Developers practically live on Stack Overflow.
When you don’t remember how to undo a commit on Git, you go to Stack Overflow. When you can’t figure out why you’re getting the same 400 error over and over again, you go to Stack Overflow. When you want to figure out how to best pair your socks, you go to Stack Overflow.
Part of the job of a developer isn’t just building new software, it’s finding new and better ways to build that software. As a result, developers spend a good chunk of time simply looking stuff up. Stack Overflow’s Q&A format is particularly useful because you can surface highly specific answers to the urgent questions that are holding up your project.
I built an API in response to a question that someone asked on Stack Overflow, and months later, I noticed that I was getting millions of requests a day. I’ve now quit my job and built my business around that API, and, along the way, found one of the most effective ways to market to developers: answer their burning questions.
How to Be at the Right Place at the Right Time
What makes traditional marketing so difficult is that you’re constantly looking for people who have an urgent need for your product. But Stack Overflow is essentially a huge list of urgent needs — which makes it incredibly easy to be at the right place at the time.
When I first built my API, I was simply trying to be helpful. I had already built a website that showed the location of an IP address on a map, so putting together an API for the Stack Overflow user was relatively easy. I answered the question with a link to my third-party service and forgot about it. When I received an email from Linode about the high my CPU usage was, I realized just how useful my Stack Overflow answer was.
I had inadvertently positioned my product as a solution to the urgent need of hundreds of developers. And since it was free and I had nothing to gain from it, it didn’t come across as marketing. It came across an authentic way to help people.
Now that I work on ipinfo full-time, I try to keep the same mentality as I had during that initial request: be helpful before being profitable. To “market” my product, I answer whatever questions I can about getting information from an IP. In total, I’ve answered 99 questions on Stack Overflow, and that’s gotten my product in front of about 2 million Stack Overflow users.
Here’s an example from a thread where someone asked: “What information can I get from an ip address?”
Many people classify this as “guerrilla marketing,” but I believe that if your solution comes from an authentic want to help people, then it’s no longer marketing at all. Stack Overflow is a community of developers who build cool stuff together. My product just happens to a part of that.
How to Get a Direct Line to Your Audience
The big advantage that Stack Overflow has over other Q&A sites like Yahoo Answers or Quora is that the readership is highly niche — only developers who are working on a new product go onto the forum.
Traditional marketers have to fight for even a second of their audience’s attention, targeting them with Facebook ads or spamming their email with offers. With Stack Overflow, I don’t have to jump through hoops to get ipinfo in front of the right audience. I get to hand-deliver my product to the people who explicitly express a need for it.
Since I have familiarity with my audience, I’m able to present my product in a way that’s best for developers:
- with no-bullshit description of what it can and can’t do
- with a low-effort way to test how it works
Here’s an example from a recent thread:
The developer reading this understands precisely how useful and relevant my product is for their needs. He or she can then check out the code snippets to see how to make a GET request, and then, with one click, run the code and see what the feed looks like.
A general description of the product isn’t enough to get developers to commit. They need a look under the hood to ensure that the product actually works before putting it into their own code. Stack Overflow’s stack snippets are incredibly useful for this, enabling users to run the code right in their window. Alternatively, I’ve used JSFiddle for more complicated requests:
Stack Overflow makes it incredibly easy for me to not only talk to the right people, but form relationships with them — something virtually impossible in other forms of marketing.
This relationship leads to more customers, but also more feedback for how I can improve it. Then I get to go back to the code, improve it, and re-market it again:
Having the ability to talk directly to your customers creates a flywheel effect. You build something useful, users try it out and give suggestions, and you improve it.
How to Build A Community of Brand Advocates
In traditional marketing, a customer’s journey goes something like this:
cold lead → interested party → new customer → engaged customer → happy customer → brand advocate
The reason it takes so long for customers to become brand advocates is because they have to become familiar with the software, see whether the value matches what was promised, and be excited enough about it to share with their friends. Developers start with the value. By the time they’re actually using the product, they’re already in the position to be brand advocates.
When I decided to turn ipinfo from a side project to a full-time gig, I started to answer whatever questions I could on Stack Overflow to tell people about my product. But at a certain point, I noticed that it wasn’t just me talking about ipinfo. Members of the community were actually beginning to share my product for me:
A community-based site is driven by helpful suggestions. If you can tie your product to a solution to a popular problem, then other members of the community will help you market it. Thanks to these brand advocates, my ipinfo website received 96,243 new visitors from Stack Overflow alone.
Marketing is Easy (for developers)
There’s a saying among developers that a great product doesn’t need marketing. If you build something truly useful, it will catch on. In the real world, this isn’t true. There’s so much B2B and B2C software out there, that even if you have the best product in the world, you have to put a lot of work into getting it into the hands of the right people.
But on Stack Overflow, it is true. The Q&A site brings together a community of developers who are sharing and learning from one another so that they can build the best possible products. If you’ve created something truly helpful to other developers, then the marketing becomes easy.
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