There’s this saying that:
It’s harder to win new customers than to keep existing ones.
Some seem to think this means you have to dedicate huge amounts of resources to acquisition marketing, sales and developer evangelism. Of course I’m all for allocating resources to the last one in particular, but of course the principle is meant to be taken rather differently.
By investing in your existing users and building a strong community, you will not only retain more users and make more money from them in the long term, it will also help you to win new users!
One of the most important metrics developers use to pick their stack is the size and activity of a tool’s community. And while developers might not be sensitive to marketing, they do listen to their peers. A thriving community is the most effective, affordable and scalable acquisition strategy you could wish for!
The Appcelerator Community
Since 2007, Appcelerator has grown a huge user base of over 850,000 developers in over 180 countries. Many of them used our free OSS Titanium & Alloy. Since the launch of on-demand pricing for our former enterprise platform thousands registered and started to pay for the Appcelerator Platform.
Still, many others continue to use our OSS software for free. And as an Appcelerator Developer Evangelist… I’m OK with that.
My blog posts and samples are available to all and I gladly assist on Stack Overflow and TiSlack, regardless of the plan a user is on – if any.
Let me explain some reasons why I think you should invest in growing and supporting a large community of users, even if you don’t directly make money on a big part of them.
It is good for your reputation
The days that OSS was a synonym for ugly apps with bad UX are over. Today, it is cool to be open! To governments and privacy watchers, the transparency is an indication you can be trusted. Enterprises as well have come to learn that open source is not a security risk but rather safer as the eyes of the world are on it. Many governments and enterprises are making it a policy to prefer open over closed source.
A large and active community won’t hurt your image either and of course free (open source) software is more likely to get you that. And once you have a big user base, even more people will want to jump on the bandwagon. Having many contributors to your OSS speaks well for your stability, security and continuity.
It helps you make that million dollar deal
Even in the bigger enterprises you might hope to make most of your money on, the influence of their developers – the actual end-users of your product – is often underestimated. Before you make a deal, the managers first need to sell your product internally.
If their developers have never heard much (good) about you, but do know your competitors, you might never have a deal at all.
Some are well aware of this and have so much confidence in their reputation amongst developers, that they simply point decision makers to turn to them for advise:
It gets you the best advocates you could wish for
The age of ads is over. That’s true for any market, including or even more so for developers. They don’t trust slick marketing but turn to their peers to ask for their experiences. And of course they will try your software and dig through your source code to decide for themselves if you truly deliver.
This is why marketing software solutions to IT managers is something completely different from building developer relations based on the actual products.
But once you have them on board, developers – in particular those who work freelance or in startups – can be the strongest advocates you will ever have. And in contrast to your marketing team or maybe even your developer evangelists who struggle to stay out of company affairs, they use your product… every day! For real stuff, not samples!
When developers proudly share from their real-world experience it is more likely to win new users then any other effort you might undertake yourself.
It gets you unsalted, valuable feedback
In particular for new products, getting enough real-world feedback is crucial to quickly iterate and improve. In my experience, the developers of large enterprise clients are often not the ones that give you the most and best feedback. Maybe it’s because a lot of them mainly work to pay their bills or there are too many layers (read: managers) between them and your engineering team.
It’s the hobbyists, hackers, contractors and startup developers that might not be able to pay you much, but take your product to places you never imagined.
They will come up with new use cases and feature requests, ideas to improve the developer experience and they will find security issues before the bad guys do. They help you build a great product to sell to that first group of users ;)
They might actually do (part of) your work
And chances are, they won’t stop there. OSS also allows anyone to actually work on improving and extending it. For free! Well, that is if you make sure you provide clear guidance on your product goals and roadmap, coding styles and things like automated tests are in place.
And once you get a PR (Pull Request) make sure you handle them swift and friendly and give credit accordingly. Social credit is what fuels contributors.
Again, developers from enterprise clients can of course also contribute to your OSS, but in my experience you won’t see (as) much coming from them. Maybe many employers don’t allow company time to be spend on improving it, thinking that’s what they pay you for.
It’s the start of your funnel, not the end of it
Yes, there will always be users that never pay you one dime for your open source or otherwise free product. But I hope you’ve learned that this doesn’t mean they don’t bring any value to the table.
And if your product is good and you offer additional paid products or services that would make it even more fun and useful, there will be users that at some point do convert.
Make sure that there’s an incentive for users to register themselves from day zero. If you free plan is simply the source code on GitHub, without any registration or incentives to do so, then you will have no means to influence these anonymous users and also no way to track and learn from their usage.
And once you do have their email, be gentle and thank them for trusting your product. Don’t loose their trust by spamming them to upgrade.
Just keep them up to date and don’t worry; they will keep an eye on what more you have to offer.
Legal note: This is my personal opinion and not necessarily that of Appcelerator. I’m sure you can think of areas where Appcelerator and me personally are lacking in supporting our community. Fortunately I can also give you plenty examples that show this is very much in our DNA. And that’s what drives me, every single day.