- Alexey Klochai
Is it possible to market a technology without marketing a specific product?
I believe the answer is yes, and many developer-focused companies already do, even though some may not explicitly refer to what they do as “technology marketing.”
“Technology marketing” and “product marketing” are often presented as potentially opposing priorities when I talk to marketing, product, and growth teams about their content marketing efforts. While the product marketing part is well understood, the technology side is often less clear. This is understandable when you consider that companies often measure their success by metrics like increases in product usage, sign-ups, or subscription revenue.
Moreover, when I talk to software companies specifically, any discussions of how technology marketing applies within their sector are often in their infancy, which is why we’ll discuss the potential benefits of technology marketing, particularly for developer-focused companies.
This article explores technology marketing and related concepts and gives a few real-world examples of how some developer-focused companies are doing technology marketing. Finally, I want to share with you a study that I conducted on 36 different Heavybit companies that investigates whether the companies doing technology marketing are seeing any easily measurable benefits.
Definitions First: What’s Technology Marketing?
I usually define technology marketing as any activities that accelerate acceptance of a technology in the market. A “technology” could be anything from a programming language, to a development framework, to a popular software tool. The reason for marketing a technology is that readers with goodwill towards that technology may extend their goodwill towards your company or product (or at least be curious about it) if they see that the two are related.
Technology marketing enables category creation and can accelerate your product’s usage from early adopters to mainstream users.
Example: Marketing Complementary Technology
Let’s take Netlify as an example — a website hosting platform. I’ve been a user for many years because my personal site is built with Hugo, a static site generator (SSG) that integrates really well with the Netlify platform. Netlify’s promotion of static website generators like Hugo is a classic technology marketing initiative. Netlify doesn’t benefit from promoting SSGs directly, because it's possible for you to use Hugo and other generators without Netlify. But Netlify and Hugo are complements: As more people use Hugo, more people will likely want to use Netlify, as long as it remains a convenient platform for Hugo website hosting.
Netlify could have chosen to exclusively promote its commercial product, website hosting, like so many other hosting companies. However, competition in the space is fierce, and it’s difficult to show differentiation to someone looking for generic website hosting. By promoting SSGs first, Netlify has positioned itself as a great option for static site users, thereby creating a “filter” for prospective customers and making its commercial service an easier sell later on.
Another Important Step: Measuring Success
Just as in the Netlify example above, there needs to be a business benefit for your technology marketing investment to be justifiable. I see the benefit of technology marketing as leading to a lower cost of sales over the long run — you build a pre-qualified audience that will be much more open to what you have to sell, compared to a “cold” audience. However, the measurement of success for a technology marketing initiative gets tricky, because there often isn’t a way to directly measure adoption of a technology outside of a particular product.
Because things like “cost of sales” are difficult to measure across different types of technology (particularly for technology you don’t own), especially in a startup environment, companies tend to measure the success of technology marketing initiatives through proxies like frequency of use of the technology term on social media, GitHub stars (for open-source projects), or the search volume for a particular keyword combination.
Technology Marketing and Open Source
The line between product and technology marketing is particularly thin for companies with an open-source product. If you develop a free, open-source software (FOSS) tool and build a website to promote it, does that count as marketing a product or a technology?
You could argue either way, but I think most often the answer is “both,” because most companies intend to eventually convert some of OSS users into paid customers, while still keeping the OSS tool usable on its own and with a permissive license. So for any finance managers out there, you have my permission to allocate 50% (or whatever amount) of the technology marketing budget from product marketing, and the rest from brand marketing or R&D!
The prevalence of OSS is probably why technology marketing has always been more common in developer tools than, say, the project management SaaS sector. For developer-focused tooling, there is frequently an innovation-driven component that has a clear benefit, and the marketplace is generally more accepting of cool new things. But because there isn’t always a direct line between the tech and the product, technology marketing initiatives tend to be separate from product marketing.
Why Companies Do Technology Marketing
For a company like Netlify, promoting other technologies helps acquire more customers: The more static sites there are in the world, the more users Netlify will likely have. In this case, Netlify is complementary to static site generators (SSGs) like Hugo and Jekyll. This complementarity creates a positive growth loop, where Netlify grows the audience for SSGs and SSGs grow Netlify’s audience.
Other reasons, besides growing the customer base directly through growth loops, include:
- Making Products Built on the Technology Easier to Understand (and Easier to Sell): As an example, Gradle.com offers an enterprise-focused, serviced version of Gradle, which uses the same open-source technology available on Gradle.org. While explaining Gradle’s commercial solution to someone who has never used Gradle would require a lot of effort, it’s easier to explain Gradle.com to a current Gradle user. It’s sufficient to say “it’s like OSS Gradle, but faster.”
- Building an Audience of Qualified Prospects: If someone puts effort into using a technology, it’s a good sign that what the technology accomplishes is important to them. If they are already invested in the technology, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to sell a commercial service related to the technology they already use, compared to a “cold” prospect.
- Recruiting: Associating yourself with a particular technology can help build an audience of qualified candidates. For example, Walmart Labs developed and launched the Lacinia library for parsing queries from Facebook’s GraphQL for Clojure developers, as well as writing a number of high-quality blog articles promoting their library and positioning themselves as an authority on related topics. None of this work is designed to drive more customers to Walmart, but probably many Clojure developers have heard of the library, and would consider working at the company that created it.
- Generally Building Goodwill and Increasing Brand Awareness: Associating your product with well-known technology can be a good way to build awareness for your brand. Also, as we mentioned earlier, selling your products can be easier when prospects recognize that what you’re selling relates to technology they already know and use.
Another important reason that companies do technology marketing is to direct web traffic to their website. While content marketing is not just about traffic, qualified traffic in particular can be very helpful. Next, we’ll take a more-detailed look at the connection between technology marketing and website traffic.
Case Study: Heavybit Companies, Technology Marketing, and Traffic Stats
For many of the companies we work with at Wizard on Demand, the question of whether to focus on product or technology marketing often comes up in talks about search, SEO, or paid promotion.
Here’s a common case: Early-stage companies often find that their prospects are already searching for a particular related technology, while there is no search volume for the product itself. Latching onto the technology is a productive way for these companies to get themselves in front of prospects.
For a quick example of how this works, I pulled some organic traffic estimates for Netlify’s website from the Ahrefs SEO tool. Some of the most popular pages on the site for organic traffic, aside from the homepage and the pricing page, are:
We can see that Netlify's strategy of marketing static site generators is proving successful for its SEO. The other popular link discusses how to integrate the Jamstack with the Netlify platform. The Jamstack is a popular approach to web development and works well with SSGs. It’s worth noting that Netlify also owns the https://jamstack.org domain that ranks for search terms around the Jamstack.
It’s clear that the Jamstack is important to Netlify’s business growth. This approach of technology marketing seems to work for Netlify, but does it apply more generally? To find out, I did some traffic analysis using Ahrefs for other Heavybit portfolio companies. I classified companies into two categories: those I could easily identify were using technology marketing initiatives, and those who didn’t seem to be doing much technology marketing at that time.
We labeled companies as “engages in technology marketing” if the following criteria were met:
- The company hasn’t been acquired (acquisitions can sometimes mean the website is outdated).
- There is a prominent technology marketing initiative on the main page of the site, in either the copy or the navigation bar. Most often, we found it in the “Resources” section or in the site footer. I chose to exclude any links that were listed under the “Features” section, as some companies position some of their features around products they integrate with, which is different from technology marketing.
I looked at 37 companies in total; however, for simplicity’s sake, I ended up excluding Stripe from the calculations, as its organic traffic stats were significantly higher than that of the other companies put together, and it was distorting the averages. (Sorry, Stripe!)
After my analysis, I ended up with 18 companies in each category. I then pulled the total organic traffic for each company’s domain using Ahrefs’ Batch Analysis tool, and from this data I calculated some useful metrics, including the average traffic volume for each category:
Looking at this data, it seems like companies within the Heavybit portfolio with a prominent technology marketing initiative are getting almost 60% more organic traffic than companies without such an initiative.
There are definitely limitations to this data — specifically:
- I’m using Ahrefs traffic estimates, and it’s common for the actual traffic stats to be different. However, Ahrefs' information does tend to be directionally correct in my experience.
- The dataset is limited to Heavybit companies, and it would be interesting to include other companies from the devtool space so that we have a lower chance of tilting towards companies at a specific growth stage.
- The standard deviation is high, so the results are not universally applicable to every company in the dataset.
Despite our data limitations, the findings are consistent with the benefits I usually see with clients who engage in technology marketing: Traffic tends to be higher.
Should Your Startup Do Technology Marketing?
Technology marketing isn’t just about traffic, of course, and there are many more perspectives to consider, including those that relate to your wider business strategy. However, from a purely content marketing-focused approach, having a technology marketing initiative for a developer-focused company certainly seems to have some benefits!
But all that extra traffic isn’t actually helpful to your bottom line unless you can use it to get the results that you actually need for your business – like sign-ups, qualified leads, and paid users.
If I had to make a decision on whether to engage in technology marketing as part of a content marketing strategy, I would definitely look at how connected the technology is to the core product or service. If there is a natural transition that can be made from using the technology into using a paid service, I would be much more inclined to recommend promoting the technology.
Another common point of confusion: You shouldn’t postpone product marketing to focus on technology marketing. If you have prospects who are ready to buy, regardless of how they ended up on your site, it would be a waste to not have the right collateral on your website to facilitate the sale. So everything that’s needed to not lose purchases early on — for example, pages that rank well for very high-purchase-intent keywords, as well as case studies and other materials that your sales team will need to be successful — should always be a top priority.
What we increasingly see within our client base at Wizard on Demand is two separate initiatives emerging, with one targeting the technology side and another one the product side, running in parallel. In these cases, the product and the technology are often being developed closely alongside each other, so technology marketing helps product marketing and vice versa.
Hopefully, some of the nuances of technology marketing are now a little clearer, and you can see some of the benefits that technology marketing can bring to your company when you combine it with your existing product marketing strategy.
Technology marketing is still a relatively new area within content marketing, so there are still plenty of gains to be made when adopting this new approach.
Do you have data from your own work that contradicts what I’ve found in my research? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn, or email me at alexey (at) wizardondemand (dot) com.