5 Essential Lessons I Learned From GitLab’s Marketing Playbook

5 Essential Lessons I Learned From GitLab's Marketing Playbook

Writers are inherently nosy curious. Here at Process Street, we’re no different. So when I was given the opportunity to check out GitLab’s marketing playbook, I jumped at it.

GitLab itself is an interesting company. Completely remote and open source, GitLab’s evolution comes not only from its own development teams, but also contributions from a community of over 3,000 contributors and two million users. Plus it promotes total transparency; all of GitLab’s documentation is freely accessible on their website.

Like I said, interesting place.

There are enough similarities between our two companies, that their approach is particularly valuable in terms of what procedures we might steal learn from to improve our own processes.

And we love improving processes.

In this article, I’ll list the five most important lessons I learned from GitLab’s marketing playbook:

So, let’s get started.

What is a marketing playbook?

At its core, a marketing playbook is a quick-reference guide to the collaboration, strategy, and execution of content marketing campaigns. Your playbook should clearly set out branding initiatives, marketing standards, and campaign goals.

A well-constructed marketing playbook documents important processes, so that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities, and consistency is maintained across all of your marketing activities.

Naturally, your playbook needs to be easy to read and navigate, and able to be updated continuously. The easiest way to accomplish this is by keeping a digital copy, which saves time and resources by eliminating wasted paper and an endless number of appendices.

And if – like both GitLab and Process Street – your company is entirely remote, a digital marketing playbook is essential.

Who is GitLab anyway?

I briefly touched on GitLab as a company at the beginning of the post, but let’s not be mistaken: the scope of GitLab is massive. There’s a reason their employee handbook is the equivalent of 8,000+ pages of text.

“GitLab started as an open source project to help teams collaborate on software development. GitLab’s mission is to provide a place where everyone can contribute.” – GitLab

Collaboration takes center stage through all of GitLab’s material – from the importance of facilitating team communication to celebrating the community of contributors and user they’ve built over the years.

Basically, GitLab is a single application that encompasses the entire software development cycle in order to centralize and optimize existing workflows. The software is geared at the people who will use it most – all those hardcore coders and developers building incredible things – but even someone with a no-code brain (like myself) can feel the palpable excitement both users and employees have for the company and its products. The commitment to transparency, from their code to their operations to their department hierarchies, certainly sets GitLab apart in the field, and makes their strategies all the more interesting to study.

So, what did I learn from studying GitLab’s marketing playbook?

Marketing lessons from GitLab

From the git-go (come on… it’s funny 😋), GitLab’s playbook squarely places an emphasis on honesty. A quick look at their marketing team aspirations only solidifies this:

  • Collaborate to achieve our board approved company goals and KPIs.
  • Foster an inclusive and efficient open source community for contributors and users.
  • Market GitLab in an inspiring, authentic and helpful way.
  • Understand customers’ DevOps challenges and share solutions.
  • Be the leader in transparent marketing.

While many companies may provide lip service to this sort of ethos, GitLab walks the walk: once I’d highlighted that bit of text in their playbook, I was immediately given the option to view the code for it. Sure, you can view the code for pretty much any site you want, but this initiative shows not only an understanding of what their customers are interested in, but a willingness to make the first move.

This creates a very convenient segue into the first lesson:

Know your personas – personally

As our lives become increasingly digitized, privacy concerns become more and more prevalent. Just about every app you use asks for permission to access your data, share your data, and/or manage your data. Even the apps that are meant to tell you if the other apps are trustworthy ask for your details first. Meanwhile, in return, most of them give very little of their own personal data.

It’s the purpose of marketing teams to assure customers the company cares about their interests, and is invested in their happiness. I am by no means saying this isn’t true; but where many rely on words, GitLab backs it up with action.

All through their playbook – and all through their site – is a continuous promise to understand their users – how the product is used, why users introduce specific customizations, what users would like to see in the future. As a result, their customer personas are incredibly thorough and detailed.

Aside from useful information like background, demographics, and team makeup, a sample elevator pitch that would suit each candidate is also included. With a quick glance at one of GitLab’s customer personas, you gain a big picture view of who this person is, what they need from the company, and how to communicate with them in the most effective way.

5 Essential Lessons From GitLab's Marketing Playbook: Personas
(Source)

The level of detail GitLab provides their marketing team regarding customer personas means they’ll be much more efficient when it comes to meeting the needs of those personas.

GitLab doesn’t stop there, however. Relationships are a two-way street; you have to be willing to give in order to receive, and, once again, GitLab’s aim to be transparent comes into play here. Via their YouTube channel, GitLab’s monthly metrics are freely available to anyone who wants them. They also include explanations of exactly what those metrics mean, so customers can be aware of the various data GitLab uses to make their decisions.

I think this is an important thing to keep in mind for a few reasons. In marketing, we always talk about the value of something: what’s the value in a blog post, or what’s the value in a new feature? When making initial conversions, building a relationship with a consumer is a natural part of the process. However, later, the same attention may not be put into maintaining the relationship long-term. Customers place their trust in the brands they use, and organizations need to be more willing to reassure their customers that that trust is not misplaced.

A commitment to honesty and transparency is a great way to reinforce those relationships you’ve put so much work into developing.

Diversify, specialize, and integrate

Within the marketing team at GitLab, there are nine different groups, all responsible for different and specific aspects of GitLab’s marketing operations. From field marketing (focusing on the needs of a specific geographic location) to sales development (assisting with the buying process), each of these groups provides customers with valuable resources and support through every stage of the customer journey.

Specialization allows team members to cultivate essential knowledge in specific areas, which enables them to assist users more efficiently. You wouldn’t go to an optometrist for a broken ankle; equally, it doesn’t make sense to ask a sales representative to manage a digital marketing campaign. After all, it’s much better to know a lot about one thing than a little about many things. It also allows greater focus within the team. Without having to bounce between several disparate tasks, team members can refine their primary processes to find the best possible methods.

None of this would work, though, without collaboration. There’s that word again. While GitLab’s marketing team has these various groups to handle different specialties, each group works in tandem with the others to produce a consistent message and identity for GitLab. Corporate marketing is aware of what community relations is doing; operations communicates with management, and so on.

5 Essential Lessons From Gitlab's Marketing Playbook: Diversify, specialize, integrate
(Source)

Within the playbook, each group’s responsibilities and scope is clearly defined, as well as linked to that group’s position descriptions and handbook. This enhances communication between the teams, and makes it clear who is most capable to handle which issue. If a team member is unsure about something, they can quickly find the right person to ask by simply checking the playbook.

Marketing teams need to be willing to try new channels and explore new innovations; it is a constantly evolving field. As such, teams also need to utilize the talent best suited to maximizing the potential of those channels, but still be able to coordinate with other groups and departments within the organization.

Communication works if you work at it

This next lesson isn’t strictly related to marketing, but it is an important one all the same – and one that is often overlooked or pushed down the priority list. Remote companies are generally used to the idea of asynchronous communication; when your team members are all over the world, it’s inevitable. But now – with so many companies unexpectedly making the move to work-from-home scenarios, adopting the principles of asynchronous communication is a matter of survival. And, honestly, even in-person office scenarios could benefit from these communication methods as well.

GitLab has a few policies in place to handle this. They’re simple things that seem obvious, but the act of formalizing them in the playbook gives them more weight. We’ve all had (or heard of) those managers who said a work/life balance is important, but really expected teams to regularly put in extra hours at night or on weekends.

Take this policy from GitLab’s playbook:

“Try not to email co-workers on weekends. Time off is important. We all have stressful weeks so please unplug on the weekends where possible.”

With this very basic statement incorporated into their communication protocols, GitLab is showing that team members are viewed as individuals, not simply workers. It also acknowledges the unique challenge of WFH where it is so, so easy to let work blend into life when you never really leave the office.

5 Essential Lessons From GitLab's Marketing Playbook: Disconnect
(Source)

For many of us, if a work message pops up out of work hours, we might be tempted to take the two or three minutes to answer it. But that is a slippery slope. So by advising team members to hold off – take a moment to think: can this communication wait until Monday? – GitLab is reinforcing the need for downtime.

Again, it’s a simple statement. It seems basic and obvious, but let’s not kid ourselves. When was the last time you completely took a whole weekend off work? (Thinking about that new campaign coming up and what the copy should say counts as work, by the way.)

Mostly, though, GitLab’s communication policies are about efficiency on one hand, but also about respecting your teammates. The policies include things like: show up for meetings on time, answer emails promptly (or at least acknowledge receipt if the issue can’t be completed yet), prioritize action items that need to be addressed.

In essence, while you’re building relationships and personalizing interactions with your customer base, remember to do the same for your team. Don’t forget that there’s a person on the other side of the screen, and that, even if you aren’t in the same room, you’re still collaborating with each other to reach your goals.

Tap into your talent pool

5 Essential Lessons From GitLab's Marketing Playbook: Ideas
(Source)

Great ideas can come from anywhere, and GitLab obviously understands that.

Contact information for every person within the marketing team is organized and easily searchable within the playbook. Not only that, though, but procedures for specific instances – suggesting an idea, drawing attention to an issue, making a change, etc. – and who best to talk to about it are also clearly laid out. And not only that, but users are encouraged to contribute and make edits as well.

GitLab could easily say: No, we only want X group suggesting features for Z project. Many organizations operate just like that. GitLab, however, first has the awareness to realize not only are their employees capable, intelligent, and creative individuals with the ability to troubleshoot a wide variety of tasks. Second, they also know their customer base is made primarily from equally talented, creative, and innovative individuals who have a lot to contribute to the overall experience of GitLab’s application.

This ties in with the integration lesson as well: collaboration is at the heart of evolution. Humans cannot grow or thrive in isolation. Products, brands, and organizations are no different. At some point, you need to invite new voices in to get alternate perspectives and notice things you missed, or might not have thought of at all.

It often happens when working on a project that you get so focused on this detail or that detail that you miss out on the whole picture and hit a wall. Then someone else comes in and is quickly able to point out an approach you hadn’t considered. Even large companies need help from time to time, and establishing that give and take of ideas and information early will solidify team collaboration as part of your company culture.

Refocus your focus

GitLab has implemented a policy called “Focus Fridays.” Every week, Friday is devoted entirely to a day of deep-focus on milestones and projects in production. This means that team members get a full day of uninterrupted work to really dig into whatever task they need to complete.

This tactic stuck out for me in particular because it’s something a few of us on the Process Street marketing team have started doing as well. Obviously, being part of a team means working with others, but it’s also good to go off by yourself from time to time and remove any interruptions. I know for myself there are some days where I just get nothing done because I have meetings scheduled at weird intervals, or someone has a question or needs help, which takes me away from what I’m working on at the moment.

5 Essential Lesson From GitLab's Marketing Playbook: Focus
(Source)

Having even just one day a week where all those distractions and interruptions are removed has given my productivity a boost, and provided the opportunity to catch up on tasks that I’ve fallen behind on for various reasons. Experimenting with different ways of working – such as the 4-day work week or the digital nomad lifestyle – are becoming more and more relevant as societies and cultures change. Making a change like this can be intimidating; what if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t produce our deliverables?

Those are real possibilities, and every new system has its teething problems in the beginning, but it’s also necessary for organizations to think about how their people work best. Is one of your writers more of a 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. worker? Does your field marketing team operate more efficiently by alternating days off rather than having them together? What strategies can you implement to best help your team members be more productive and reach their full potential?

For GitLab, Focus Friday is still in the experimental stage, but I look forward to seeing what results come from it and whether or not they decide to implement it permanently. At any rate, it’s a reminder that there are many ways for companies to innovate, and sometimes it really is the smallest measures that have the greatest impact.

Key marketing takeaways

To be honest, I’ve barely scraped the surface of everything included in GitLab’s marketing playbook. Even with that very superficial reading, however, it’s obvious that GitLab is focused on trying new things and evolving as an organization in the best way possible. They’ve chosen to do this by focusing on the people involved in their organization – their employees, their users, and their contributors – and, as a result, have created a tight-knit community of people wholly invested in what GitLab has to offer.

As trends go, I think that consumers will continue to be more and more discriminating about the brands and organizations they share information with, and companies will either need to choose the path of transparency, or be forced to. In that respect, GitLab is ahead of the curve.

From reading through their policies, mission, and ethos, it’s very apparent that GitLab places great value on people and ideas, and understands the importance of sharing knowledge freely. If other companies make the move to follow in GitLab’s footsteps, the marketing industry could experience some interesting changes.

What lessons have you learned as a marketer? What advice would you give newbies to the industry trying to figure it all out? What do you think of GitLab’s approach to marketing?

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Leks Drakos

Leks is a rogue academic with a PhD in contemporary fiction from the University of Kent (Paris and Canterbury). Hobbies include post-apocalyptica, street photography, and monster studies. Twitter: @leksikality [he/him]


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