How to Get Developers to Start Using Your Application Platform

March 26, 2019 Dormain Drewitz

An Introduction to Product Marketing for Platform Teams

"We soon realized that developers were not completely leveraging the platform and the services. And we found that updating the documentation was not solving the problem.”

—Lakshman Diwaakar (“LD”), Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance

In his twelve stage story of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance journey with Cloud Foundry, LD called out stage six as a “hard lesson.” Like many platform teams before them, they had discovered that users don’t magically appear. Nor do they magically stay informed. Well, there may be a little magic, but c’mon, these spells don’t cast themselves. The point is, someone has to do the work to create and execute on a strategy to make your developers aware of (and use) your platform.

After all, your developers have options for where they deploy their applications. As a platform team, you’ve built something special around Pivotal Cloud Foundry (PCF). It’s a self-service experience, with monitoring and other customizations. You’ve engineered pipelines so that it practically updates itself. But none of this matters to your developers yet, and some of it never will.

What catches platform teams by surprise is the amount of effort that goes into marketing the platform internally to developers. In this post, I'll cover the “dark art*” of product marketing as an aspect of the product mindset, what product marketing for a platform team should cover, and some observations on how to be successful at it.

*Yes, for the record, here “marketing” is the dark art. Because when I tell developers I work in marketing, sometimes they look at me like I’m Voldemort.


“Platform as product” means learning product management and marketing

At Pivotal, we advocate for having a product manager, not a project manager. Our most successful customers treat their internal PCF platforms as products. It’s a different mindset and set of expectations. I've blogged and spoken about this mindset before. My colleagues and folks living this product owner role day-in and day-out have spoken about this. "Platform as Product" is a thing.

Within this emerging discipline of "Platform as Product," marketing has a role. In particular, folks note branding the platform with an identity. Having a brand identity for the platform helps cement the mindset shift for the platform team as much as it helps market the platform. You should absolutely do it.

But marketing goes beyond branding and design. When you are a product owner, you also wear the hat of a product marketer. What is product marketing, you ask? Product marketers develop and curate messaging that supports attracting, on-boarding, and growing customers. They identify the best ways to deliver that messaging to the target audience. It's a discipline that bridges marketing efforts and tactics with the product itself. It requires knowing the product, how it works, the problems it solves, and the alternatives available.

You might be asking yourself: “Is all this necessary for an internal platform?” Well, take this: a platform owner recently shared with me that he spends about half of his time on marketing. This wasn’t what he was expecting, but he was learning quickly how important it was. He had embraced the dark art, if you will, and as a result, the team had successfully onboarded over a thousand developers in their first year.


Answering the Whys, Whats, and Hows

Building content is a big part of product marketing. It's tempting to dive straight into content about what the product is or how to use it. Answering those questions are important, but so is the why. Why should developers change what they are doing already and know well?

Whenever I'm diving into covering a new product, I do a gap analysis against those three question words. It's useful to take a good, hard look at what you have to answer the "why" question first. Answering the why is about answering the “so what?” and “why should I care?” questions. If you know your customers' pain points well, this should be easy. If you haven't spent enough time understanding the pain your customers feel, it will be harder.

Why should a developer at your company use your platform?

Answering the "what" is deceptively simple. A platform engineer is likely to describe the platform one way. But a developer using the platform might describe it another way. Be sensitive to your audience. If you are building an onboarding portal for developers, use language that gets to what developers care about. If you're building a presentation for infrastructure teams, use different language. The more your content matches how target users think and talk, the more likely you are to persuade them.

Finally, the fun part: "how." Think of answering the "how" as a journey on its own. How to get started on the platform. How to monitor your app running on the platform. How to add a backing service to your app on the platform. Build content for beginning users as well as for users with more sophisticated needs.


No one-and-done: prepare for continuous marketing

A common misconception with product marketing is that it's all about launches. You launch your product and, voila! You're done with "the marketing part." In fact, the launch of a product is really the starting line of a marathon, not a sprint.

Building a product is no field of dreams: you can't just build it and they will come. At a large organization with hundreds of application teams, one launch is not enough. It takes a lot of reinforcement to reach many teams. And, your product is evolving, so you will have updates to communicate out to all your users.

As a product marketer, I keep plenty busy with providing a steady drumbeat of content to internal and external audiences. And I can’t plan it all at once—big, upfront design doesn’t work. I’m in biweekly iteration planning meetings with different product managers learning about the latest needs. The solution might be one blog on a topic. Or it might be a series of best practices videos, articles, and workshops. I take what I can do into my backlog for the next sprint, but priorities might change the next month.

One thing that remains constant is finding, developing, and sharing stories of successful users. Hearing directly from peers about their experience and seeing their success is some of the most powerful evidence you can produce. As you work with your early application team adopters, work with them to share their experiences with other teams.

Product marketing is ongoing.

So, what does that look like? T-Mobile does monthly, day-long "101" classes with a mix of lecture and hands-on lab work. I recently listened to one platform product owner describe the marketing activities his team was involved in:

  • One-on-one meetings with application teams

  • Town halls to hundreds of developers

  • Writing blogs and tutorials (Which he noted no one read at first, but now all developers are reading.)

  • One-day workshops to get to “Hello World” on the platform

  • Two-week training courses on writing cloud-native applications

I've also seen teams that send monthly newsletters, run internal webinars, and organize weekly lunchtime talks. Each of these programs requires content and curation of existing content. Each meeting, workshop, or post is an opportunity to further educate your users and prospective users. But it requires an ongoing strategizing and effort to deliver. Plan team capacity to do it.


Do things that don't scale—and some that do

Marketing is often about doing things at scale, reaching the masses. Broadcasting out, speaking to a full room, designing an effective website. But limiting yourself to tactics that are proven to scale will starve you of opportunities to learn and get fast feedback.

Look at AirBnB: In the early days, the founders physically visited a few of the hosts that had listed on the site and helped them. They took professional photos, helped them write the listings. This helped those early listers find more guests and built momentum for the overall platform. Was it scalable? Absolutely not. It was hand-holding a few members of the nascent network. And it worked.

For example, I present in small briefings at least every month. There might only be half a dozen people in the room, but I get some of the most valuable feedback from those meetings. Or I might start a customer group that I’m managing out of a spreadsheet and my calendar. At some point, I know it will have to be refactored into a “scalable” marketing event series. But to get started quickly and learn, I’m just going to do what works.

It's the same for your platform. First, you need to build momentum with a few teams to get their apps on the platform. This is where product marketing blurs with product management a bit. These one-on-one early user sessions are great for product feedback. But they also give you feedback on how you message your product. Use them to test your language, so that broadcasts down the road will resonate. Run some workshops yourself before you figure out an enablement team. Don’t be afraid to take on something just because it may not scale if it takes off.

You might be surprised to find that things that don’t seem to scale turn out to go viral. At The Home Depot, the platform team did two workshops a week for four months. Then they noticed that people would turn around and give the workshops themselves. For Tony McCulley of The Home Depot, this was a moment when a lightbulb went off about the role of the platform team.

“You had to go beyond just operating a platform. You had to be an advocate, a teacher and you had to be a thought leader in this space. If you wanted people to adopt this, they had to understand the concepts.”  

—Tony McCulley, The Home Depot


Like any entrepreneur, marketing your product is part of the job. When your product is an internally-used application platform, it's true, you don't have to worry about salesy stuff. But you still have to think about winning hearts and minds and driving adoption. That's where some product marketing know-how will help. For some of us, it's a whole career, but hopefully, this blog will help you get started.

As a platform owner learning how to market your platform, what would you like to learn more about? Let me know on Twitter, at @DormainDrewitz

About the Author

Dormain Drewitz

Dormain leads Product Marketing and Content Strategy for VMware Tanzu. Before VMware she was Senior Director of Pivotal Platform Ecosystem, including RabbitMQ, and Customer Marketing. Previously, she was Director of Product Marketing for Mobile and Pivotal Data Suite. Prior to Pivotal, she was Director of Platform Marketing at Riverbed Technology. Prior to Riverbed, she spent over 5 years as a technology investment analyst, closely following enterprise infrastructure software companies and industry trends. Dormain holds a B. A. in History from the University of California at Los Angeles.

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