AMA with Nick Moore on Technical Writing, Freelancing and More

Jimmy Daly
March 11, 2024

Welcome to our AMA with Nick Moore, a freelance writer who specializes in creating technical content marketing for developers and engineers.

This Q&A session covers topics about:

  • Marketing to developers and engineers (a super tough audience)
  • Doing journalist-quality content research
  • Building/running a freelance business
  • Anything else about creating standout content in 2024

How technical are you (i.e. can you write code?) how much of a limitation is this/has it been? basically can you just give us a rundown of what you do / how you do it?

I can't write code at all! I'm familiar with some principles and I can read some of it, but I can't code beyond an HTML site without some guidance. This was my main question before deciding whether or not I could do this niche and it hasn't been as much of a barrier as I anticipated. I get around it by choosing a niche within a niche, which, for me, is technical thought leadership. I communicate up front with my clients about what I can and can't do, so it's never been an issue. I write mostly technical essays now, which focus more on high-level concepts, history, research, etc. so the content itself doesn't need code samples.

Interestingly, I've found this niche is in higher demand than the more technical side. There are quite a few developers and technical writers out there who can spin up a tutorial, but (at least according to my clients) it's harder to find someone who can write essay-istic content that is technically conversant and fun to read.

It's not a skill I fully learned to appreciate until I did this work tbh. For example, my partner is a professional developer and I frequently know more development stuff than she does (but obviously, much broader and less deeply). Developers tend to be niche specialists so even though I can't code, having a broad knowledge base and being able to dive deep in particular areas as needed has ended up being pretty valuable.

Where have you seen the most success in communicating to devs and engineers? Do you have insight into driving to PLG, product trials? What activities have driven product trial or signups?

My answer will be a little biased because I've focused so much on content (and thought leadership, in particular) in the past year or so. I've seen the most success with content that speaks with authority and cites authority, i.e. content that goes well beyond Google results and dives back through years of software trends, gets into books and research reports, etc. Since most of this is ToFU, I unfortunately don't have a ton of insight on completing that PLG motion but I'd highly recommend Adam Duvander's work here.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm assuming you have to work with a lot of SMEs. Any tips for extracting insights out of folks who may not be super eager about working with marketing?

Mainly, coming to the interview very prepared. That means lots of questions, for one (if it's a developer or someone not public facing, I try to come with plenty in case they struggle to give detailed answers). I also try to research like I would for an article, so I come in informed enough to ask good questions and make them feel like we're on a level playing field.

That said, "dumb" questions are also really useful. I encourage them to speak at length and ask broad questions, sometimes. Often, the less specific questions are less intimidating and that can lead to interesting answers.

Also, I try to be flexible. Some people are more comfortable over text, so I always offer email interviews as an option too.

Are there any go-to questions you have?

Not really! At least, not beyond asking Who, What, Why, etc. It's surprisingly easy to talk for an hour and not really talk about the Why

What advice do you have for creating content for this audience? How should it differ from the content we create for the less technical folks in operations and the C-suite?

My two primary tips are to include as little marketing/sales language as possible* and to research very deeply. Developers, in my experience, tend to appreciate narrow topics and complete answers to isolated questions. When I write, I focus a lot on anticipating and defeating best objections (or reframing the article so those objections aren't the first and only responses).

I also read very little traditional marketing material these days and try to consume as much content that developers would read/watch/listen to on their own. For fun or to learn. There's a lot of true by developer for developers content out there, so I think you have to make sure you're competing with that quality bar and not with other content marketers.

*Caveat here -- you can definitely write about your product, sans sales-y talk, if the product is relevant. For example, I just wrote about a type of diagram for a company that builds a documentation tool. At that point, it's relevant to mention they do that and to show examples.

Maybe a bit broad, but how do you choose your topics to cover? keyword research, client insights, their customers' insights, all of the above?

It's a combination of client insights and social listening. Typically, clients either come to me with topics they want to translate into a format that will appeal to developers or they come to me looking for ideas that are inherently appealing to devs. In the former case, I rely on the customer's insights (but especially that of their devs and sales people, if I can) and research around to supplement and justify the point they want to make. In the latter case, I lean on passive research I'm doing every day: Following devs on social media, reading their blogs and newsletters, and reading Hacker News.

Which channels do developers prefer to receive and digest content through? How to build trust with developers?  (Context: my theory is that developers are harder to market to, so how do we build trust and what do marketers need to do to establish trust and remove skepticism?)

In my experience, newsletters, podcasts, YouTube channels, and Twitch streams are all very useful. As long as, whether they're sponsored or owned, the devs would be going there independently.

I wrote about this at more length on HeavyBit's blog here. But my basic theory is that developers are one of the more spammed audiences out there, so have a warranted skepticism of marketed to. To defeat that, I think you have to both be really good and be really careful, almost neurotic even, about removing red flags that could trigger skepticism.

Can you provide some more insight on developer red flags? Buried CTAs, Product/Feature promotion, What else? Also, if CTAs are a red flag because it comes off as what you call "spam," then how would you suggest getting developers to convert?

Honestly, I've softened on the hard-line stances as I've gone on because I more and more think it's about tone and placement. A CTA popup is never good but a CTA at the bottom that has pushy language is also not good. I think it's more about communicating to devs conversationally and writing CTAs that fit the post. Developermarkepear has a bunch of great examples. This Auth0 one, for example, feels more like showing developers next steps than trying to push them along the funnel.

Also, to clarify, feature promotion is actually great if the piece is about the feature. Feature promotion is at its worst, I think, when it's jammed into an article that doesn't warrant it. But if you build a piece around a feature from the ground up, then it can be very natural and compelling to write about it. Tailscale is a great example of this -- they're pioneering networking tech so when they write about network tech, it only makes sense to write about what they've built. It works partially because it's more about the building than the selling, too.

What is your feedback and editorial process typically look like when working with an SME?

I used to work at Animalz and still follow the Animalz 30%/90% structure, so when I work with an SME, I usually request they look at the outline and the rough draft (and usually the final draft for final sign off). I've definitely had those communication issues before, so I usually try to make sure I'm working with a client point of contact who understands that can be an issue and is willing to handle most of the communication work.

Do you find that you can charge a premium for your writing? (without giving away exact rates)

Definitely. My biggest challenge these days is actually charging more and I already frequently charge much more than the high end here, for example

How do you think about selling the value of thought leadership to execs? What's your typical ROI pitch?

I think Adam Duvander put this well in his book Technical Content Strategy decoded:

A technical audience expects technical content, but they want it in the ratios that match the content type. Any technical content will include some amount of these two elements:

  • Functional: what is supported and how it works
  • Contextual: how it is used and why it matters

So, with thought leadership, I typically have to explain that yes, you have a lot of functional content, and that's great, but you need contextual content, too. Each piece needs a ratio of each but different pieces will be almost entirely functional (e.g. tutorials) and so the complement is almost entirely contextual, thought leadership. The context is what provides meaning and direction to the functional content (it can also go in the other direction, driving curiosity toward the functionality).

A huge advantage I have with freelancing, too, is that I don't have to sell anyone on a TL heavy content strategy. I offer what I offer and different clients need different amounts. I've had clients come through who really only need one or two big heavy hitter pieces (often those are like, Why Did We Found This Company or Here's Our Vision type pieces). Others are in a crowded market and the product differentiation isn't obvious at first glance, and they need many more pieces.

Another advantage is that I don't typically have to sell them too hard. I'm specialized enough that if they're coming to me at all, they're probably already bought in to doing TL.

You're freelance, not in-house, so maybe you don't have an answer for this, but do you know if/how your clients are using your thought leadership content in the sales process? I know sellers have all the same challenges as marketers with developers

I don't have much visibility into how they use it in the sales process but I always highly recommend it. When I worked full time at a dev tool startup, a lot of my content inspiration came from sales calls and they'd sometimes feed back into those calls. Case studies obviously come in handy but a lot of community content too. Sometimes, those aren't even full articles but just examples of other companies doing cool things with your product.

I like working in-house, but I'm intrigued by freelancing. How did you go about building your network and how do you approach earning new clients? At this point, do they mainly find you (and if so, how) or are you mainly prospecting yourself?

I built my network very passively over time through my work at Animalz and then at Sourcegraph. I did little to none of it intentionally. When I freelanced, I was very worried about networking and prospecting. The biggest helper here was mostly that this is a very in demand space and I had enough proof to show I could write to developers successfully. That drove a lot of word of mouth. I tried cold reach outs on LinkedIn for a bit, but that wasn't as effective as posting well thought out posts and having people come to me. And even that has turned out to be less effective than just writing and delivering good content and being recommended. In the last month or two, for example, I've had to refuse or delay a couple of prospects but I haven't marketed myself in months.

Building off your response to my previous question stating how the most successful content to devs is TOFU. What do you think the MOFU is like for that audience? I suspect it might be smaller, less relevant with product trials filling that space. Once they have awareness, they probably just want to jump in and try solutions right? With that in mind, I still think there's opportunity to understand this phase of their journey better. Any ideas?

This is a good question and one I might need to think on more. I do think ToFu and BoFu kinda expand here. It almost rebels against the metaphor a little, because a really thorough, technical BoFu piece can perform as well as a more high-level, "exciting" ToFu piece. The best MoFu stuff I've seen tends to revolve around the tech stack that surrounds the product. What does it integrate with? How does it fit into the vertical and horizontal ecosystem? How does it compare with this similar product?

One of the salesy things that turns off devs is when companies pretend like they're the only solution to a problem. In reality, there are likely other vendors and open source options (as well as the developer building it themselves). So it's often really useful to write about fitting in.

What are the biggest misconceptions you see people assume about marketing to developers (false positives AND negatives)

The biggest false misconception is the idea that developers are some alien species. Even marketers who believe marketing to developers is possible tend to be too willing to disregard best practices and lessons from other experiences and fields. Second to that is assuming technical tutorials is the only thing they like.

What did you not mention in your amazing Every essay that the rest of us marketers should apply to our expert customers, based on your work and experience with dev marketing (maybe zoom in or more tactical suggestions, since that essay is already)

I touched on this on my research advice series but one thing I keep leaning into is referencing technical experts. I've built a handful of custom Google searches that only cover blogs, newsletters, podcasts, etc. from experts I've curated. It's now the first thing I turn to and I've found a lot of benefit in citing numerous numerous experts while communicating to experts.

If you could magically implant a mindset shift about content into the brains of every content marketer with a snap of your fingers, today, what would you want to shift and why? For heads of marketing? (Feel free to do any other marketing functions if you're feeling cheeky)

I wish more people understood just how high quality the content needs to be to compete in certain areas. If marketers read Hacker News (or their niche audience's equivalent) for even a day, they'd easily see why their content doesn't compete. The competition is almost never other content marketers. Users with personal blogs, even, routinely outdo content marketers.

What marketing perspective of yours has shifted most radically from leaving your last FT to now, as you've built your own business and gone even further in on dev marketing?

This is less a shift away and more in but I've deepened my belief in quality so much more than I anticipated. Freelancing is the only way I've consistently had the time and space to reliably write good-to-great content. It's become more clear to me that content marketing issues are frequently top down.

If you want to follow Nick beyond this AMA, check out his website or follow him on LinkedIn.

Cookie Consent

By clicking “Accept”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.