation doesn’t work that way. Developer marketers need to be creative in how they select, apply and execute business models given the context of the developer community they aim to cater to and the problems their product solves.

Brandenburger’s four approaches to building a breakthrough strategy:

  1. Contrast. The strategist should identify, and challenge, the assumptions undergirding the company’s or the industry’s status quo.
  2. Combination. Linking together products or services that seem independent from or even in tension with one another.
  3. Constraint. The consideration of how an organization’s limitations might become strengths.
  4. Context. Understanding how similar problems were solved in an entirely different context could surface surprising insights.

Let’s expand on the definition of each approach as per Brandenburger’s HBR article and apply it to developer marketing.

Contrast: What pieces of conventional wisdom are ripe for contradiction?

To create a strategy built on contrast, first identify the assumptions implicit in existing strategies.

Challenging Conventional Thinking

  1. Business stakeholders are the main decision makers. While they might sign the check, a growing number of business leaders in organizations are relying more heavily on their developers and product teams to drive the adoption of third-party technologies.
  2. Developers don’t care about marketing. Developers care, expect and enjoy good marketing. A product or service that delivers real value to developers will be taken into consideration. Clearly understanding how such a product or service fits within the developer’s workflow is key.
  3. Hackathons will drive growth. Hackathons are great. They’re fun. In isolation, they seldom translate into real growth. Dev marketers might get a bump in sign ups around the event dates, but not much business value is derived from there.
  4. It’s all about the platform. Great products are important, I will never take that off the table. That said, how many great products fail? How many ok products win? There are so many more components beyond the unicorn of the perfect product. Even the big players, say Google, Microsoft, Amazon and the like… don’t have perfect products. What works best is to build a complete solution offering that responds to the needs, priorities and emotions of a specific segment of a developer community. In fact, this halo of supporting activities will organically become one of the main sources of customer feedback that can help you gain quality improvements.

Combination: How can you connect products or services that have traditionally been separate?

Strategy from combination involves looking for connections across traditional boundaries, whether by linking a product and a service, two technologies, the upstream and downstream, or other ingredients.

Challenging Conventional Thinking

  1. APIs are the product. APIs are part of the product. I like to think of APIs as the developer’s UI. Most developers will interface with a platform mostly via APIs. The whole product must be a combination of robust backend services that can augment a transaction or dataset. Companies looking to serve developers need to look across all of their assets and merge the capabilities of each engine. Organizations who are able to expand the value of an offering by borrowing capabilities from across many multiple internal and external sources will win. From a sales and retention point of view, this product mix can translate to direct cross-sell opportunities and higher customer lifetime value.
  2. Different capabilities are managed by different lines of business. Organizations facing this challenge must act quickly and address the following: how can we align internal political gaps to best serve the developer community? Every gap you don’t bridge and every friction point you don’t ease becomes an opportunity for a disruptor to better serve a developer who is working hard to build great experiences for her customers. Brands must provide a unified developer experience. Handing off developers to “other departments” reflects poorly on the brand. Through a brand’s lack of product unison, outsiders can easily see internal limitations and turn those signals into powerful strategic insights to outmaneuver incubuments based on their inability to react to customers needs.
  3. Competition is us v. them. This thinking is myopic at best. Developer marketers need to help organizations embrace the coopetitive era. In developer marketing, combining the capabilities of otherwise competing companies might result in an incredible augmentation of value for both parties. The imperative is to imagine the possibilities of what developers could build if two, or more, services played nice together. Adding to that, competitors unable to realize this opportunity are the creators of integration economies. A multi-billion opportunity left behind out of outdated measurements of success.
  4. Developers, designers, creators are not related. The same way developers have changed the buying committee, designers and creators are more important than ever before in technology decisions. These three roles are interdependent. Developer programs must address the needs of every builder within an organization. Human-centered design and the need for more humanized experiences have increased the weight of designers and creators in general.

Constraint: How can you turn limitations or liabilities into opportunities?

Turn the SWOT tool upside down. Look at how weaknesses could be turned to the company’s advantage.

On this point, Brandenburger explains something that I face on an almost daily basis helping other developer marketers. He states: “Just as an apparent weakness can be turned into a strength, an apparent strength can be prove to be a weakness.”

In developer marketing it goes this way: our brand is so powerful, so well known, that any developer will love to join our new developer program.

Brand equity has its value in developer marketing. The limitation of anchoring value solely on brand lies on the fact that nowadays too many businesses are trying to leverage third-party developers as a distribution channel. What this means is that developers have been marketed the same value proposition and claims quite often before. When I talk to seasoned developers, and influencers, there is one common denominator that keeps coming up: developers are wary of non-technical brands who are now soliciting their expertise. Sometimes being a household brand is more of a weakness than a strength when entering the developer marketing world. Established brands must look for parallels between their core lines of business and the developer ecosystem. Powerful brands have to succinctly communicate the value they add to specific segments of developers and need to clearly showcase how that value is achieved.

This is not a trivial exercise. It’s quite disruptive.

Context: How can far-flung industries, ideas, or disciplines shed light on your most pressing problems?

Start with a problem in one context, find another context in which an analogous problem has already been solved, and import the solution.

Have you heard of the Ludwig Boltzmann Gesellschaft (LBG)? LBG is Austrian network of specialized independent research institutes. It was founded in 1961 and named after physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. LBG started a project named “Tell us!” about mental health issues and used the concept of open innovation to crowdsource research questions. The institute also launched the first “Lab for Open Innovation in Science” to teach 20 selected scientists the concept of open innovation over the course of one year. They took the principles, operations and tactics that were proven successful in building technology products and applied them to scientific research.

This is a powerful example of a creative strategy designed on context. Open Innovation is a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as the firms look to advance their technology. Simply put, Open Innovation is the platform developer marketing and third-party developer ecosystems are built on. So far, Open Innovation principles and methods have mainly been applied in the corporate world for developing new products, services or business models, and in the context of Open Source and community-based innovation. However, first insights into OIS suggest positive results related to efficiency, novelty and impact of research processes and outcomes as well as contributions to working beyond the silos in scientific research organizations and disciplines.

To succeed in a competitive scientific system and balance curiosity and impact, scientists benefit from developing new partnerships, fresh forms of collaboration and innovative methods for generating and communicating novel scientific insights. At the same time, science is challenged to generate innovations, thereby helping to address major societal issues.

Here is how LBG implemented a contrast strategy:

  1. Establishes itself as a leading international hub for investigating and experimenting with Open Innovation research practices.
  2. Generates and disseminates insights into the use of Open Innovation principles and methods in science, along the entire process to originate new scientific research.
  3. Develops and offers specific services supporting scientists and scientific organizations in applying Open Innovation principles and methods.

LBG’s goal is to establish and provide knowledge about the qualified implementation of Open Innovation in Science:

  • Re-thinking and re-designing scientific research through a shift towards working more openly, collaboratively and interdisciplinarily
  • Developing and testing new methods for integrating Open Innovation principles into scientific research and innovation processes
  • Establishing new forms of stakeholder interactions and collaborations within science

Developer programs can benefit from contrast strategies by looking outward for inspiration and analogous models. The main objective is to explore models that can help a developer marketing function better deliver value to each member of its community. Customer service, acquisition campaign ideas and even product innovation can come from a contrast strategy. This is our first attempt at applying Brandenburger’s theory on developer marketing. In my judgement, a mix of the four approaches is a pragmatic way of building creative developer marketing strategies. Borrowing principles from each approach without losing sight of the market’s reality can help you achieve resonance with the developers, designers and creators you are trying to connect with.