How do you effectively market through content to developers?

If there is one company that knows how to do that right it is DigitalOcean
They pulled off a content marketing program that gets millions of monthly readers. 

Not only that but they create content that developers actually like. Even people on Hacker News like how DO approaches marketing. That says a lot. 

Thread on Hacker News

A quick look into Ahrefs confirms that when it comes to SEO content marketing, they are just crushing it. 

DigitalOcean SEO results from Ahrefs.

So I spent a few nights last month researching what makes them so successful. Listened to podcasts with leaders from DO and spent a ton of time analyzing their website.

Here is what I learned. 

How to do developer content marketing right tldr;

I am going deeper into the findings later, but figured I’d share the gist of it right away.

So here is how DO approaches developer content marketing:

  • They create “give-first” content for their target customers. In their case, how-to tutorials that target long-tail keywords about software development and sysadmin stuff.
  • Every article has a smell of value all over it. Answers the search query very well. Feels more like docs than a blog. 
  • They focus on accumulating what they call “developer love” with every tutorial, and every interaction.
  • They make it very easy for developers to “binge read” their blog with navigation to other tutorials and tutorial series.  
  • CTAs are very gentle, and non-invasive. They “wait” for you to be ready to convert. 
  • They re-target with ads to get devs to read more content.
  • When developers finally are in-market to buy, thanks to the accumulated “developer love” they click on those light CTAs expecting a similarly great experience to what they had so far.
  • They scale this with a writers' program, content acquisition, and media production teams.
  • They optimize the design for a great reading experience but make sure you know there is a commercial product behind this blog. They do that by having a product-heavy sticky navbar and banner-like sidebar CTA.

Now let me go over these in detail. 

DigitalOcean developer content marketing strategy (from podcast interviews)

Ok, so I figured a good way to learn what they do is to hear marketing leaders from DO talk :). And so I listened to a bunch of episodes with Carly Brantz CMO at DigitalOcean and co-founder and former CMO Mitch Wainer.

And I found some gems. 

Add value at every touchpoint = accumulate “developer love”

Carly Brantz CMO at DO talks a lot about how “love” is their core company value. 

Double-checked that, went to the website, and it is there. 

“Love is at our core: 
Underlying everything we do, love for our customers and our DO is essential to realizing our fullest potential.”

Ok, but how does that relate to the content? 

On another podcast, she shares that they look closely at this ephemeral “developer love” accumulated throughout their customer journey. They shape their content and blog experience to accumulate love. 

Sounds super fluffy, but if you think about it, it really just is customer focus and good UX. 

Let me walk you through an example.

Imagine being a dev who wants to learn how to install and get started with docker. 

You type that into google, click on the first link and end up on the DigitalOcean tutorial: “How To Install and Use Docker: Getting Started”.

First thing you see?

One of DigitalOcean's tutorial

You get information that you shouldn’t be reading this because it’s deprecated. 
They just saved you time and frustration.  And developers don’t expect that from a blog really. That is docs level experience. 

+1 dev love gained.

Then they pointed you to an updated resource. 

+1 dev love gained.

So you go there, It’s a clear step-by-step how to get me started. 

One of DigitalOcean tutorials

Exactly what you wanted. 

+1 dev love gained.

You read all the way through. No pop-ups, no mid-text CTAs to see a webinar.  No “actually you should use our product to do it” gotchas. Everything is straightforward and predictable. They didn’t piss you off with fluffy content which in the developer world counts as a surprising delight.  

+1 dev love gained.

At the end of the article, you see a link to other docker tutorials. Good, as you don’t have to search for things that “you don’t know that you don’t know”. 

+1 dev love gained.

And so you read another tutorial and another tutorial. DigitalOcean seems to actually care about what you need at the moment. The articles are solving the problems they promise to solve. You are getting better at docker with each one. And DO is accumulating developer love. 

By the time you know it, you go through 10 of those tutorials and feel good about yourself, and the company behind them. You check out what they do. 

Cloud hosting. Okay, you don’t need that now but good to know that there are 200$ starting bonuses if you wanted to try. 

By being helpful, gentle, and focused on what I need at every touchpoint, DO gained more trust this afternoon than most companies who interacted with you for the past month. 

That focus on adding value at every step is crucial here. 

Carly Brantz talks about it in this video from SaaStr. 

Meet people where they are, add value, and gently push them to grow (hopefully with your product). 

Let’s take a closer look at this content loved by devs. 

Long-tail how-to keywords and “give-first” content

I found Mitch Wainer, former CMO talk about this idea of “give-first” content very interesting.

So “give-first content” is basically company-agnostic content that gives value to your audience/ICP expecting nothing in return. It’s important that it really expects nothing. It may be very different for each developer-focused company. It could be podcast writeups, example tool stacks, or deep dives into concepts.

But in the case of DigitalOcean, those were How-to tutorials. Helping people solve their problems as they are building software and searching for answers online.  

Things like:

I saw this tweet the other day: 

This is exactly what DO has been doing all this time. Creating tutorials sysadmins wished to see in the world.

And they only allow tutorials about open-source software.

Right on their writer's page, it says. 

DigitalOCean writers program. Only open-source submissions.

In theory, those tutorials could/should be created by various open-source project maintainers but they are not. Open-source projects always need new guides and tutorials. So this content strategy seems quite defensible long-term. 

And thanks to that “give-first content” they managed to establish themselves as a go-to place for sysadmins to find tutorials. Nice. 

Important to note that sysadmins are their audience :) If they weren’t, then converting all this love would be very hard. Just a reminder that you should create content for your target audience. Otherwise whatever traffic you get it’s mostly useless.

So is that it? “give first” and don’t “push later”?

Well ok. Not quite.  

They run a lot of retargeting ads

So DO is getting a ton of traffic. 5m+ monthly visits to those 6k+ tutorials. But that is traffic, not signups and revenue.

If you want to be gentle, how do you “nudge” devs to continue reading (and growing developer love) and evenutally be ready to buy?

Retargeting ads. 

As Carly Bratnz shares they use a lot of retargeting ads based on user behavior on the blog.

SaaStr presentation slide from Carly Brantz

As I was doing this research ‌I got re-targeted with Youtube pre-rolls and Youtube shorts. I bet that Twitter is in their mix as well. 

So if you re-target readers of your content then where do you push people?

Interestingly enough to more content. Carly Brantz talks about that on this podcast. They do that because with every content interaction they gain more dev love. 

Ok, they also run ads for specific events or products but as far as I understood the vast majority is to content.  

All that means is that they want to move as many people to an educated position in the market when they will need their product. And basically, reach out for it themselves. Sounds like something from this new demand generation playbook adjusted to the developer audience at its finest. 

Ok, but having a playbook or strategy is one thing but how do you create 6k+ technical tutorials?

Scale content

You cannot create thousands of tutorials on various technologies in-house. And since how-to tutorials target mostly long-tail keywords you kind of have to create a lot of content. 

So how do you do it?

Get external help aka launch a writers' program. 

The process at DO is simple:

DigitalOcean writers' program tt

One thing I want to point out is that you don’t want to list topics explicitly at this scale. You want to guide writers into providing valuable proposals that are aligned with your strategy. 

But an external writers’ program is only a part of the story. 

You need the media production team behind the scenes. As Mitch Wainer co-founder and former CMO of DO shares you need to build an internal media agency:

  • head of content - to create and execute strategy
  • editorial team
  • design and production team
  • SEO folks

One more thing you can do to scale your content. Buy other blogs. That’s what DO has done with CSS tricks for example. Then you can either move this content to your blog or drive traffic from there to your hub. 

Okay so you scaled the production, how do you measure the results?

Metrics for self-served market motion

On this podcast Carly Brantz talked about the metrics they look at in marketing:

  • Unique visitors excluding customers
  • Signup start
  • Steps completion in signup flow
  • Revenue from cohorts of sign-ups
  • Churn/activation during the first month

So pretty standard but I found two things interesting. 

Instead of looking at just traffic, they look at visitors who are not customers. 

When you get to market saturation (And with 5 million+ monthly visitors you may be getting there) your customers would be a big part of your blog visitors. And if you want to grow your market share you need to attract new people with new things they are interested in. You need to focus on topics that you didn’t touch on before. DO hints at that with the way they communicate on their External writers program. 

Interest topics from writers' program page

They don’t want any tutorials about anything-software. They want tutorials focused on the market segment they are going after.  

Btw focusing on creating content for existing customers is fine too but it’s a different play. 

Heard on one podcast episode Kieran Flanagan shared that Hubspot blog is mostly driving more revenue, decreasing churn, and upsells from existing customers. It used to be the driver of net new customers and revenue but it changed over time. Interesting. 

The second thing I liked is that marketing looks at revenue created and their job doesn’t end with signup but they want to make customers successful. They share content in onboarding sequences to help drive more active users and more revenue. Nothing revolutionary but good to know. 

Ok, so let’s take a look at that content machine more closely. 

Content types

They have a few types of content but when you get to it the lion's share of everything comes from one. 

So the traffic comes from:

  • Tutorials
  • Learnings paths
  • Questions
  • Tech talks
  • Conceptual article

Tutorials and Learnings paths - the core

Tutorials are the bulk of the thing. There are 6000+ of them and they drive 5M+ monthly visits to the website. They are how-to style articles that focus on long-term keywords. Super actionable.

Learning paths are a way to combine tutorials into bigger blocks that guide the reader through different stages of getting something bigger done. With this amount of content it really makes sense to help people find their way.  

Question and answer

Think stack overflow type thing. 

https://www.digitalocean.com/community/questions/502-bad-gateway-nginx-2

No, really, this is pretty much exactly what stack overflow does :) 

So why compete?

Probably historical reasons to keep it. And with DO’s size of the community and developer love, you can perhaps pull it off.

As a new company today, I wouldn’t even try to go after something like that.

Anyhow, “Questions”, rank for some of the question queries, and get a decent amount of traffic to the website. Way less than tutorials but still a lot. Either way, it doesn’t seem to be their secret sauce.

Tech talks - events

Recorded virtual events basically. They have CTAs to register to live tech talks and stuff.

This is an interesting topic of getting the most content out of events marketing but don’t want to talk about it today. 

Conceptual articles and books - the past

Their conceptual articles explain a particular concept in software. They are just non-tutorial posts :)

Like the most successful conceptual article from DO “SOLID: The First 5 Principles of Object Oriented Design”. This is by far the most successful one they had. And pretty much the only real success traffic-wise. 

There are maybe 50 non-tutorial articles like that in there and they are not even linked to from the navbar. 

DigitalOcean navbar navigation

That tells me that it’s that important to them so I don’t think it is crucial to their developer content strategy. 

The same goes for books. They used to do a lot of them but seem to have stopped in July 2021. 

Ebooks from DigitalOCean

So yeah, when analyzing their developer content strategy we should focus on where the money is: Tutorials. 

Historical designs (2014-2022)

To understand the present it usually helps to how we got here. 

So I went to the Wayback Machine and:

  • Chose snapshots from 2014-2021, January 2022, and November 2022
  • Looked at the Tutorials page
  • Looked at a single tutorial page
  • Took screenshots of the above the fold for both
  • For a single article additionally took screenshots mid-article and at the end 

Figured that if some UI elements were dropped or added over time it would be a solid indication of whether they worked for them. 

The main takeaways are these:

  • Make sure people know there is a product behind the blog. They do it by having a product-focused sticky header and sidebar CTA that talks about the product.  
  • Add sticky table of contents to make reading easier. 
  • Try the “hello bar” with your one main CTA of the moment (events etc)
  • Rethink your newsletter strategy. Does it still make sense to push people there?
  • Rethink your end-of-article offer. Does it really connect to what a developer just consumed? DO does connect it nicely with “Join and ask the community” CTA. 

Here are the details.

Tutorials page above the fold history

Over time they seem to have realized that not mentioning the product in the header was actually detrimental to their growth. 

So:

  • At the beginning, it was non-invasive to the point of non-obvious where to go to buy.
  • Then they showcased the product more subtly and put the focus on the community. 
  • Today, the whole website has the same sticky header.

For the first few years “Write a tutorial” was an important call to action at the top.  

Article page above the fold history

Table of contents was added in 2017 and stayed until today. Makes sense as it really helps people read. But also ensures that the content they came here to consume is covered in the article. In 2021 they added a hello bar with a CTA to events and it stayed until today. This must be getting some clicks then. 

They minimized the focus on the author over time. It used to be a big picture on the left-hand sidebar. Now it is just a small Image, Name below the title. 

In 2019 they started playing with the non-sticky right-hand sidebar:

  • they started with related articles
  • later added product CTA and changed it a few times now. They made it stronger over time. Today it is the most flashy CTA on the page. Is it because people don’t click it? Or do they use it as a brand awareness banner? I don’t know. 
  • eventually they moved related articles below the sticky table of contents and added categories and other navigational CTAs 

I really like this evolution of related articles vs categories because:

  • I think people usually want to read related articles when the article delivered on the promise and they read or at least skimmed through it.
  • When you land on a tutorial page and see that this is not the page for you (which is at the very beginning) you actually want something completely different and those Categories, “All tutorials” CTAs may work nicely. 

Article page mid-way through history

In 2016 they added a newsletter slide-in and that stayed for a few years. But in 2021 they dropped it. Vendor newsletters are difficult to pull off and afaik they are getting less and less effective. I guess that it just wasn’t working for them and they decided to de-prioritize it. 

Another thing they had for a long time was the “Scroll to top” pattern that in the end was changed to the sticky header. 

Article page at the end history

Overall DO doesn’t seem to want to try and hard sell when you read through. They want you to continue consuming content, and maybe join the community. 

They had product-related CTAs at the bottom but switched to focus on the community and things around helping the developer learn what solve what they need right now. I like the CTA today: “Still looking for an answer?” -> Ask a question | search. It as it is aligned with the need of the developer at that moment and seems like a solid offer that can convert.

Ok, great, so let’s now look more closely at the design from today (November 2022)

Tutorial article design

Let’s take a closer look at one of these articles. 

And remember that this will often be the first DigitalOcean page and experience that people have with the brand.

Example how-to tutorial from DigitanOcean

So what do you feel?

A few things come to mind.

I like: 

  • Shows me contents of the article so I know what it is about
  • Minimal, no-fluff, actionable title
  • Featured image has a specific brand feel
  • Obviously it is a product, there are CTAs, Pricing things like that
  • And that I am in the community of that product
  • A lot of other content to see: “Popular Topics”, “Related”, “Categories”

I don't like:

  • Featured image takes a ton of room and doesn’t add much value
  • sidebar CTA is a bit “in-your-face”

As I scroll the right-hand sidebar goes up and the left one, navigational, stays. 

Example how-to tutorial from DigitalOCean

It feels more and more like a guide from some documentation. Without that big feature image and CTA, as a dev I feel more “at home”.  Perhaps, there are other considerations like brand affinity when you see a similar style image to the featured one. That could translate to better conversion of those re-targeting ads. So hard to judge really. 

Then it slides off, and it’s very docsy.

Example how-to tutorial from DigitalOCean

I see:

  • a lot of code snippets
  • information boxes
  • plain text

It just lets developers consume content in peace.

As you get to the bottom there is support and comments. 

Example how-to tutorial from DigitalOCean

The good thing about it is the fact that it makes me more likely to scroll to the button and go through CTAs at the end and stuff. 

One more thing I noticed is that a lot of the tutorials follow a classic how-to structure:

  • Introduction -> what you will learn, telling you what the result will be
  • Prerequisites -> what you need to do (yourself) before you start going through steps
  • Steps to complete
  • Conclusion showing the result
Example how-to tutorial from DigitalOCean

That makes it even more docs-like and familiar to developers. It immediately has this smell of valuable content. 

Overall, this design is just built for developer consumption imho. Especially if you think about the article itself, not the surroundings. 

But let’s talk about those surroundings a little bit.

Calls to action

Something I noticed about DigitalOcean CTAs is that they are gentle but they are always there. You don’t feel pushed but you always know where they are. So when you are ready to do something with the product there is no way you wouldn’t know where to click. But they don’t push you to do signup or something. 

I think this is interesting as many SaaS websites I look at are pushing you to some ultimate guide, to the next article in a funnel, to a newsletter. 

I didn’t feel that here.

I had a vending machine experience not a food market experience. And it’s a good thing :)

The vending machine experience is something like this. There is a vending machine with candy at the gym. Every time you pass it you see it. When the day comes when you want it, you choose that chocolate bar and swipe your card. 

The food market experience is when you go to the food market and everyone is screaming at you, reaching out to share their “amazing stuff”. Sometimes this stuff is great but the buying experience almost never is. Self-serve motion is the vending machine experience. And devs love it. 

Let me show you the calls to action DO uses on the blog.

Right sidebar CTA

Example how-to tutorial from DigitalOCean

That is the most in-your-face CTA on the page. Still very gentle and toned down compared to what companies try. But definitely on the aggressive side. 

I wonder what the reason is, btw. Why not make it less vivid? 

Is it to make sure that from the first visit you know that this is a blog of a product company?

It’s hard to imagine that this CTA drives the most conversions as it breaks the “developer love” principle. When I am reading this tutorial, I am most definitely not interested in buying DigitalOcean just yet. And I get “attacked” by this strong CTA. 

But it does remind me of DO products every time I read a tutorial.

Sticky nav bar

Example how-to tutorial from DigitalOCean

Navbar is pretty generic actually. This is interesting as today a lot of companies go for completely different navbar on blog vs the company page. That makes the blog experience better but has a potential downside. Your readers may not even know you have a product. This generic navbar, constant across the page, sets those “we are a product company” expectations from the start. 

There are a few “product CTA” there:

  • DO logo that links to homepage
  • Signup
  • Products, solutions, and pricing

You actually get two options when you click on Signup that let you either get into the community or sign up for a product. 

Signup design from DigitalOcean

It helps me see that I can explore the product every time I read a tutorial. And at some point, I may be further down the awareness funnel when they will come in handy. 

End of article CTA

Example tutorial from DigitalOcean

They push for you to join their community. I like that they explain what it is right there and then. Don’t push you to the landing page. Sets expectations right. 

In-text CTA

In-text call to action example from DigitalOcean

What I love about this is that it still looks like docs. Even though it is a CTA. It is not flashy, but it is very visible in the docs sense. And the design of it is nice and gentle. 

They don’t even tell you “sign up for DO” but rather explain a similar use case that DO can solve for you. Love it. 

Slide-in on scroll

Slide-in CTA example from DigitalOCean

This one I don’t really love as it is against that gentle, build “developer love” imho. 

Still gentle for a slide-in:

  • grey, 
  • no image, 
  • bottom right so it doesn’t cover text

But feels a bit aggressive (as any slider). As if you are trying to sell me something here and now. 

Left-sidebar on Tutorials main

Example of left-hand sidebar from DigitalOcean tutorials page

Developers will be going to those category pages after they read a particular tutorial and liked it. DO takes this opportunity to remind them that there is a product behind this blog.

I like that they offer credits in that CTA. It makes it easy for me to try for free and hints at your pricing model. And it will always be there waiting for me to come and grab it. 

Overall DO wants you to consume a lot of their great content and eventually convert with light CTAs positioned strategically around the blog.  

How are they helping you stay on the site and continue reading?

Blog Navigation

This blog was built for binge-reading imho. 

Super navigational, showing more categories, content, and search boxes to make you read more. 

Remember, with every good tutorial across their user journey, DO gains “developer love”. So there are CTAs to other content all over the place. But not just one foundational whitepaper or an ultimate guide. All the content, all the time. You choose. 

That is a bit of a difference vs some common SaaS b2b strategies. DO goes self-serve, choose your own destiny, and add value so that you read more content. Not signup for webinar pop-ups, and “did you get my newsletter yet” stuff. 

Let me show you how they do it. 

Single Article navigational links

Example article navigation from DigitalOCean

You get:

  • Related articles on the left
  • Categories and CTA to all articles on the right
  • Content types in the navbar
  • And search community in the navbar

That’s a lot. 

Not to mention a ton of internal linking between articles.

But I think when you make it subtle those “content CTAs” are treated like navigation.

I especially like right-hand non-sticky sidebar links. There are a lot of them and they show a million different things:

  • Categories of articles
  • All tutorials
  • Questions and support of the community
  • Events
  • and more.

Why?

I think this element solves for the readers who came to this tutorial from google and realized that it is not the thing they needed. It gives them options to stay on the page and find valuable content without being pushy.

Tutorials page

Tutorials page navigation from DigitalOcean

You get:

  • popular topics and all topics on the left
  • CTA to tutorial series which help you go through multiple tutorials
  • Tutorial search
  • Featured content

Then when you scroll down you get “Most recent content ” and then “Popular content” in a similar style.  

Tutorials page navigation from DigitalOcean

It has a more minimal design, without feature images, (which I like better actually). And you get this “View all” that pushes you to the main search console.

Ok, so what happens when I do want to “view all”?

You get to the main content search page. 

Content search page

Content search page on DigitalOcean blog

Here you get to choose from:

  • Topic tags (languages, frameworks, etc)
  • Content types (tutorial, learning path, ebooks)
  • Languages (English, Spanish, etc)
  • + some popular/date filters

I like that those blog miniatures are really bare bones but still look great. This screen just makes me feel comfortable that I can choose my adventure and find the helpful content I need. 

Learning paths (previously known as Tutorial Series)

Those are series of tutorials around a certain topic, packaged into an infinite scroll. 

Pretty brilliant imho. 

Learning paths design from DigitalOcean

You keep opening up new articles or groups or articles. 

It really reminds me of a Netflix series binge read experience. A bit surprised there was no “Skip intro” button :)

Learning paths design from DigitalOcean

It is a really nice way to organize content. Especially when you have a ton of it. 

Ok, so they create and organize all this great developer content. 

How do they distribute all this content to get people to consume it? 

Content distribution and promotion

This is interesting as they don’t do anything fancy when it comes to content distribution. At least I didn’t see much. 

They push it on their socials but it’s a super basic promotional tweet/post and that is it. 

No fancy “zero-click”, or “consume in-feed” strategies here. 

So how do people find this content?

Well, mostly Google search. Articles are written for SEO in a how-to format targeting super clear keywords. So people just find them out while searching google. 

In one of the podcasts, folks from DO mentioned sending the relevant content to people who subscribed to the newsletter or product but haven’t checked that out. But it feels like very little distribution/repackaging is going on because SEO is just working so well for them. 

Final thoughts

Ok, so after going through all of this what are the takeaways again? 

Here is how DigitalOcean crashes it at developer content marketing:

  • They create “give-first” content for their target customers. In their case, how-to tutorials that target long-tail keywords about software development and sysadmin stuff.
  • Every article has a smell of value all over it. Answers the search query very well. Feels more like docs than a blog. 
  • They focus on accumulating what they call “developer love” with every tutorial, and every interaction.
  • They make it very easy for developers to “binge read” their blog with navigation to other tutorials and tutorial series.  
  • CTAs are very gentle, and non-invasive. They “wait” for you to be ready to convert. 
  • They re-target with ads to get devs to read more content.
  • When developers finally are in-market to buy, thanks to the accumulated “developer love” they click on those light CTAs expecting a similarly great experience to what they had so far.
  • They scale this with a writers' program, content acquisition, and media production teams.
  • They optimize the design for a great reading experience but make sure you know there is a commercial product behind this blog. They do that by having a product-heavy sticky navbar and banner-like sidebar CTA.

I think a lot of these learnings are general enough to be useful for most developer content programs out there. 

Hopefully, with this knowledge, you’ll know how to build a content machine like the one I had the pleasure to admire today.