Is the lack of open source marketing a problem?

Is the lack of open source marketing a problem?

Summary: Strategic leadership in open source is like herding cats, and thus giving everyone the same marketing direction becomes nearly impossible. It leaves most projects without the scale to compete when what they're doing becomes really hot.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Open Source
17

MarketingOpen source requires a stripped-down business model. With no product revenues coming in, and with service often priced at a mark-up of time, a lot of frills have to go.

Marketers hate to be considered a frill, but in this case some are. There are very few open source marketers. The best ones don't seem like marketers at all, but evangelists (in the technology sense). This leads some observers to scratch their heads and start comparing open source to religion, which it's not. (This image, titled marketing, is from Markzware, which produces software for marketers. Hopefully they will see this and join our discussion.)

As any economic movement scales, however, the need for strategic thinking increases, and good marketing is nothing if not strategic. So the question occurs again, is the lack of open source marketing a problem?

In a strategic sense, yes, the movement is vulnerable. Strategic leadership in open source is like herding cats, and thus giving everyone the same marketing direction becomes nearly impossible. This leaves most projects without the scale to compete when what they're doing becomes really hot.

There are exceptions projects that are so Internet-dependent and basic that they create scale, and enough revenue to afford marketing, as if by magic. Google is an example of that, but does Google really do marketing? (They certainly don't do advertising.)

I think all business problems are opportunities in disguise, and I feel IBM has taken great advantage of this one. Could someone else? Could you, for instance? How?

Topic: Open Source

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

17 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Used software salesmen

    [Marketers hate to be considered a frill, but in this case some are.]

    FORD certainly considers them a frill, as they have layed off hundreds in the last month.

    Maybe you can compare open source to evolution. Evolution is a chaotic system (non-linear), where random events and environmental factors create multitudes of mutations (compare to OSS having many different programs that do similar things). A majority of these mutations are for naught, and the resultant creature(s) dies out. This "Survival of the fittest" paradigm means that at any one time, most of the creatures are well adapted to their environment - but not all.

    Religeous zealots cannot apply "order" to the system (i.e. pattern match it into the first book of the bible), so evolution NEVER gets accepted by EVERYONE. Compare that to the OSS "ecosystem". The myriad of software projects - some well done, some "not well adapted to their environment" - is not "ordered". Guess what, it will NEVER BE ORDERED! But over time, "dominant" softwares will appear.


    As for the marketing part of OSS, compare it to the Commodore Amiga. The Amiga was FAR ahead of its time, and was a fantastic machine by ANY stretch of the imagination. Commodore spent NO MONEY on marketing (in the USA). The Amiga sold very well here, thanks to word-of-mouth advertising (HAM radio enthusiasts were the early adopters and spread the word). If C= had spent ANY money on R&D, then the Amiga might still be around . . .


    In conclusion:

    1) Marketers are a dime a dozen.
    2) Order comes from Chaos, Order cannot be applied to Chaos.
    3) $0 marketing CAN work.
    Roger Ramjet
    • Interesting explanaition

      and analogies you used there. However, still while Amiga did not spend too much money into marketing, how much would it have sold should they have used marketing and advertising? We'll never know, but can see how does that apply to other projects and products.

      May be it is not very important that Mozilla ran a non-profit (0 money spent, I think) ad campaign, just visit the http://www.takebacktheweb.org site for instance, where you can get a nice wallpaper and a link to download Firefox, or http://www.spreadfirefox.com, and take a look at the marketing forums (main page, left hand side, just bellow the login prompt). There's free marketing and advertising.
      thetargos
  • Marketing...

    ...is the science of bringing to bear exhaustive statistical, empirical and psychological methodologies and tools to completely misread a potential consumer pool.

    Seriously, as someone who owns an ad agency, I can tell you that marketing is more black art than science and the folks in Marketing are as often wrong as right (possibly more often wrong than right). Best Marketing snafu in IT: IBM's marketing folks telling top brass that the world would jump on the Microbus architecture if IBM lead the way. Marketing didn't account for a thousand small companies banding together and forming their own competing standard--and then selling that standard at a much lower price point. Paying a crew to hang around down at the Mall passing out questionaires didn't turn up Consumer Opinion Vectors that pointed in this direction. The computer industry is like that. You never know where your competition will be coming from the day after tomorrow, or what will be hot. Next most famous IT marketing snafu: Microsoft's insistence (as recently as '96, if I recall--well after the phenomena was snowballing) that the Internet was just a passing fad and Mom and Pop had no use for a WAN.

    Quite possibly, the lack of a "decisive" marketing is a plus for Open Source. "Marketing" is what you do when you don't have a strong concept for your product or service and you're desperately trying to affect some sort of "product differentiation." It's a direct relationship: the weaker your product/service offering, the harder you must market to gain traction. And yes, perhaps 99% of companies are caught in this dilemma. They don't offer much to differentiate Brand X from the Other Guy's Brand Y.

    Open Source is a very strong concept that has caught on big. It doesn't need any help. To the Corporate World, it appears to need more "Marketing." To the vast majority of computer users, who aren't part of the corporate world, it's already established--it a buzzword bouncing around in their craniums already and nothing else is needed. Just last week, a 71-year-old client of mine was telling me about her son using Linux. I'd kill to be able to deliver that sort of Brand Identification to any of my clients selling to the moneyed post-50 crowd. When you get everyone from teenagers to the Golden Years folks putting your product's name on their lips, you've hit it completely out of the ballpark.

    Here's how "Marketers" would have evaluted a popular TV ad campaign from a few years ago:

    "Well, the product isn't even mentioned for the first 27 seconds of this 30 second spot; there are no human pitchment presented at all; there are only 4 words spoken during the entire spot and those words aren't even in the native language of the viewers! Our evaluation: this campaign is a total failure from a marketing perspective."

    The TV spot? The Taco Bell "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" ads (you remember--the spots with the Chihuahua), only the second or third most-successful ad campaign in the history of TV advertising/marketing.
    Yen_z
  • Marketing is out

    In his keynote address at the Open Source Business Conference, Larry Augustin shared the astounding statistic (from Goldman Sachs) that for proprietary software companies:

    76% of New License revenue today goes to sales and marketing

    Augustin drew the conclusion that traditional software licensing is largely used to charge customers to convince them that they need the software!

    Open Source companies largely depend upon viral-marketing and self-identifying customers. It is really quite simple - keep putting value out there and - since most Open Source companies are services-based - offer damn good customer service.

    Open Source companies that are VC funded will be forced into using the traditional marketing avenues and inevitably will fall into the same trap that Augustin brings to our attention.
    jason@...
    • Software Sales & Marketing Expense

      Unfortunately, of the 76% that Larry identifies, the bulk of it is spent on direct sales, rather than real marketing. Most startups fail to recognize the importance and value of marketing and opt for hiring direct sales which is ineffective, costly, and rarely produces the desired results. This is a tradegy since most technology startups fail due to missing revenue goals which can almost always be attributed to poor marketing, rather than sales.

      This is true whether the product is open source or not. Bringing on a direct, commissioned sales force without a solid marketing team will bring a startup to its knees. CEOs and VCs who miss this little point, will find themselves exploring new opportunities quickly.

      For a startup, give me a strong market group, with no sales force any day. A strong inside team that can close deals can be built around the product and the marketing group. For software firms, I wouldn't look at a direct outside team until sales are well on their way.
      BigChip
  • Marketing is a huge issue

    OSS needs a lot of help in this area. No question.
    opensourcepro
  • Very interesting

    I've been concerned about the lack of marketing oss for a long time. Just today, I wrote about this very topic on my blog:

    http://featherston.blogspot.com/2005/08/open-source-marketing.html
    sigmaman
    • Heed Augustin's message

      Focusing on marketing, PR hits, etc. dilutes your value. Disintermediation is where it is at. This includes removing as much of the sales & marketing cruft as possible. When you stop and think about it - it's the most efficient business model.
      jason@...
  • Marketing requires a goal? What is this goal?

    I mean before you can market something (anything) you must identify both the market segment and what your goals are within it. I've never seen any such thing from OSS other that to say it "does everything"...
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • goal = mandate

      What you call a goal, I call a mandate. Perhaps it's semantics but a mandate focuses on what the value is of a product or solution (and the consumer can decide whether it meets their business need or not). A goal focuses sales and marketing efforts on capturing X% of the market.
      jason@...
      • Is that true?

        I mean if my mandate is to build the best buggy whip in history it still doesn't sell the product to the end user.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • Adding OSS Product Features

          Exactly.

          Just putting features and functionality out there doesn't do it. Expecting the OSS community to "get the word out" is a horrible mistake as well, particularly when that "community" doesn't represent the end user target market or decision makers.
          BigChip
  • Marketing Not Required

    The function of marketing is founded on three principles:
    - Customers need a channel to feed back to their suppliers;
    - Customers don't know you, or your product or service, exist; and
    - Competition needs to be understood and managed.

    The first principle comes into focus when one has customers (i.e. when your company has matured a little) - but they don't think your product or service is as good as it could be (is it ever?). So marketing fulfills the role of collating feedback, working through the cost/benefit anlayses of investment in changes, and taking the message on pricing, timescales, and features, back to the customers.

    OSS doesn't have most of this problem because:
    - The customers are often part of the supply community;
    - Costs of change are minimal because most development is done by volunteers anyway;
    - OSS, as a development environment, is faster than commercial development so timescales are typically not a problem;
    - Small groups of customers requiring a small change can manage it themselves - having a supplier in the loop slows things down;
    - and so on...

    Indeed, this could be said to be one of the main attractions of OSS.

    However, there are two higher level feedback activities where OSS struggles to match commercial marketing:

    1) Integration. Although some groups of much used OSS (e.g. LAMP) and a few major centers of excellence (e.g. Apache) are starting to pull together OSS projects in order to compete against the major commercial software ecosystems (Microsoft, IBM, and in about two years Oracle too... ) they still lag behind largely because they miss the marketing clout of thousands (maybe tens of thousands?) of product/service marketers calling each other and setting up integration projects. This may seem like a minor gripe but think; just how long have we been waiting for the Linux community to decide how they will design Desktop Linux? When they have finished, maybe, someday, we will get to work out exactly how long it will take before we can set a Desktop Linux against Windows...

    Yes, I know that desktop is not a Linux target. But that is precisely my point. IBM has no problem putting an integrated platform story in front of their customers because they fill gaping holes in the OSS story with their own proprietray solutions. Microsoft's story is even stronger: "It all just plugs together."

    2) Standards. The big commercial companies often charge OSS with taking the fruits of their labors - through the adoption of IPR-free standards - and free riding. OSS lacks the PR/Marketing kick to fight back and point out the many times when commercial companies have benefited from the OSS approach. However, the above is a minor problem compared to the strategic use of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and marketing-steered employee power deployed by commercial companies to control standards, the direction that standards organisations take, the way in which standards develop, etc.. OSS is constantly on the back foot over this major tilt in the playing field for software market share.

    The second principle of marketing is OSS Achille's heel. OSS, by winning the support of it's closest allies (programmers, software architects, and systems admins) has made itself into Geek's World. If I'm a business owner of, say, a plant nursery, OSS sounds to me like a lot of crazy crackers who want me to use dodgy software so that they can use backdoors to crack open my databases and their friends can charge me lots of money to fix a lot of technical spaggetti that I don't understand. You and I know that this is nothing like the real World of OSS, but the very fact that such perceptions are out there is a reason to think that OSS needs marketing if it is too succeed beyond the ICT departments of large corporations and student experiments.

    People like that small businessman need to know what's out there, what it does for them, how easy it is to use, how secure it is, and and and...

    This requires some co-ordination between the major proponents of OSS. Although many will resist, saying that this is antithetical to their belief in a free-market, free-thinking, fre-wheeleing, OSS community it is essential that we reach some kind of agreement on presentation standards and and OSS community management. Sites like freshmeat and sourceforge are a good first step, but they don't go far enough in promoting the harder to define stuff - like the fact that OSS is typically more robust and secure.

    Most commercial companies do not even think about this sort of thing - because their marketing departments do this in their sleep. But, it is absolutely vital to understand that most people who buy software are like most people who buy cars - they haven't got the first idea what happens under the hood, and most of them struggle to understand how to use the controls and the rules of the road (I trust no supporting evidence is required here... ). But, dim or not, without their support OSS will always play second fiddle to commercial software.

    That customers need to be understood and managed might seem, at first, to be the same as collecting and collating customer feedback. But this is something much more subtle, and powerful. The best marketing departments lead their company's development in two ways:
    - Iteration (a better mousetrap every year); and
    - Expansion.

    Listening to customers gripes and suggestions covers the first activity - but not the second.

    To expand we need to think creatively. It might, for example, require an acquisition, an entirely new product line, a collaboration, a new standard, or the co-operation of a group in another industry.

    Commercial companies are running rings around OSS on this front. The only reason for this is that OSS is led by a drive for technical excellence, and not by new ideas being brought in from outside.

    You could argue (and I would agree that it is, at least partially, true) that OSS has come into existence without having to think about how it integrates into specific applications such as business processes, government structures, cross-industry developments (lest we forget, the Net is the future of television - and that is just one simple example of many), personal networking, and so on...

    I suppose it depends on how amituous you are, personally, for OSS to support the positive changes to society that the Net makes possible and, often, probable.

    If you are not ambitious for OSS (and we all follow your lead) then OSS is destined to become a backwater of the lowest-level standardization supporting a higher layer of commercial ICT implementation of the future.

    Unfortunately, I believe that the worst elements of commercial activism will then skew the future into something that is ugly. IPR and standards are merely the beginning.

    If, on the other hand, you are ambitious for OSS (as I am) then you will see that there is a crying need for OSS to grow beyond it's technical roots and become something more substantial - something more like the center of a movement for defending the democratization that the Net is capable of bringing.

    I hope, after all that, you can see that OSS needs marketing.
    Stephen Wheeler
    • The Marketing Ps

      I tend to think of the marketing function in terms of the Ps [makes it easy for me to remember]:
      - Product
      - Performance
      - Pricing
      - Promotion
      - Packaging
      - Profitability

      Of course these are simplifications, with each topic having a large number of subcatagories. The problem I see at Technology corps, particularly OSS corps, is that they tend to think of Marketing as demand generation and sales, which are just two small subsets of the Marketing function.

      That's not marketing, that's a plan for disaster.

      I'd much rather have OSS companies put their products and businesses in the context of the basic Ps, and then do what they need to get to market profitably.

      Stop worrying about your proprietary competitors and concern yourself with differentating your product with the competition. Stop trying to sell your customers on the merits of open source software and start listening and understanding their needs. They have problems to solve and care passionately about solving them. Having the source code is secondary.

      And for Pete's sake, don't expect "word of mouth marketing" from the community to sell your product. Get your product and message out there to your ultimate product consumer.
      BigChip
  • Just look at Firefox

    Firefox is one of the most, if not the most, widely adopted pieces of open source software out there. It's a good piece of software, but it certainly has its glaring imperfections, and it's hardly the best piece of open source software out there. So how did it become so popular?

    I think there can be two reasons. One is that the compitition is lacking. While that can be said of IE, you can't say that about Opera, although Firefox is free and Opera either must be purchased or used with adware. The other reason, and I think this is the bigger reason, is that Firefox advertised. It got the word out.

    Word of mouth got the ball rolling, but that alone would not have given Firefox that much traction. I think it had to do with the fact that Firefox ran an ad in the NY Times. Only one ad, I know, but it was strategically placed and it got the attention of another circle of people who started their own word of mouth advertisement. I think it was getting the attention of that other circle of people that got Firefox rolling.
    Michael Kelly
  • Marketing is dead. Long live marketing!

    At a basic level, open source is about community and collaboration. Building a community is hard work. There are some amazing developers are also happen to be amazing marketers. Through their hard work they have built communities that are incredibly valueable for users/buyers/customers.

    Guess what...this is marketing. It may not look like marketing but it is.

    It is different from "closed source" marketing because the customer is assumed to be an equal and therefore a valuable contributor to the success of future product iterations.

    It is my opinion that the difference between "closed" and "open" source marketing is ultimately respect for the customer.

    If we define marketing as hucksterism, then yes, I agree with you...marketing is dead.

    However, if convincing the customer to become an equal participant in the development cycle remains a challenge, then long live marketing.

    Ben Bradley
    www.bwmginc.com
    benbradley
  • Servers - no; desktops - yes

    Marketing would help solidify the hold Linux has on web servers, and could help broaden its appeal to other server duties.

    On the desktop, Linux marketing is severely lacking, IMO. As I've always said, it's a different market. It's not like selling someone on a server platform.

    Linux vendors can take two directions with this. They can either sell it as a kind of "desktop kiosk" where the system comes with a package of applications all set up and ready to go, to carry out a few common functions, like web browsing, e-mail, and writing documents, and that's it, or, they can sell them as general desktop systems that can run a variety of software. The latter is a tougher challenge as it also requires some partners who will agree to market their Linux-compatible products in conjunction with your Linux marketing, so that people get the idea that they're not just buying an OS. They're buying into a software ecosystem that's playing by the same "songbook".

    The second aspect is distribution. People need to know where they can find these products. If it's only available online, it needs to be easy to find, get, and install. If they don't know how to navigate the web, some interface needs to be offered that simplifies this process. Linspire has tried an idea along these lines, basically being the source of first resort when its customers want to install software they don't already have.

    Even today, I'd say it's preferable to get software into distribution outlets like CompUSA, Wal-Mart, and/or others like Target. Getting a product that way is intuitive to people.
    Mark Miller