Communities aren’t funnels


Josh Dzielak speaking at DevRelCon London 2019

In this session from DevRelCon London 2019, Josh Dzielak introduces the orbit model, an alternative way of thinking about developer roles within communities.


Josh: My name is Josh Dzielak, I’m a software engineer, developer advocate and also a developer advocate advocate, advocate for developer advocates. I’ve worked in dev rel at Algolia, at Keen IO, at DeveloperMode and today I’m the Co-founder and CTO of a company called Orbit, where we’re building tools to help people do, help people like you do developer relations and work on developer adoption. My fun fact is that I use virtual backgrounds for Zoom, and I’m always on brand.

So, The Orbit Model is a tool for building enthusiastic communities. And I started building it a few years ago to help my dev rel team design the programs we were working on, and since then I’ve been refining it… Since then with the help of others. And the model has been my attempt to synthesize so much of the incredible knowledge and wisdom and prior art that comes from the dev rel community into something that I could build process and tooling around.

The Orbit Model is open source. It has a GitHub repository that I’ll share with you at the end of the talk. And I really encourage you to check it out and contribute your own ideas and experience. This is really meant to be something that we can all use and something that we can build together.

So to understand why we need Orbit, we need to look at the models that have come before that have tried to help us understand the relationships we have with our customers. And one such model of course, the funnel which has been mentioned a few times today. Common theme. Elias St. Elmo Lewis and advertising executive created the funnel back in 1898. His funnel was very simple. It had four steps awareness, interest, decision and action. And in 2020, that means the funnel will be 122 years old, or about three times as old as the World Wide Web. And it’s a testament though to the power of the funnel as an idea that it’s still the de facto way to think about marketing and sales. But, traditional marketing and sales are no longer… The only ways that companies create demand and fulfil demand for their products and services. Today I like to say that we’re living in the age of adoption.

So welcome to the year 2020, software is adopted not sold. Developers, as the end users have enormous power to choose the tools that they work with from amongst a vast amount of proprietary and open source options. And developers are drawn to tools that do a difficult job well that have great documentation, complete SDKs and very importantly have welcoming and knowledgeable communities. Developers adopt software first, and often long before they buy it. And so I think that adoption is itself a new science, and it’s different.

What makes it different? Well, it happens slowly over time. It can can take a developer months if not years to truly adopt a new technology and have that be something that they’re using, day in and day out. And use long before you buy it… People expect to get value out of a product, out of a new technology for a long time before they actually go and buy it. These days you grab something you deploy it often long before you ever think start thinking about paying for it and that’s that’s very different from the ways of the past. Discovery happens with word of mouth and community is really the engine at the center of all this. Providing both resources for people to learn how to adopt the thing. And then also social proof that this is something that is worth my time to adopt and to learn to figure out.

So even though dev rels work on adoption, we also work closely with marketing and sales teams who are a lot more established. And as a result, we often are end up being forced to think about adoption with that 122 year old lens, the funnel. And this leads to problems. So, apply to adoption, the funnel turns into a downward spiral. And developers who end up in it at the wrong time get frustrated with spam email, with unsolicited communications, and that makes it a lot harder to actually get them as a customer in the future, when the time is right for them to be in the funnel. And yet as dev rels we’re regularly asked to use the funnel as a metaphor to use it as a model and to think about in our daily work. So I would ask, “Has that happened to you before, “being asked to use the funnel to to do something?” And and I can show you a few questions and you can see if any of these seem familiar. “How many leads came from our last meetup?” Who here has gotten this question before? I see a lot of hands going up. I certainly have, it’s really painful. Every time I just answer 42. You can do that too. Just say 42, anytime anyone asks you this question.

Why is it so painful? Well, it could be because from a meet-up even a really successful one, the number of leads that you can say you got is low. It could be because you didn’t feel comfortable making every attendee give you their email address just to get in the door. And it could be just because you don’t feel like leads are the right way to judge the success of a meet-up. Okay, next question. “Can you share that developers contact information with the sales team?” This is another really painful one. Usually my internet connection breaks when I hear it. Unless that developer has told me that they want to talk to the sales team. Unless they’re ready to be on the phone. So these awkward questions come from the funnel mentality, so they’re going to be hard to answer by people like us who work on adoption.

But wouldn’t it be great if our marketing and sales colleagues, just like understood adoption, kind of got adoption in the same way that we understand how the funnel works for them for conversion. And that’s where The Orbit Model comes in. The Orbit Model is an alternative to the funnel, that’s designed specifically for community driven adoption. And unlike the funnel, this model was created after humanity went into space and started exploring the solar system. The goal of the funnel is conversion, but the goal of the Orbit, is adoption. The Orbit Model is meant to help you do a few things. First, it helps you explain what you’re actually trying to do as a dev rel. Second, it helps you identify and prioritize the developers who should be working with. And this has been a big theme at DevRelCon already today, “Who’s in my community, and who matters?”, they’re very important questions. And third, The Orbit Model can help you measure and communicate your impact.

The fundamental equation behind The Orbit Model is this gravity equals love times reach. You can think of it this way, everyone in your community has some amount of gravity, some ability to attract others. And the gravity that that person has is a product of two things, love and reach. Love is their love for what you do. And that includes the expert knowledge in your technology, high degree of satisfaction and really feeling like part of the tribe. Reach is a measure of how well they can help spread the love. Developers with a lot of reach tend to be well-connected, respected by their peers and have a passion for sharing and teaching. Love, reach and gravity are important because they can help you segment your community into different levels. And in The Orbit Model we call these orbit levels. And having orbit levels helps you give the right opportunity to the right person at the right time.

The first level is called orbit one. Orbit one is reserved for our inner circle, our ambassadors. Other folks call the or other people call these folks champions or VIP or MVPs, in the way that we engage with members in each orbit level is different. For ambassadors, we basically know them by name. We communicate with them via one-on-one, email, even WhatsApp or texting or DMs on Twitter and Slack. We don’t need many of them, but because each Ambassador counts for quite a bit like their own little community because of the love and the reach that they have.

The second orbit level is our fans. These folks are passionate about our technology, they can easily explain what it does and how to use it, and are connected to some kind of work community or local community. They might not have the love or the reach of the ambassadors, but with your help, they might someday. In The Orbit Model, we call it a promotion when a community member goes from one level to another.

Now the third level is our users. These are folks who have some kind of working integration, some kind of sustained activity. Most customers fall into this level, and there can be thousands of them. And to help us drive adoption for our community, we need to find the ones we can promote to fans and learn how to motivate them.

The fourth and final orbit level is our observers. These are folks who have read our blog posts, watched our talks, kick the tires with one of our sample apps or just followed us on Twitter. Relative to the other levels, there are a lot of observers, but at some point in the future many of these observers might need our technology for something. So it’s important that we stay top of mind for them.

So before I wrap up, here’s a quick summary of what we’ve covered so far. Software is adopted not sold in the year, 2020. If you work in dev rel, you work on adoption and adoption requires a different way of thinking. As the funnel is to conversion, the orbit is to adoption. And lastly, The Orbit Model is incrementally adoptable, meaning that you can start using it today for parts of your community. Now, doesn’t have to be the whole thing. We recommend that you start with orbit one. Identify your developers with the highest gravity and make a plan for extending their love and reach even further.

For more information about The Orbit Model or to learn how to contribute, you can check out the GitHub repository at There’s not a ton there yet, but watch that space for the next few months and I promise, there’s a lot more coming. And as I said before, the model is open source, it’s meant to be contributed to, challenged and improved by all of us into something that can truly be useful for our community as we work on developer adoption. If you have any questions, just come up and ask me or ping me on Twitter @dzello. Thank you very much.

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