Draft.dev CEO Karl Hughes on the importance of using experts in developer marketing

Developer marketing came up in our conversation with strategic marketing firm MKT1, so we called on content marketing production company Draft.dev’s CEO Karl Hughes to learn more. …

Developers can be a tough crowd. They typically hate being marketed to and are often short on time, which sets a particularly high bar for any content marketing aimed at them.

Coming up with relevant content that developers find interesting takes specific know-how, and this is where Draft.dev comes in. Its Chicago-based founder and CEO Karl Hughes describes the firm as “a superniche content marketing production company, producing technical content for companies that want to reach software engineers.”

Hughes and his agency were recommended multiple times in our growth marketer survey, which we launched to surface experts that startups can work with. (If you have your own recommendation, please fill out the survey!) One of the survey respondents noted that developers are underrated as a target audience: It may be niche, but it is a large one. More importantly, they are an audience a growing number of startups need to reach.

“If you are going to have subject matter experts write, you also need to have good editors to work with them.”

Developer marketing came up in our conversation with strategic marketing firm MKT1, so we called on Hughes to learn more. Our discussion covered a lot of ground, from what he has learned and his ambitions to Draft.dev’s process.

Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity:

What kind of clients does Draft.dev work with?

Karl Hughes: Almost all of our clients are developer tools companies. Mostly Series A- and Series B-funded, so they have got some funding and some knowledge that content marketing works for their audience. What they are trying to do with us is scale production and make sure that what they are writing is going to resonate with developers.

What inspired you to create Draft.dev?

I’ve been a software developer, and then most recently was a CTO at a startup in Chicago, so I knew that there were lots of companies trying to reach developers [ … ] and that a lot of them were doing a poor job of it. So last year I wanted to combine my tech knowledge with writing knowledge, and that’s where Draft.dev came from — and it’s been awesome!

We get to work both with technical and non-technical marketing and developer relations people to help them get more content out. And even though it’s marketing content, it’s super focused on education, because developer marketing is a bit tricky. Developers can be a bit skeptical of marketing, so you have to be nuanced in your approach. You have to be genuinely helpful, so we really try to focus on helpful content that is also a net positive for the client.

What are some mistakes that you see companies making when creating content for developers?

There are a couple of big challenges that Draft.dev is specifically built to solve: Relying too much on your own team to create content when they are busy and have other priorities, and thinking that you can just get your general copywriting agency to cover developer topics. It usually doesn’t work well.

Many companies start off getting their engineers to write content and make the mistake of thinking this will work forever. Let’s say you’re a continuous integration tool and you want to write content that shows developers how your tool works and that it’s a good option. Marketing teams will go to developers and say: “Hey, could you guys write a blog post?” And they’ll usually get a few blog posts here and there, but it’s really hard to build consistent content when these engineers are building the product and have production deadlines to hit.

When you look at companies that have done developer marketing really successfully, like Okta and DigitalOcean, you see that they have dedicated teams to produce this content. There’s a reason for that: It’s almost impossible to get your engineers to write everything that you need to produce high-quality and consistent content over time.

The other big mistake that I see companies making is thinking that a general marketing writer or SEO copywriter can write great content for developers. That is super rare. I mean, I’ve probably met two or three who can do a decent job of making it look like they know enough to speak with some authority. In general, you either want somebody — either at your company or otherwise — who knows the tool.

So for example, if I ask a general SEO copywriter, “Could you write about how to write a SQL query that does X, Y and Z?”, maybe they can hack some other articles together and come up with something, but it’s certainly not going to have the authority that a real software developer has.

This is true in any area where you have to rely on subject matter experts to help you with marketing content, but because my background is in development, I knew that this was a huge problem for companies.

How does Draft.dev address that?

We are definitely not right for every company. But for companies that are looking to scale-up content production and have technical authority behind those pieces, that’s where we come in. Typically, these are companies that know they want to do developer content, but are stretched too thin on their engineering team or they have tried freelancers and have a really hard time managing them and keeping quality consistent. So they come to us to do that.

We solve that problem with a huge pool of software developers who write for us on the side. Right now we have about 50 or 60 active monthly writers who are all software developers; they work full-time jobs and do this at night and on weekends. We bring people who are actually in the field, doing these things every day. They bring that technical expertise to the articles that we create for clients.

The mutually beneficial aspect here is that while we obviously pay these writers, they also get a byline out on the client’s site. We don’t do a lot of ghostwriting, which is a little unique, but is really good for our style of content because you want to show subject matter expertise. It’s preferable when you don’t have your head of marketing listed as the author of every piece of developer content. It’s nice to have a byline by a real software developer.

All of this goes back to what your content strategy is and who you want to reach. This is not blanket advice for everybody, but for companies trying to reach developers who are writing code every day, I think it’s super helpful to have some technical authority from people actually doing this.

How do you make sure your writers have subject matter expertise?

We have a writer vetting and selection process. Once we have vetted the writers who have applied, we also look for the best match for each article. We are looking through their skills and past experience to see who’d be the best fit.

We also recruit specific writers to write about niche topics. Sometimes that means doing cold outreach; sometimes it means going through our networks and figuring out who we know who’s written about Rust before. Things like that can be really tricky and time-consuming for a marketing team to do, but because we are doing this full time for lots of clients, we can spread that work around. It makes a lot of sense, and our clients like that we do this for them.

How to you balance your writers’ technical expertise versus writing skills?

That is tough! But there are some best practices in this field. If you are going to have subject matter experts write, you also need to have good editors to work with them.

There are two sides to how we get high-quality content from software engineers who may be average writers when they start, and are often ESL speakers. The upfront part is that we plan content pretty thoroughly. We go back and forth with the content to make sure we know what we are producing, and we also have technical content planners who make sure that each article has a story, an outline and lot of structure before we give it to a writer.

The writer fills in the technical details and personal experience, and then every piece will go through three rounds of edits to get it up to our standards: a technical review; a developmental edit for things like structure and flow, and a copy edit.

How do you split these tasks?

We’ve refined this process a lot since starting this [in May 2020]. Initially, it was just me and my managing editor Chris [Wolfgang] — she had a lot of experience in editing, so she could do full-stack editing, and I was focused on writing, picking writers, reviewing, etc. That’s how we divided things in the early days, but as we grew, we realized that we wouldn’t find an army of Chrises and Karls.

We had to figure out how to split these jobs into specialities where people can do their best work, and that’s how we managed to scale and keep quality high while growing at the pace we have. We now have five full-time people and we work with over 35 startups of various sizes, so we are still a small business, but it has been growing very quickly.

How do you get new clients?

Our biggest source of new business has been referrals. Clients who work with us love what we do and refer us to other people. We have also ended up working with companies going through accelerator programs like Y Combinator, so when new YC companies ask who does developer content, they hear about us. Besides us there’s probably just a couple of other companies that specialize in this. It’s a very small field so we get mentioned a lot.


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Growth has been so organic at the moment that I haven’t pursued a lot of active outreach strategies, but we are starting to get better at boosting this [organic growth]. One of the first hires I made this year was an account manager who’s helped with maintaining relationships with existing clients and getting things like testimonials, case studies, etc. Another thing is that when people see our content, they ask the company who did it, because companies that are selling developers tools really need a way to produce this kind of content, and there aren’t many providers.

How do you complement your clients’ own content production efforts?

Our two sweet spots are bigger companies that are looking to augment their in-house content team, because they have a hard time keeping developer content going, and really small teams that are building a tool specifically for software developers and need to get going with content production or ramp it up.

A lot of our clients will have something like a community writer program in addition to what we provide. For instance, we work with Strapi, which is an open-source tool that has a big community with community writers writing about how they use Strapi.

But then they use us to augment that content, because they want to be able to set some topics themselves. A lot of times, community contributions are good for whatever your community happens to be working on, but you can’t necessarily ask your community to write about X or Y.

The other challenge here is that with any developer-focused community writing program, you are going to need to spend a lot on editing. A lot of companies underestimate the work it is going to take. That’s where we come in: Instead of hiring all these different people you need and trying to build your own process, you can slot Draft.dev in there for a while. If some day you want to go hire your own team and replace us, that’s great — we’d love you to outgrow us. But ideally, we’d like to stick around and always be part of your developer content efforts.

Do you also do anything related to content distribution, such as writing the tweets that go with the articles?

We just started doing that; it’s our first big add-on service, where for each piece of content we’ll create social media collateral, like a couple of tweets, LinkedIn posts and Reddit submissions with the subreddits they would be most appropriate for. Then the client just has someone on their team copy-paste and schedule it with whatever system they want.

We also send a full promotional checklist they can use to promote the content, because one of the challenges I see with some of the smaller companies we work with is that they sometimes get lost when it comes to getting the content we produce in front of people. If you are not a developer, it’s hard to come up with copy about a technical piece. So by offering that collateral, we’re making it a bit easier. It’s been our first foray into this. We could expand into other things in the future, but that would probably be next year.

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