The importance of “how” in developer messaging

June 11, 2021

Author Matthew Revell

Founder of Hoopy, the developer relations consultancy. Need help with your developer relations? Get in touch.

Good messaging is unnoticeable. Mostly. Think about a product you chose recently. Ignore the strapline for a moment; that’s designed to be memorable. Can you remember specific phrases the vendor used to describe the product? Probably not. But it’s fair to argue that the messaging worked — at least somewhat — because you bought the thing.

All sorts of buying choices depend on the story that surrounds competing products, particularly in mature markets. Two models of car might be mechanically identical but attract different people because they both tell their own story.

For developer products, the situation is almost reversed. Two products that look superficially similar might be fundamentally very different. Those differences can lead to distinct performance, reliability, ease of development, and maintainability characteristics. And this is where messaging for B2D products has to differ from B2C and much B2B messaging.

Starting with “why”

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle suggests that too many business people start with “what” and “how”, whereas world changing companies focus first on the “why”.

Three concentric circles, with "why" in the centre circle, "how" in the second, and "what" in the outer.

Starting with “why” makes a lot of sense when creating a business. But should that be our starting point when talking to developers about deeply technical products?

It makes sense to focus on “why” in mature markets where the “what” and the “how” are largely undifferentiated.

Lager bottlesMass produced lagers are a great example. Researchers at the Stockholm School of Economics found in blind taste tests that people couldn’t tell the difference between Stella Artois, Budvar, and Heineken. Yet there are drinkers who will dismiss two of those beers as inferior, while claiming that the third is somehow more authentic.

If those mass market pilsners taste essentially the same then the “what” becomes less important when choosing between them. The “how” of their manufacture is similar enough that the brewer’s marketing team are left only with the “why”. Tell the world that yours is the one true original Czech pilsner or that your lager draws on centuries of Belgian brewing tradition and a marketing led transubstantiation takes place. A fizzy yellow drink becomes a lifestyle and personality statement.

That’s not to dismiss the importance of “why” in marketing messaging or to belittle people who make buying choices based on criteria other than the raw facts of the product . Instead, it illustrates one of the many differences between mainstream marketing and developer marketing.

Developer journeys starts with what?

Look at it in terms of the developer journey. Each time that a developer chooses to work with a new technology, it starts with a practical need. Developers then seek a practical solution. Those first few steps are all about “what” that developer needs to do.

They seek solutions based on capability, rather than the origin myth of the company. Think that’s obvious? Go visit the websites of some developer targeted tools providers and time how long it takes you to find a simple statement of what the thing actually does.

Once a developer has a collection of potential solutions that meet their “what”, it is “how” that becomes most important. Take NoSQL databases, for example. Both MongoDB and Couchbase store and retrieve JSON documents. That’s the “what”. To decide between the two products requires a fairly deep understanding of the “how”. The implementation of both solutions dictates their suitability to different use cases. So, a developer needs to get to the “how” much earlier in their journey than, say, a procurement manager buying a phone system for an office building.

It is only when “what” and “how” are answered that “why” becomes important.

Why leads to trust

Those who tell the stories rule societyThose first stages of the developer journey are about concrete, measurable product attributes. What comes next is harder to pin down.

To convince someone to continue using a product, you need to win their trust. They should feel that your interests align with theirs. This is where the “why” comes in. “Why” helps people to predict how a vendor will behave. “Why” gives developers reasons to feel good about using your technology.

If starting with “why” helps founders to create something more valuable, finishing with “why” gives the developer journey stronger roots than would be possible if we only ever spoke about product capabilities. The origin myth of a product provides a framework that enables people to form their own feelings and thoughts about it. Without “why” there’s no developer community, no champions, no advocacy.

How this helps with developer messaging

Throughout the developer journey, developer marketing and relations teams need to provide interventions that help people reach the next stage.

What, how, and why in the developer journeyUnderstanding what’s top of mind for a developer as they progress through the journey enables us to tailor the content we create and the developer experience we offer.

Applying the rings of the Golden Circle to the developer journey gives us a firmly WhatHowWhy structure. “Why” absolutely has its place but sevelopers don’t care about the “why” until you’ve demonstrated that your product’s “what” and “how” are credible.