Advertising to developers feels like asking for trouble. And it is. 

Most developers hate advertising, especially if it is done in a "traditional" way. Pushy pop-ups, "do it now", flashy colors, and all that stuff.
Things that work like a charm in e-commerce or fashion will most likely not work on devs. 

Some marketers would even go as far as to say that you shouldn't use paid ads to market to developers at all.
You can create developer-focused content, grow communities, create helpful videos but not ads.


Developer audience is both diverse and complex but devs do share some specific characteristics important in the context of ads like: 

  • allergic to “marketing” and advertising
  • skeptic by nature
  • pragmatic and practical 
  • tribal, they only really believe other devs when it comes to tech
“So they don’t like ads, don’t believe them, and they discard things that are not obviously valuable to them right now? Cool. Let’s run some Instagram carousels and wait for signups!“ 

Ok, but does it mean you shouldn't run ads? 

Not really. There is hope :). 

You should just proceed with caution. I have gone through more budget than I am willing to admit trying to get paid channel work for us. Some of it worked some of it failed miserably.
Overall I’d say we understand more of what doesn’t work than what does but there are some nuggets :) 

In this article I’ll dive into:

  • core components of paid ads 
  • paid channels that you can try
  • dev advertising principles
  • examples of great developer-focused paid ads campaigns 

Some of the things you’ll read about I tried myself.
Some of them we are testing at the moment.
Some I wish to have a chance to try in the future. 

Either way, I hope that after reading this article you’ll spend your paid advertising dollars smarter. 

Okay, so what do you need to run paid ads to devs successfully? 

Components of paid developer marketing

There are four parts of every paid ad campaign:

  • Goal: what do you want those people to do
  • Targeting: where and who you want to show your ads to
  • Creative: what you want to show them
  • Landing page: where they go after clicking your ad

With developers, without a decent baseline for each of those things, your campaigns will flop. There will be nothing to optimize.

So let’s dive into each of them and get you to that decent baseline.

Campaign goal

Ok, let’s start with the reason you are doing this. 

Most of the time you want signups for your developer tool or leads for your bigger platform. But there are a few other potential dev-focused ad campaign goals

  • Brand exposure: you want people to see what you do so that when they have a problem they will think about you. Remember that the vast majority of your ideal developers are not in the market to buy your dev tool today. That is why you should invest in branding to grow demand for the future 
  • Activation: you want people who have signed up to start using your tool
  • Engagement: you want people who use your tool to use it more often 
  • Upgrade: you want free users of your tool to upgrade to paid plans (or book a demo and talk to sales).
  • Signups (obviously): you want people who have the need for your tool to buy/signup right now 

Also, if you are running a paid ads program, it is not either-or.
You can actually run ads for each stage of the funnel.
You will likely use different channels, mediums, and messages but you can use ads to impact every stage of the customer/developer journey. ‍ 

For example.

CircleCi is (or was) remarketing with youtube pre-roll video ads with case study testimonials to users who visited the page but haven’t signed up.

CircleCI remarketing ad flow for high intent pages

Datadog is (or was) running video ads on Facebook to users who signed up presenting new (and old) features which I am sure impacts activation and engagement.

Datadog ad campaing for signed up users (and cold)

Elastic is (or was) running Google search ads for kewyord "search engine" for brand awareness and market education.

Elastic google search ad flow.

So, if you have a problem with conversion at a particular point in your funnel you can try to use ads to improve it.
Just be explicit about what you do and why.
It will make things easier for you.

Ad Targeting

Targetting is choosing where you want to show your ads and who should see them.

Where is about which platform (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube).

Which should you choose?

The easiest way to find out is to ask your users/customers.
No seriously go and ask them.

If they don’t spend time on Instagram, or they only go there to look at food pictures you should probably not run your ads there.
When people are not in a “search for work stuff” mode they typically don’t buy.

Imagine seeing an ad for a CICD tool in two places:

In-context vs out-of-context ad position

The same dev is more likely to click on your ad while scrolling through some interesting DevOps discussions on that subreddit than reading about a market crash on the Forbes website.
Your ads should be served in the context of doing dev stuff to get the most bang for your buck.

The only exception to that could be remarketing to people who have already visited your page or signed up for your tool.
I say could be because even then the in-context ads will outperform the out-of-context ads.

Now, who do you want to show your ads to?

Depending on a platform you can get:

  • countries and cities
  • age
  • interests
  • education level
  • industry

But targetting developers is extra hard because developers are not just “interested in tech” or working in “software companies” or have “computer science degree”.
You need to go deeper. An ideal developer targeting would include:

  • tech stack: language, frameworks, libraries, tools
  • role: front end vs back-end vs DevOps vs security vs machine learning engineer
  • context: enterprise vs startup vs software house vs freelancer vs hobbyist
  • seniority: junior vs regular vs senior vs principal vs architect

No platform gives you all that. Even on Linkedin which seems to have all of this data you won't get perfect targeting. 
People may put technologies like "Pytorch" "Kubeflow", or "Julia" because:

  • they want to boost their profiles
  • they worked with them (years) before
  • they feel that they should have them look professional but don't really know those technologies

What happens when your targeting is off?
You market your hip python machine learning library to COBOL devs working at a bank since 1995 (huge respect for all COBOL folks out there btw!)

In theory, you could make your ad more general so that those back-end devs talk to your DevOps people, or designers talk to front-end engineers.
But in reality, this is a long shot.

To maximize your chances you should get in front of your ideal customer profile devs and tell them something relevant and useful right now.

Anyway, the good thing is that most platforms give you something you can work with:

  • Reddit - find subreddits where your devs are
  • Twitter - find Twitter handles of people who talk to your devs and keywords they interacted with
  • Youtube - find channels your devs watch
  • Linkedin - find your devs by role/seniority/languages

And there is of course retargeting with two flavors:

  • Cookie: When a person visits a certain page on your website you give them a cookie. Later you can use that cookie to show relevant ads.
  • Email: When a person signs up to your tool you can use the email from the signup to target that person (and similar people) on platforms like Google. BTW you probably need a lot of emails to make this one work. From my experience, 2000 emails of ideal profiles was not enough because the match with the Google database was really low.

I personally think that retargeting will go away with constantly updating regulations regarding privacy.
That means it is probably not super wise to base all your marketing on retargeting.
But today you can use retargeting to get in front of very relevant people. And you probably should do that.

Ok, but even with perfect targeting you still need to make your message practical and relevant to your audience.

Ad Creative

Creative is how you communicate your message through your ad.

I’d say there are two parts of the creative:

  • Ad format: in-feed, display banner, pop-up ad, ad carousel, pre-roll video
  • Ad medium: the visual, text (copy), animation, or video.
  • Actual creative: what words and visuals you use

Ad Format and medium

As for the format and medium, with devs, be as non-intrusive as you can (while still catching attention):

  • don’t do popups as they just piss people off
  • do static (vs dynamic) banners to make sure people don’t have to wait to see what the ad is about (unless you are running video, then it is ok)
  • do native, in-feed promoted content (but try to add value to the surrounding context)
  • do simple text and links, especially if you go for newsletters or blog sponsorships

Thinking about first principles with devs, you should just try and make it as non-advertising as possible when it comes to the format.
Otherwise, you have to try extra hard on the actual creative not to lose your dev audience.

Ok, so say you decided on a static, Reddit in-feed banner.

What should go into your ad?

Ad creative basics

Conventional marketing knowledge would say things like:

  • catch attention
  • be clever, snappy with your copy
  • talk values, not features

It could work.
It will probably work “somewhat”.
But I don’t expect it to be great.
At least I’ve never seen it crush it.

For devs, the most important thing is that the ad is relevant to their problem right now.
Most of the time your ad will be off.
But sometimes you hit a spot where the dev is in a problem-solving mode and sees your ad, your ad talks about a solution to the problem they have right now.
Then you are golden.

Btw I think this is exactly what good marketing is about anyway.
Getting in front of the right people at the right time with the right message.

Back to the ads.
How do you maximize your chances of making it happen?

Remember the first principles:

  • devs don’t want it to read like an ad (hate advertising)
  • devs want the ad to be relevant (practical and pragmatic)
  • devs don’t believe to good to be true statements (skeptical)
  • devs want to buy from other devs (expertise)

Ad relevancy

While it is good to be clever and snappy, it is crucial to be relevant and practical.

To be relevant, you may need to use technical jargon that only some of the devs will understand.

I am not talking about other marketers not understanding what you are talking about.
I am talking about other devs who don’t have this problem, don’t know the tooling ecosystem.

So don’t be afraid to get technical and explicit.

Throw in technology names or feature names that most people don’t understand.
Things like angular js, layer caching, or data distributed PyTorch model training.

It makes your ad more relevant to your target devs.
It also makes it less relevant to people who are not your audience.

That is ok.
In fact, this is exactly what you want to happen.

You want to get in front of the right people with the right message.
Also, front-end devs will not advocate for back-end technology on their teams anyway so you are not loosing much by hyper-focusing.

An additional benefit of using jargon is that you signal your expertise. 
At some point, it may almost feel like it is not an ad, and the person writing it actually knows what they are talking about.
That is the holy grail.

Make the ad so relevant to your target audience they just have to stop and read.

Now, how do you get practical?

Ad practicality

Talk about features, not values.

Say “5ms video load time” instead of “better videos quicker”.

This is the absolute opposite of what a classic marketing textbook would tell you.

But is it really?

Think about this:

  • you filtered out people with good targeting
  • you made the message so relevant it filters out most of the people.

Who is left?

People who already know the value.
The “why” is obvious to them, now they need to know “how”.
They want features.

And they want you to be specific so that they can quickly figure out whether your product will solve their problems today.

I really like this example from StackOverflow article on ads:

Low on fluff, high on practical, relevant information.

You are an Android dev working with video?

Load time is probably something that you or one of your Android devs can have a problem with right now.

But if you talk about “better Android apps” I don’t even know what it means.

One more example, this time from Ethical ads guidelines.

What is good about it:

  • Practical - Django, “generate sales reports”, screenshot with nice reports
  • Relevant - Django, “e-commerce app”

If I am a python dev working with SaaS tools, or a PHP dev working with e-commerce.
I know right away this is not for me (relevance).

But if I am a python dev who is building e-commerce apps with Django, then sales reports could be top of mind.
I could actually have something like that in my backlog.

One often-used ad creative targeted at people who are further down the funnel, somewhere at the consideration stage, is video retargeting case study blurbs.
Because you are retargeting on people who have already shown intent and visited certain pages it is more likely for your ad to be relevant.
Makes sure to make it practical and depending on the page they visited talk about:

  • differences vs other tools (and link to comparison pages)
  • case studies of people/teams using your tool for a use case X (and link to a case study)
  • getting started and examples (and link to the docs)

Examples of great ad creative

“It doesn’t suck”

I really liked this one from Bare Bones Software. Now they actually do “It (still) doesn’t suck” as it is tested by time.

It just plays beautifully into the inner skeptic and ad hater. Love this.

The problem is that it is not practical and relevant. It will probably work great when you are an established brand.

"Sorry, we blew our budget on X"

For dev products I'd switch "customer service" for docs, flexible API, tested examples etc. ‍

This is a playful ad that talks about your differentors and plays to an inner skeptic.
To make it relevant and practical you should use it in places where you can easily ad context.
For example reddit promoted posts.

"What makes you happy?

I just love how funny and non-ad this ad is :) It also introduces the product and the problem it solves in a non-invasive way.
The problem is that it is not relevant/practical but serves nicely for brand-building purposes.

I think it has this disarming benefit of "hey we are friendly and cool" which appeals to devs a lot.
Imho it could have a big impact on future interactions with the brand and conversions all over the funnel.

Want to find more examples?

You can research competitors or developer-focused companies you like on:

Facebook ads library

Example search results for Algolia

Moat ‍ ‍

Example search result for Datadog

Ok so say I click. Where do I go?

Landing page

Once people click on your ad they go somewhere, right?

Many marketers choose this somewhere to be the homepage.

I think this is almost always not the best place to direct people.  
Actually, I think many campaigns show no return on investment because of this.

For example, say our tool “D” which does sales reports for Django e-commerce links to homepage:

  • “D” is so cool that it not only does sales reports but also error monitoring and 5 other things important for e-commerce devs.
  • The company behind “D” has an awesome Django podcast that they talk about on their homepage
  • And they just raised a big round and hire like crazy, which they also talk about on the homepage
  • “D” works with 15 other Python frameworks for web dev
  • The homepage copy starts with the headline “Enterprise platform for e-commerce analytics”

Our poor dev who wanted "sales reports for Django apps" is no longer sure if this tool is going to help (or if he landed on the correct website).

So if the homepage is not good, then what is?

That depends on the goal of the ad campaign and what you put on the ad copy.
The page your dev lands on should continue the conversation which started with the ad.
For example, the “D” ad should talk about sales reports for e-commerce apps built-in Django.

The pages I saw people link to are:

  • Classic landing page
  • Vertical/Role/Use case page
  • Blog post
  • Developer portal
  • Docs getting started
  • Landing page for getting started
  • vs {TOOL X} comparison
  • Case study
  • Team plan + case study mix
  • Captera or G2 profile (could work for google search campaigns for keywords like “YourTool + review”)

When to use which?

That depends on the stage of awareness of your developer.
A good rule of thumb is to look at paths people are already taking on your website and try to amplify them.

Say you see people do homepage -> product -> docs -> pricing -> signup.
Then you can run remarketing to people who visited product pages with a link that gets them to a "how to do X" docs page.

Or you see people coming from Twitter -> problem aware blog articles-> product -> signup
You can run ads on Twitter explaining concepts from the article linking to the source for more info.

And there will often be many paths. You can have devs who would like to see case studies of other companies after they see the docs.
Or they want to compare with other tools before they put reach for their credit cards.
My feeling is that your ads will work best if you amplify already existing paths rather than try and create new ones.

Let’s go through some of those.

Classic landing page (Datadog)

A classic approach is to craft a page specifically for the use case described in the ad.

For example, here Datadog is running Facebook ads for monitoring PHP performance and they have created a page about exactly that, monitoring PHP performance.

Let’s look at this PHP monitoring landing page in more detail.

This is a classic where:

  • The page doesn’t have the navbar so you focus your attention on this page only
  • Headline matches ad copy
  • Additional details with features and values
  • Supporting visual that helps present the values
  • Call to action (CTA)
  • A list of benefits presented in a format headling + details + visual
  • Social proof with some logos
  • One more Call to action

There are many ways to optimize this landing page based on qualitative and quantitative research but it is a solid baseline.

Developer portal (Algolia)

You can link to a developer portal like Algolia:

Google search ad to developer portal.

If you want to read my deep-dive on this page and others read this article.

Blog post

Interestingly the ad from Elastic for the very same query goes to a blog post introducing a feature.

Landing page getting started (Algolia)

Sometimes you know you want to have something general but focused on devs getting starting like Algolia did here:

It is a balance between social proof, values and how to.
I think those sort of pages, when crafted well can be a great middle ground between docs and website.

Team plan + case study (Contentful)

An interesting approach is to run ads for the upgrade plan that are connected to the case study.

Basically, you talk about values that a team got from the plan but it is not a typical case study page.

The focus is on getting you to upgrade.

Ad to case study upgrade page

Check out this case study/upgrade mix from Contentful.

Resources like whitepapers ebooks, webinars (Auth0)

This is often done with search advertising.

You search for a problem and see a bunch of whitepapers advertised.

Integrations landing page (circleci)

I saw it in search advertising.

People search for X integration and you explain values behind your integration with the tool.

Signup retargeting landing page (circleci)

This is classic B2B tactic.

People visited your registration page but didn't complete.
You show them ads that get people back to the registration flow.

But you don't want to move them directly to the form.
You remind them what the tool was about first.

Pillar page (CircleCi)

Again saw it in google search ads.

You search for a big term like "continuous integration" I show you a page that explains CI and introduces my tool in the process.

Feature page (LaunchDarkly)

Similarly to the pillar page but this time I just show how my product does it when it comes to a feature or use case X.

Paid developer marketing channels

Let me just be honest and say this.

Most of those things haven’t worked for me.

I hope you can make it happen, I see many companies spend a lot on paid so I bet there is ROI there, just be careful.

It is easy to spend a lot and don’t get all those signups and paid users you wanted.

Ok so two things that have worked for us are:

  • Branded search on google: pretty much a google tax on keywords containing your “ProductName”.
    If you don’t bet on it, your competitors will.
    The good thing is, it is way cheaper for you than competitors
  • Video remarketing ads on youtube: you amplify already existing conversion paths by showing ads to people who visited your product/pricing/docs or high-intent blog pages.

That is it... for now.

We tested many things but the ROI of it wasn’t good so we stopped or continued searching.
But I haven’t lost hope 🙂

We are testing new things (like Carbon and Ethical ads) right now and we’ll continue experimenting with paid.

Speaking of experimenting and the ROI.

A lot of it depends on the targeting, product, copy, landing pages, and campaign goals.
So you should really just treat it as an engine you are optimizing.
Start small and scale up when you see something delivers.

Below are some channels that I believe can work for the developer audience.
Some of it I heard from people I trust, some of it I tried myself.
There are many more places to try obviously, but those give you the best chance IMHO.

Google Display Network Ads

Google Display Network (GDN) is an ad network probably 1000x the size of Ethical Ads or Carbon Ads.
Most of the internet shows GDN ads.

The problem with that is that, unlike Ethical Ads where all the pages are developer-focused, on GDN you get everything.
It makes it really easy to show your ads to the wrong people.

As suggested by Powered by search, there are two options:

  • you can specify the conversion event and let Google optimize your ad targeting for you.
    This can work if you can really create a conversion event that is super close to revenue.
    Otherwise, the algorithm will optimize what you wanted but the conversion after that may drop.
  • you can filter the pages where your ads are shown to make sure those are visited by your target developers.

Nothing will happen “magically” here.
So understand what exactly do you want to happen before you start spending money here.
It is really easy to burn through a lot on Google (it is also a good thing when you do make it work).

There are many technical aspects behind running ads on GDN and maybe one day I'll get deeper into it.
For now, check out this article if interested.

Ethical ads

It is an ad network, similar to Google Ads, that does display ads on developer-focused pages.

They call it a

"Transparent Advertising For Developers That Works”

The pages in the network include:

The ads look like this:

What you get with ethical ads are:

  • small, tasteful, non-intrusive ads
  • targeting is done by page which can be great if you know your audience
  • ads are served in the context of learning/working

A big downside is that the network is still relatively small but hopefully it will grow with time.

The concept behind ethical ads is that selling advertising can and should be ethical (no tracking, don’t sell data).
I think it aligns nicely with what developers would like to see.

Running ads on Ethical is pretty straightforward.

  • You get a place for a small visual
  • You get a small text field where you can make things bold
  • You pay for impressions
  • You can filter pages where you show your ads for a bit higher price

Carbon Ads (BuySellAds)

Something in between Ethical ads and Google Display Network ads:

  • the pages your ads are shown on are focused on developer and designer audience (similar to Ethical)
  • the ads are displayed in a less minimal way in banners all over those pages (similar to GDN)

It is also good to mention that Carbon Ads write a lot about advertisitng to developers so that you can learn more about it from them.

The problem for us specifically was that the vast majority of pages are not for machine learning engineers or data scientists.
That said, Carbon Ads could work for other developer niches. One example being front-end devs.

Twitter Ads

A great thing about Twitter ads is that they appear in-feed as I am scrolling through.

Promoted tweets can include visuals, videos, or be just text.

There are many targeting features including gender, location, and interests.
But in my opinion the most important are:

  • Keywords: select a keyword that people engaged with (tweeted, commented, liked, reshared etc)
  • Follower look-alikes: look at the followers of an account and create an audience of similar people

You can find some good info and examples in this guide from AdEspresso and I also liked these playbooks. But ultimately setting up something that works for devs is a bit different.

One tactic that makes a lot of sense (mentioned by powered by search) is to:

  • understand which influencers your target audience follows
  • create an audience based on influencer look-alikes (I’d potentially add competitors and tools from the ecosystem to the pack)
  • filter out further on keywords people engaged with
  • serve ads and hope :)

Reddit Ads

With Reddit, you can show your promoted posts in the feed or even inside a thread.

Or even inside of a particular conversation.

With Reddit ads, you can target developers in particular subreddits like r/MachineLearning or r/devops.
So if your ICP spends a lot of time in a particular subreddit you can get your message across pretty efficiently.

I wish there was an option to filter on keywords or topics people interacted with (like you can on Twitter) but this option isn’t there yet.
Right now you can only filter on location and device.

Stackoverflow Ads

Didn’t know that you can run ads on Stackoverflow but apparently, you can.

It almost looks like an answer to a question, non-intrusive:

I think that there is potential here:

  • you can go vs competitors in a tasteful way
  • you can promote your deeper blog post on your core product problem

I really think this could work for the dev audience but haven’t given it a try yet.

One of the community members shared that Stackoverflow Ads are not as mature and they offer a managed service rather than self-serve like Twitter or Reddit.
Because of that there is a minimum buy-on of $15k a month ($10k if you commit to a few months).

Either way, I think this can be interesting to some teams.
Check out their blog for more information.

Youtube Ads

With youtube ads, you get to play your video to your audience before and during the video they are actually watching right now.

You get a lot of targeting options (pretty much the same as with Google Search and Google Display Network).
You can filter out channels where you don’t want your ads to play going channel by channel.

The problem is: this is intrusive and may not sit well with some devs.

But I’ve seen companies like CircleCI run a lot of ads on me.

Ads I saw other companies do are:

  • Longer tutorials
  • Explainer videos
  • Blurbs from the case studies

Those are mostly middle-of-funnel content and were most likely used with retargeting.

Speaking of, retargeting of explainer and tutorial videos to people who have visited our blog and website worked really well for us.

We haven’t had much success with cold ads yet.

Google Search Ads

You pay for a keyword and show up in search results. Easy.

There are various options for positioning the ad:

  • at the top of the SERP: classic and default option for most.
    Very intrusive and in your face but so common it probably doesn’t piss people off anymore.
  • at the bottom of the page: an interesting approach to target people who didn’t find what they were looking for on the first page.
    It is less intrusive and almost feels helpful.

As with any ad that you put in front of the developer audience. you need to think about relevancy.

Is the ad relevant to the search query of a user?

That depends on the maturity of your niche but typically the relevant queries would fall into a few buckets:

  • brand: “gitlab”, “launchdarkly docs”, “snyk review”
  • core feature/use case of your product: “continuous integration”, “how to manage feature flags”
  • brand and core feature typos: “sntry”, “serch engine”
  • competitor alternatives: “vs circleci”, “bugsnag alternative”

Depending on your situation you may want to put ads on your competitor's name or a problem that your ICP has but you don’t solve directly.
But then, the ads will either get more expensive or less likely to convert or both.

Either way, your return on investment will go down.

When it comes to Google Search the only thing that worked for me was paying for brand keywords.
To be honest, that is more like a tax than advertising.
ou need to pay so that your competitors don’t show up there (too often).

Many other things didn’t work. We tried things like:

  • integrations: running ads for tools we integrate with that link to our docs
  • competitor name: running ads on our competitor’s name that go to our “us vs competitor” pages
  • feature and use case that links to blog posts and pillar pages

That said we are still running new experiments. Not all hope is lost just yet :)

Retargeting (remarketing)

Retargeting works like this:

  • when users visit your website they get a tracking pixel (cookie)
  • this cookie is passed to ad platforms
  • ads are served to those exact users

What is great about it is that the targeting is based on your user's actions.

You can serve different ads based on the pages people visited (blog vs pricing vs signup page) to make your ads more relevant.

The problem with retargeting is that many/most people don’t appreciate being tracked.
Many devs may not even let you do that by having ad blockers on and not agreeing to your cookie tracking.

Retargeting may also be turned off completely at some point in the near future as people push for more privacy.

So does it make sense to use retargeting on devs?

I’d say, that while it is still allowed, you can probably improve your conversions by using it at later stages of the developer journey (consideration, activation, engagement, upgrades).

I wouldn’t bet my life on this channel as retargeting may very easily go away with more people pushing for more privacy.

What is next?

Just go run your ads already 🙂

If you need a quick framework based on what we talked about, here it is: 

  • Figure out what you want to achieve (goal)
  • Choose a platform. Make sure your audience is there
  • Setup conservative targeting (filter out too much if you have to but make sure you are talking to the right audience)
  • Design a practical and relevant ad creative. Use Moat for inspiration
  • Connect to the right landing page (amplify paths people are already taking)
  • Run a minimal viable test first
  • If the test was successful, scale your ad spend

For inspiration, check out the Developer Marketing swipe file.