Here at RedMonk our clients often ask us for social media recommendations. More specifically, we are asked what social media platforms are best for reaching software engineers.
Unsurprisingly, in the years we have fielded this question (Here’s Stephen O’Grady & James Governor on the subject) our answer is some variation of “It depends.” The most successful social media platform for a tech company is not one-size-fits-all. Rather, it is the one best situated to enable a desired outcome. Before we can recommend a tool, vendors must first ask themselves what it is they hope to achieve from a social media campaign. Is it Adoption? Recruitment? Brand awareness?
What most everyone in the tech industry recognizes is that although IT professionals are a hugely diverse group, for many the phrase “social media” sticks in their teeth. Between privacy issues, rampant marketing, election interference, and compromising the mental health of children, there is much for savvy consumers to critique with these platforms. While engineers in their 30s may have been early adopters of MySpace, they were also the first to delete Facebook when the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal came to light over a decade ago.
Caveats aside, this post covers some general tips and strategies we at RedMonk tend to suggest across the board. My recommendations will not take the form of a list of platforms guaranteed to reach the desired audience. Instead, I will suggest a way of thinking about social media’s relationship to tech products. TL:DR, it’s less about the platform and more about the approach.
What is Social Media?
Let’s begin by defining terms. The Oxford English Dictionary defines social media as:
websites and applications which enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.
This definition is broad. Illustratively, “social media” first appeared in a 1994 Online article (“What attracted librarians to the Internet? For some cybernauts, usenet, irc, and the other social media of the net are the hooks.”), but since then has come to assume a variety of connotations and emotional baggage. Although social media includes a varied set of apps, it is difficult to distinguish exactly what social media is and is not.
Some platforms spark near universal recognition as social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok), and likely comprise the sorts of social media recommendations folks looking to launch campaigns aimed at software developers anticipate. What I suggest is that tech companies do well to embrace this term at its most capacious because less obvious platforms may be more appropriate for reaching an audience of developers.
I begin my consideration of less orthodox social media platforms with Reddit. Founded in 2005, and acquired by Condé Nast a year later, today this US website specializing in discussion and content aggregation remains wildly popular, and has raised $1.3B in the course of 9 funding rounds (Series F). The secret to Reddit’s success is its ability to foster a bespoke community experience through meritocracy. Users maintain post quality democratically by up/ down voting content to make it more/ less close to the coveted front page. Additionally, users tailor their unique experience on the site by creating anonymous avatars and following only subreddits that interest them (there is a subreddit for everything under the sun). These often hyper-specific message boards drive engagement among like minded individuals eager to share ideas and content.
Although Reddit certainly qualifies as social media according to the OED, when I recently characterized it as such to an avid Redditor, old millennial, and Director of Engineering at a series C startup, he balked:
Reddit isn’t social media. It’s a forum.
This is a telling response from within the demographic of engineering practitioners—and many that I know personally—who tend to treat the very idea of social media with revulsion. Although Reddit has had its own share of controversies and snafus over the years, software engineers seem to value the experience this and similar social media platforms offer for providing the following:
- Anonymity: IT professionals are uniquely aware of threats to privacy, so the ability to participate with minimal risk of compromising their identity is crucial.
- Message Board Format: For older users there is a throwback, familiar feel to message boards resembling Usenet and other BBS providers. Even many younger users appreciate the stripped-down experience this format fosters. In a landscape overrun by polished, ad-centric, and image-heavy social media like Instagram and Tumblr, the message board format is increasingly attractive.
- Meritocracy: Software engineers are scions of efficiency and tend to be uninterested in wasting their time with mediocre content.
- Community: The stereotype of the loner, basement-dwelling software developer has always been sadly overstated, as the 70s-era “blue box” phreaking community, Homebrew Computer Club, and Richard Stallman’s OSS community demonstrates. However, what these knowledgeable social media users are looking for in a community is a particular caliber in its participants.
No matter how technology practitioners choose to label the places they go to socialize online (just don’t call it social media!), many prefer anonymous forums that rank posts democratically.
Reddit, Hacker News, 4chan, and Stack Overflow all meet these requirements, and all have historically fostered a user base of software engineers. These platforms reach an audience that largely rejects the baggage associated with more conventional social media, and yet I don’t recommend anyone launches a traditional marketing campaign on these sites. They won’t work, and may even compromise your brand (looking at you, 4chan).
In order to reach an audience on the basis of merit, the vendors that are most likely to succeed use native advertising. This mode of advertising (sometimes called sponsored content), obscures its promotional function by matching a platform’s typical unsponsored content. Reaching developer audiences through direct advertising on social media is notoriously difficult, as practitioners in the IT and development field have an allergy to advertisements and can pick out and reject marketing goo quickly and definitively.
The best way to reach them where they are, therefore, is by means of case studies. If I were to post a vendor webinar to Hacker News it would immediately be downvoted, ignored, or simply marked as an advertisement. What is more successful is a general post on a subject of interest to the community which includes vendor examples that support my claim. Even neutral or negative treatment is generally a win as it contributes to brand recognition. This is just Marketing 101-level obvious, but bears repeating as I see vendors repeatedly try to engage the developer community by means of ads.
Software engineers are curious, conscientious, and eager to engage on subjects about which they are experts. They are particularly subject to Agile pioneer Ward Cunningham‘s Law: “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.” This is a good thing! Although developers and IT practitioners may poke holes in your product, if they deign to talk about it at all, then congratulations are in order: you have achieved the stickiest form of engagement. Vendors eager to meet their users through social media must embrace and respond to all forms of community feedback.
Best Social Media to reach Engineers through Native Advertising
- Hacker News: The gold standard. Good luck trying to reach this discerning audience with anything other than the most well considered and truly newsworthy posts.
- Slack: Most engineers that I know subscribe to several communities in their specific discipline in addition to their work channel. For hiring, consider posting to local engineering Slack channels (when I was a frontend engineer I belonged to Women Who Code: Atlanta Slack). Many OSS communities also have Slack channels to moderate discussion and address questions and issues. Vendors and non-vendor foundations may choose to create their own Slack channels, although the friction involved in subscribing to and staying active with too many channels may make this strategy ill-advised without the assurance of a continuously engaged community.
- Discord: This forum tends to reach a younger audience. Less formal, but a useful place to share tips and educational advice.
- Reddit: Engineers follow a number of subreddits in their specific domains. If there is a technology, you can bet there’s a Reddit community. Here are a few: /ruby, /vmware, /ibm, /webdev, /DBA, /harness, /aws, /ProgrammerHumor, /ProgrammerDadJokes, /docker
- YouTube: If the overhead of creating video content doesn’t terrify you, then consider posting videos and moderating the comment section.
- Stack Overflow: How well does the community facilitate answering questions about your product? Should your brand/ product have a tag?
Corey Quinn understands the value of case studies as well as anyone in this industry. While his Screaming in the Cloud podcast differentiates between paid and unpaid episodes, I (and I suspect most listeners) tend not to mind being advertised to in this format because the line separating promoted and unpromoted material is essentially meaningless. All Screaming in the Cloud episodes are interesting because they introduce listeners to tools and services in an irreverent and compelling way that doesn’t shy away from the bad. It is the universally engaging, lived professional experiences of Corey’s guests which act as the sugary coating on the pill of what amounts to vendor advertisements.
Here’s a philosophical question: is Screaming in the Cloud social media? I can “talk back” to an episode by posting to Corey or Last Week in AWS’s Twitter accounts. (Almost) anyone can create content by paying to go on the show or else purchasing ad space during the episode. For my money, the answer is Yes.
Social Media we recommend to reach Engineers
I’ve been using a broad brush to paint the field of online social engagement among engineers, which should rightly cause my reader’s hackles to raise. “Not all engineers” is on the tip of every tongue. And yet I argue in the slippery field of marketing there is some justice to my characterizations, however unscientific.
Yet, there is a quotient of engineers who do enjoy social media—some of which can be reached along the more traditional channels marketing agencies recognize.
- Twitter: Some software engineers love it, and especially those in the people business such as managers and DevRel/DevX space. Twitter is the best way to reach developers through the traditional mode of social media. Full stop. Even if you don’t see many tweets, there are many, many lurkers. Admittedly, there is some nuance in how to use Twitter for reaching IT professionals. Although users anticipate advertisements in this space and won’t be put off when they see them, native advertising continues to be the best means for engagement. As the number and quality of followers is key, the most successful Twitter users are influencers. Twitter can be a good place to make announcements, direct users to your blog and other content, and generally market to users in a straightforward way.
- LinkedIn: A useful venue for marketing in a space where marketing is expected. Absolutely essential for recruitment, but can also be a great place to post announcements and content.
- G2: Hey, G2 isn’t social media! Yes and no. A lot of engineers with purchasing power look to G2 to compare and contrast SaaS products. They use this site to read reviews and compare competitor features. Consider claiming your business on G2 in order to control the message.
- GitHub: Hey, GitHub isn’t social media! Sure it is. At RedMonk we recommend looking at your Github presence through the lens of social media. Have you clarified your OSS license? Is the README clear and concise? Are questions in the discussion forum answered in a timely and adequate manner? Think about your GitHub page in terms of its transactionality. Is it welcoming (ease of navigation)? Helpful (up to date documentation)? Hip (stars, forks)?
So, what do you think? Do you agree that software engineers prefer ranked posts? Feel free to @ me on any of my social media channels.
 “social, adj. and n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/183739. Accessed 14 September 2022.
Disclosure: AWS, Docker, IBM, VMware, and Harness are RedMonk clients.