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GTM Playbooks

How Apollo fuels its GTM engine with OSS usage and a champions community

Elenitsa Staykova (Eli) joined Apollo GraphQL in September 2020 to lead Marketing. With her Sales and DevRel colleagues, she helped build what is today an impressive Go-To-Market engine leveraging the widespread adoption of Apollo’s open source GraphQL tools. Before scaling the adoption of their self-serve cloud offerings, MongoDB, Mulesoft, Confluent and other companies with leading open source software (OSS) deployed similar motions: growing their OSS user base, identifying it, and selling to accounts most likely to buy their enterprise offering.

Core to their advanced playbook is how they identify and empower their “Graph Champions” and how they manage a hybrid go-to-market motion with a homegrown Customer Data Platform (CDP) that acts as the heartbeat of their GTM, helping them identify and activate their OSS-based Total Addressable Market (TAM).

Key Takeaways

  • Apollo blends an OSS bottom-up developer-led adoption with a top-down enterprise Sales-led motion.
  • To drive adoption of its OSS by developers and lead the GraphQL movement, Apollo creates technical content and education on GraphQL, features it in tutorials, docs, Discord, Twitch, and YouTube and events like Apollo Days and GraphQL Summit
  • It considers its OSS reach as its TAM. To track it, and identify and prioritize potential target accounts, Apollo feeds more than 15 signals of GraphQL usage - from GitHub downloads to Social Media mentions and GraphQL job postings - into a homebuilt customer data platform (CDP). It maps OSS users to accounts, then further scores them with firmographics based on a well-defined ICP  
  • Then Apollo deploys account-based and use-case-centric demand gen and sales playbooks to engage economic buyers and execs with the active support of “graph champions” at these companies
  • The Graph Champions community plays a unique role by bridging the gap between developers and economic buyers and helping evangelize the new supergraph category

Let’s compare: Key Takeaways by ChatGPT

I thought I’d show what ChatGPT wrote so you can compare that to my own “human” takeaways above. ChatGPT wrote what’s below after I fed it the final draft article without my takeaways and I refined a couple of times by saying: “please re-write them focusing more on marketing and ABM key takeaways” or later “re-write these first 5 with more concrete techniques or examples without making the bullets longer.” I will stop writing key takeaways very soon :-)

  • Apollo GraphQL's marketing strategy includes a hybrid go-to-market approach with a focus on account-based marketing (ABM) and demand generation.
  • The company's approach includes both a bottom-up developer-led adoption motion and a top-down sales-led motion that engages key stakeholders, including "economic buyers" and "graph champions," to build support for the supergraph within their organizations.
  • Apollo invests in technical content, events, and targeted campaigns to engage developers and promote its brand as a leader in GraphQL. Examples include documentation that receives ~ ~250,000 visitors per month, participation in online communities such as Discord and Twitch, and events like Apollo Days and the GraphQL Summit.
  • The company's customer data platform (CDP) acts as the hub of its go-to-market strategy and helps track and activate its target market.
  • The Champions Community Team plays a unique role in Apollo's marketing efforts by engaging with the Graph Champions Community and hosting events and managing a private Slack community for this group. This community includes over ~800 individuals who are enthusiastic about the graph and act as advocates and mobilizers for it within their organizations.

Overview of Apollo GraphQL and the supergraph

Apollo GraphQL helps companies build their “supergraph”, a new layer in the tech stack that unifies company’s data, microservices, and business logic into a single connected graph. With REST API's, every time developers need to build a new feature or a new product, they need to create a brand new connection between data and client to get that information. But with GraphQL and the supergraph, developers can simply request the data they want from a specific business object and that data is delivered to them in a declarative way allowing them to build better apps faster.

Apollo GraphQL offers popular OSS tools such as Apollo Client and Apollo Server.

It has been offering enterprise versions of its platform with advanced governance and hosting options for company-wide adoption of the supergraph.

The Apollo GraphQL Platform - Apollo Client is the leading GraphQL open source client.

A hybrid go-to-market with two motions and Graph Champions as the glue between the two

Apollo calls their hybrid motion PLABS: Product-Led Account-Based Selling.

The first essential motion is a high-velocity bottom-up adoption by developers historically using  Apollo’s OSS or freemium cloud offering.

The second motion, essential for monetization by the Enterprise, is a Sales-led and Champion-centric top-down motion that engages “economic buyers” and equips “Graph champions” to build the internal case for making the supergraph a central layer of their tech stack.

Bottom-up: Developer-led adoption via education

It all starts with app developers interested in GraphQL. Apollo wants them to see their brand and resources as the gold standard for learning GraphQL. For organic discovery, Apollo creates high-quality technical content that shortens the time to value for developers. They invest in documentation - every month getting ~250,000  visitors to their docs - and reach developers on channels natural for them: Discord, Twitch, YouTube, etc. Apollo also runs developer-focused events such as Apollo Days in various cities and hosts the industry-leading GraphQL Summit. Held in San Diego in 2022, it welcomed well north of a thousand developers on-site while many thousands more watched the live stream.

The type of messaging that works to engage developers in that motion is not about the benefits of the platform but helping developers be more productive and answering either:

  • what is something I couldn't do before that now I can do with your solution? Or
  • what is something I can build with the skillset I already have?

Top-Down: Engaging champions and economic buyers

On top of this developer adoption, Apollo built a sophisticated marketing and sales go-to-market motion.

It starts with knowing and tracking what users and accounts use their OSS and deeply understanding their Ideal Customer Profile (ICP), i.e. the type of companies most likely to purchase and be successful with the product. Combining both allows Marketing and Sales to know which accounts to target and further engage and, equally importantly, which ones to ignore or point to their self-serve offerings.  

With that information, Marketing and Sales run a use case play, in which they strive to identify the business challenges or use cases the prospect has, and follow that with an account strategy plan. Sales and Marketing show the prospect account how the supergraph will solve their unique business challenge. Since execs and economic buyers are vaguely familiar with GraphQL technology, Apollo, partners closely with the practitioners and champions to build the case together for graph expansion, showing how it will address their business problem and outcomes.

It turns out that many of these use cases overlap and Apollo built the corresponding case studies, value props, and intimate events to address them.

Before Sales engages an exec or economic buyer, Eli’s team runs very targeted offers from physical mailers, intimate events, workshops, and dinners, to email outreaches, and digital social media ads, to warm up and engage the practitioners and champions in the target  ICP accounts.

The essential step in the middle: Playbooks to engage practitioners at key moments

A key step is building a bridge between these two motions. For Apollo, it consists of marketing identifying and engaging “graph” practitioners, who are on a path to create and scale a supergraph. Apollo also works so as many of these practitioners become “supergraph champions”, the believers in the graph who are the internal champions of creating an organization-wide graph and promoting its adoption.

The very tangible goal for the Marketing team is to create hand-raisers from the OSS and self-service user base.

To achieve this, the team created playbooks targeting practitioners that correspond to key moments of the graph adoption stage.

Each playbook is targeted at a well-defined audience, tailored to their adoption stage, and the likely friction point at that stage. It promotes the right message and technical content with key takeaways to help practitioners overcome that friction.

For instance, a playbook Apollo runs corresponds to this scenario: “I don’t know GraphQL; should I even use it?”.  Another is around “I have a prototype graph. How do I scale it across my company?”.  

Another addresses questions about security: “Is my graph secure? And if not, how do I secure it?”.

Apollo’s marketing team then uses specific channels to reach the audience where they hang out. For instance, to target backend developers or platform architects, Apollo engages with  sites such as Programming Digest, Software Lead Weekly, or Tech Lead Digest. There, they promote their value-add technical content and offer to help the audience with their technical questions and challenges.

Once they identify enough hand raisers from an account and “see smoke”, Sales and Marketing can run a use case play mentioned above.

OSS Usage as the TAM, a well-defined Ideal Customer Profile, and a Customer Data Platform as the heartbeat

As with other GTM playbooks that start with OSS usage (discover how Confluent also promoted and leveraged Kafka usage), the first challenge consists in identifying which users use your software, what companies they work for, and how they use it.

The sum of that usage often corresponds to the company’s Total Addressable Market (TAM) into which you have a shot at selling your commercial software. If a given company doesn’t use or value your popular OSS, then job number 1 is typically for DevRel to introduce developers to what’s possible with the technology before starting any enterprise go-to-market motion.

Tracking OSS usage by injecting signals into a home-built Customer Data Platform

To track that TAM, Eli’s team built their own Customer Data Platform (CDP). It serves as the heartbeat of their marketing and sales efforts, combining data sources and usage signals to surface the right target accounts with a high propensity to purchase. This acts as smoke signals that narrow the focus for Sales and Marketing.

Apollo’s CDP collects over 15 signals that indicate interest or intent with their product, especially around the usage of GraphQL and Apollo, for example:  

  • Github downloads associated with Apollo Client or Apollo Server
  • LinkedIn: if developers indicate GraphQL as a skill, on their profile or in projects they worked on
  • Job postings: If a company lists GraphQL or Apollo as a skill they seek in their developers, SW architects, etc.
  • 3rd party sites that analyze websites and apps for Apollo Client usage
  • Apollo’s own cloud products data
  • Traffic and behavior on the Apollo website, including what blog or docs page they viewed. If a developer or team has built multiple graphs and wants to federate them, they'll probably read a Federation blog post or documentation page to learn how to do that, a great indicator they are trying to go deeper
  • And a few others Eli preferred not to reveal :-)

Then their data engineers clean, mine, scrape the data, and augment it to ensure that people they identify are mapped correctly to accounts. That’s the tricky part. It can never be perfect but Apollo keeps improving the model’s fidelity. They then layer their Ideal Customer Profile (ICP), score these accounts, and rank them from best to worst for Marketing and Sales to go after. They did that with 6Sense initially and are now building their own scoring model.

Apollo’s Ideal Customer Profile

Having and instrumenting a good understanding of which accounts are most likely to buy and be successful with Apollo’s Enterprise platform is critical to that scoring and prioritization.

After analyzing existing customer profiles, marketing crystallized the characteristics of the ICP. For example, a good ICP

  • has a customer-facing and revenue-generating digital property: mobile app, website, or IoT, etc.,
  • uses a modern tech infrastructure, such as NodeJS, React, and GraphQL of course, or tools such as LaunchDarkly, Datadog, NewRelic
  • Operates multiple clients with high traffic. If they have more than two clients, they should benefit tremendously from a supergraph

The accounts can be non-digital-natives as long as they comply with the criteria above and the revenue from their digital property represents a significant percentage of their total revenue. Equally important, Marketing made clear which accounts are NOT a good ICP fit, and excluded them from their go-to-market efforts.

A mock of Eli’s dashboard: from TAM to closed-won accounts

By focusing on these accounts’ criteria in addition to OSS TAM signals, marketing helped  accelerate Sales velocity, the likelihood to close a deal, and its deal size.

The Graph Champions Community at the heart of Apollo’s GTM strategy and essential for category creation

As soon as it first introduced the concept of Federation at GraphQL Summit in 2019, some true supergraph believers started emerging.

These champions bring the concept of the graph to their organization and act as advocates and mobilizers to win support for it. They include tech leaders with a variety of job titles, such as platform engineer, engineering manager, or platform architect, who have a vision and ownership for back-end services and orchestration. They believe in the value of the graph and are willing to bet their careers on it.

As the graph represents a new layer in the technology stack, there is often no budget allocated for it by the chief technology officer (CTO). So identifying and working in close partnership with these champions helps bridge different teams and rally support internally for the idea of unifying data and microservices into the graph.

Apollo engages with these champions through a private, invite-only Slack community for graph enthusiasts. The community currently has over  800 members, with a nice mix of customers and  prospects. Marketing hosts weekly virtual meetups, in-person Apollo Days, and even a dedicated Champions track at the annual GraphQL Summit conference. These events provide opportunities for champions to network and learn from one another. Some members even host Apollo Days at their offices, bringing together customers and prospects for technical discussions. These community members love learning and mingling. Magic happens again and again when new prospects get exposed to the contagious enthusiasm, authentic helpfulness, and passion of these champions.

In-person graph champion workshop with 100+ attendees

To lead this community, Eli hired Dan Boerner from Expedia, who was one of the earliest and most inspiring believers in the potential of the graph. She tasked him with the job of creating more champions like him at target companies, and this is how the Champions Community was born.

Dan’s LinkedIn profile header, featuring him, when still at Expedia, explaining Expedia's graph vision and progress.

For those who want to set up such communities, Eli strongly recommends finding the right leader to lead that community: someone who is already immersed in the product, ideally has built with it, is passionate about that new technical frontier, and of course, is a people person. The leader doesn’t need to be a community manager or marketer, but someone who really understands the product and its potential.

Apollo has a simple approach to measuring the community's impact on the business: at the end of each quarter, the company looks at all closed-won or closed-lost deals and asks the Sales team to assess the community's impact as low, medium, or high.

The organization of the Marketing Team

Eli has structured her marketing team into four groups:

  • Brand
  • Demand Gen, Marketing Operations and Data
  • Champion Community
  • Product Marketing and Partnerships
Structure of Eli's Marketing team at Apollo

The Brand and Communications team is responsible for developing and communicating the overall strategic narrative of Apollo, including the supergraph value proposition and vision.

The Product Marketing and Partnerships team handles the end-to-end go-to-market plan for new and existing products, including the creation of consistent messaging, sales enablement, and product adoption. The team is also responsible for partnerships with software implementers and consultants like Accenture, and technical integration partners such as MongoDB.

The Demand Gen, Marketing Operations and Data team helps identify and understand the target addressable market using their CDP. It creates user journeys and campaigns aligned with key moments and friction points in the customer journey. The team also includes a data engineer who built and maintains the CDP, analytics experts, and web developers.

The Champion Community team is unique compared to typical B2B marketing teams and engages the Graph Champions community.

Apollo also set up a Developer Relations team, responsible for evangelizing GraphQL and Apollo with developers. That team reports to the CTO but works in close collaboration with Marketing and Product. They create documentation and technical content, speak at events, and build foundational and advanced curriculum and learning experiences for graph practitioners (see Apollo Odyssey).

Marketing team holiday celebration
Offsite in San Diego. Eli with part of the marketing team.

Please join me in thanking Eli for sharing her playbook, team composition, mock dashboards and more. She’s built an impressive engine that I know will inspire others to build such a strong hybrid motion.