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GTM Playbooks

The Developer Content Playbook that Fuels Twilio's PLG at Scale

This post by François Dufour is part of our series on Product-Led Growth and Developer Marketing Playbooks. There, we share insights and advice from leaders who have built successful PLG businesses that target software development teams.

Twilio’s content arm is one of the strongest in the developer space. When I worked at Twilio, Matt Makai was then a Developer Relations Manager. Among other things, he was working to scale the content playbook that targets developers. He was later appointed to lead a content team tasked with generating awareness with “builders” via organic traffic.

His playbook worked so well that Matt is now leading a team of 20+ developers and content writers called “Builder Content.” Since Twilio started creating articles, the Builder Content team has published over 5,000 posts, ranging from detailed developer tutorials to high-level best practices guides for customer engagement approaches. Today, they write to prompt and empower developers but they also target product leads, software architects, and other personas that are adjacent to developers.

Matt has learned a ton over the years and kindly shared with me:

  • His team’s mission, org chart, best practices, and KPIs
  • What his team decides to write about and why
  • The profiles he hires and how he vets them
  • The promo playbook he recommends for content
  • What other technical content plays inspire him

Matt is also the creator of Full Stack Python and Plushcap, a developer content analysis tool.

Key Takeaways

  • Publish consistently and recognize that content is a long-term play
  • Don’t just focus on new articles. Updating your old articles can pay strong dividends with low effort
  • Hire a mix of software developers and content marketers if you’re writing for both developers and adjacent audiences
  • To vet talent, give candidates a draft of a blog post that needs a lot of work and ask “how would you make this better?”. Discuss their recommendations live
  • It is much easier to hire someone who is embedded in developer communities and already writing out of passion
  • Track Unique Visitors Excluding Customers (UVECs) to chart how successful your content is with prospective customers

Matt’s team mission and scope

Twilio’s overall mission is to “unlock the imagination of new builders”.

“We’ve really leaned into being a developer and builder-first company,” said Matt. “By extension, the mission of the Builder Content team, in particular, is to prompt and empower builders to create great experiences for their audiences and customers.”

The scope of the team is to create text-based content (as opposed to audio or videos), which takes the form of long form written content, the majority of which is blog posts. The team currently publishes hundreds of blog posts per quarter.

The team also creates longer form guides, such as a recently published Guide to Email Deliverability by SendGrid (acquired by Twilio), which are gated.

Writing for Developer and Developer-adjacent audiences

Twilio’s primary audience is developers and always has been, but they have a secondary audience of developer-adjacent personas.

Developers are those who use the Twilio product directly and care deeply about how their work is done. Developer-adjacent roles– such as product leads or software architects– meet with developers weekly (or more). They’re not hands-on with the code itself but they’re deeply invested in what Developers are creating. Developer-adjacents need knowledge in order to interact with developers, as well.

“Developers care about HOW the work gets done, whereas Developer-adjacents care about WHAT gets done and WHY it’s being done.”

Around 70% of the team’s content is created for developers. The remaining 30% is for developer-adjacent audiences. Matt admits there is no target percentage they’re striving for.

The type of content Matt’s team produces

Twilio creates a mix of content, but there are two main buckets that most of it falls into:

  1. Brand awareness content: According to Matt, 20-30% of Twilio’s content is trying to get brand awareness. This content covers general topics such as “What is GPT-3?” Twilio doesn’t have a GPT-3 specific product, but customers often use GPT-3 while building chatbots. These topics are for a wider audience searching for information who will then encounter the Twilio brand.
  2. Close-to-the-business content: 70% of content created is very close to the business, covering permutations of a Twilio product with a programming language or framework.

Defining what content to write

Each team member mixes keyword research, audience feedback, and current rankings to establish what should be created, and then asks for input from other team members.

“I want the team to indulge their creative side, so I will layout what we should write about but I am not dogmatic. There is a lot of art when it comes to content”

Matt divides the types of content created into three different buckets:

  • Bucket #1: Management and maintenance (25%). There are certain keywords the team knows they are ranking for and thousands of articles that need to be maintained. If a keyword-ranking article is bumped to the second or third page of search results, updating it can get that piece back to page one. By updating it with the latest information and removing what’s no longer relevant, the piece can have a new life, bringing in new traffic.
  • Bucket #2: Filling in gaps using keyword analysis (25%). The team regularly conducts keyword analysis and looks at search volume for terms using tools like SEMRush and Ahrefs. When they see gaps, they create content to fill them.
  • Bucket #3: Using Developer domain knowledge (50%). The team writes about topics based on their own knowledge, seeing what’s coming up, and considering what their audience will want to hear about. This part required understanding your products and what your audience will likely care about.

The promo playbook Matt recommends for content

Only when you post on a regular basis will you see sustained results from organic traffic. That is not always easy at an early-stage company. But consistency is the foundation of a solid content strategy.

When it comes to spreading the word about content, Matt recommends promoting on multiple channels, especially when your domain authority is low. You need to be authentically engaging where your audience lives online, often places like Reddit and Hacker News.

To do this, Matt recommends hiring people who have existing networks that would be good for promotion. He hired Miguel Grinberg who is a well-known Python developer and who writes great content.

“Miguel wrote a helpful tutorial, which I shared on Hacker News and the reaction was great. He’s a well-respected member of the community, so it was welcomed when I shared content he’d created.”

Be careful, though. You need to respect the communities you participate in. For that reason, it is much easier to hire someone who is embedded in these communities than to try to break into them on your own. Don’t be the person or company that spams their content without being welcome in that forum.

For software developer-focused content, Matt doesn’t believe in spending on ads. “You don’t get much ROI and risk atrophying your organic sustainable attribution model,” he said.

The secret sauce? According to Matt, it’s making sure your operations are top-notch and getting your team focused and motivated for the long term. “Content is a long-term play,” said Matt. “It’s a snowball rolling downhill that picks up momentum as it keeps going.”

Matt’s team structure

Matt’s team is made up of about 20 individuals working to create content. Roughly half of those are technical developers, and the other half is more traditional content marketers.

Matt spots developers thanks to the content they’re already publishing on their own blogs. He recruits them for Twilio’s program, which is called “Developer Voices.” Developer Voices works with developers in Twilio’s community to write and publish high-quality developer tutorials.

The traditional content marketers are divided into two teams:

  • Organic Growth Content - This team writes for the Developer-Adjacent audience with a focus on what can be accomplished in the landscape
  • Strategic Content. This team creates longer form content, such as meaty guides with lots of data

he Org chart of the Builder Content Team at Twilio (in blue). A team within the large Developer Network organization.

Hiring: who Matt hires and how he assesses talent

As mentioned, Matt’s team is made up of both Developers and traditional Content Marketers. Here’s how he hires and assesses both.

Hiring Developers

When it comes to hiring developers, after screening for technical ability, Matt gives them an exercise. Specifically, he gives them a draft of a blog post that needs a lot of work and asks “how would you make this better?”

Matt encourages the developer to start at a high-level, then get more granular. They look line by line at the article and when they express specifics they’d change, asks “why would you change that?”

“Throughout this process, you hear if they care about helping fellow developers. It’s essential that they have empathy for the reader and can understand that readers are at different levels. Those who don’t do well just change a few words but can’t articulate why. If changes come from a place of empathy for the reader, that’s much better.”

This is a great way to find out if creating and editing content is what they enjoy. It’s a real-world test of the work they’ll be doing every day in that developer content role.

Matt’s team also conducts a tech screen to make sure that hired developers know the tech inside and out. For example, if you are a Java Developer, then a Java Developer at Twilio will conduct a technical interview. Developers turned writers need enough experience to articulate the concepts and explain them in a concise way.

Hiring Content Writers

When it comes to hiring content writers, Matt assesses how well they can articulate SEO principles. Do they understand why certain choices are made for headlines and section headers? Do they understand how to look at competitive content and create something even better?

According to Matt, many content writers with a journalist background don’t fare as well as those with some digital marketing or SEO experience, often because journalists rely on a publication and its existing reach and brand to get traffic, whereas marketers understand that driving traffic organically via clear, high-quality content is about more than just relying on your existing audience.

Matt looks for excellent writers who can make use of SEO principles rather than promoters. Twilio has a separate social media team who can help promote the content so that the content marketers can focus on creating content that is as valuable as possible.

Key metrics of the Builder Content Team

The Builder Content team tracks metrics such as:

  • number of tutorials published per month  
  • number of signups  
  • “ah-ha” moments the blog nurtures

But one of their most essential KPIs is "Unique Visitors Excluding Customers" (UVECs) that they pair with the more traditional "unique users" traffic from their web analytics.

UVECs are a subset of traffic that excludes anyone who already has an account (typically because they are already logged in during that web browser session). That allows the team to see the balance between current customers who are building with the content and the prospective customers that may be exploring before signing up. The ratio between the two indicates potential future business as well as the growth of existing customers.

These two metrics are reported upwards as well as the more traditional lifecycle events such as signups and API calls so that the team can show what parts of the website are driving sustainable customer growth versus areas where they are putting bets but may be enabling other motions (like a direct "talk to sales" inquiry if a prospective customer does not have developers immediately at their disposal to build a project).

The third-party content that inspires them

Twilio’s approach to content is certainly worth emulating, but Matt is also impressed with how other companies approach content. In particular, he recommends taking a look at DigitalOcean, AssemblyAi, and Datadog.

  • DigitalOcean is impressive because they've figured out consistency and scale. According to Matt, they are a pioneer in figuring out how far you can push a developer-focused content marketing program. DigitalOcean even listed it in their S-1 at IPO: "Broad-Based Community Ecosystem: We have built one of the world’s largest developer learning communities, with approximately 6,000 high-quality developer tutorials and over 28,000 community-generated questions & answers. The strength and continued growth of our community ecosystem, which is managed by our internal developer relations and editorial teams, is predicated on differentiated content on our community education website, which attracts approximately 3.5 million monthly unique visitors.”
  • AssemblyAI is impressive because they applied a content playbook but rewrote just enough of it to make it match their own customer audience, specifically data scientists rather than only pure software developers. It's particularly impressive when the team at a company like this one has a content playbook but then understands what to copy and what to change so that it drives real growth in the business, rather than blindly applying what worked at a different company at their own place.
  • Datadog is impressive because they built a strong enough internal Product culture that they are able to create authentic developer content in a non-Marketing part of their org and make it wildly successful in powering their self-service business. The tutorials they publish are top-notch.

Thanks so much, Matt for sharing all these great tips, tools, and techniques, and congratulations on building such wonderful and engaged developer content!

Matt speaking in front of the Developer Network Team Leads at Twilio