What's Your Dark Matter Strategy?

Why devrel strategy must include the long tail of developers


4 min read

When looking for something, we have an extremely strong bias to only search where it is easy to search.

This is known as the streetlight effect, named after a 1920's joke:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is".

It's easy to make fun of streetlight searchers when it is someone else exhibiting this behavior. Recruiters trying to fill software engineering vacancies will camp out all day on LinkedIn, not because LinkedIn is the favorite platform of software engineers. No - recruiters spend all day on LinkedIn because LinkedIn is the only platform that takes recruiters seriously. Cue the criticism: "That's so lazy!" "You're missing out on all the developers who have sworn off LinkedIn!" "The in-demand developers don't even check LinkedIn, by definition!"

Then it's useful to go out-of-body and turn the streetlight on ourselves.

Developer content creators hang out all day on Twitter and Reddit, and travel around the world on the meetup and conference circuit. This is, unsurprisingly, a formulation of the world that just so happens to put content creators at the center of the universe.

And yet, of the 73 million developers in the world:

With the most optimistic take, summing across ALL of these audiences (no overlap), you only capture ~33% of the market. Meaning if you, as a developer content creator, reached every conventional audience there is on every platform there is, you still would not be reaching two thirds of developers. And those you could reach would be majority newer developers who have the time and desire to spend on your content.

The other 2/3 of developers aren't spending their free time at meetups or watching livestreams. They'll maybe go to one conference every three years. They don't care about the hot takes. They have to look up the acronyms you take for granted. They don't know what new framework is obviously the future, and which code pattern was so yesterday.

I'm not the first to make this observation (though to my knowledge I am the first to put real estimates on them).

  • Scott Hanselman first named these the Dark Matter Developers - you can't see them, but you can see their footprint, in packages downloaded and software shipped. He described them:

    Where are the dark matter developers? Probably getting work done. Maybe using .NET 1.1 at a local municipality or small office. Maybe working at a bottling plant in Mexico in VB6. Perhaps they are writing PHP calendar applications at a large chip manufacturer. They use mature products that are well-known, well-tested and well-understood. They aren't chasing the latest beta or pushing any limits, they are just producing.

  • Ilya Grigorik called these "the torso and the tail" of the Rogers curve - thought leaders spend most of their time speaking to other thought leaders, but the people that thought leaders most need to reach aren't even in the same room.

And yet. People are never really cut off from the world. Even people in small towns know when there is a new President. You just have to reach them where they are, not where you prefer to be.

Dark Matter developers are more likely to be shipping production (if not flashy) software, more likely to have decisionmaking and buying power (as a generational tendency), and far more likely to be sticky to whatever technology they pick (by definition). If you are in developer relations, it is very much in your interest to reach the Dark Matter Developers.

So: do you have a plan to reach them?

Aside: sorry if you read to the end looking for solutions - I have some ideas (see the comments section), but no solutions to offer you yet. But I do think it is a thought provoking question to ask for rounding out content strategy. Please get in touch if you have thoughts and I'll include in a future writeup!