open source marketing

In Deirdré Straughan’s talk at Open Source Summit, she explained common marketing approaches and why they’re important for open source projects.

The widely experienced and indefatigable Deirdré Straughan presented a talk at Open Source Summit NA on how to market an open source project. Deirdré currently works with open source at Amazon Web Services (AWS), although she was not representing the company at the time of her talk. Her experience also includes stints at Ericsson, Joyent, and Oracle, where she worked with cloud and open source over several years.

Through it all, Deirdré said, the main mission in her career has been to “help technologies grow and thrive through a variety of marketing and community activities.” This article provides highlights of Deirdré’s talk, in which she explained common marketing approaches and why they’re important for open source projects.

Why you have to market free stuff

So, what is marketing? At its most basic, she said, marketing is about getting people to exchange their money for goods and services. So you might think: “Marketing is about selling. Open source is free. I don’t have to try to sell anything, so why would I need marketing?”

open source marketing

Deirdré Straughan

But, you are selling something. You are selling ideas, and the currency you are requesting in return is something extremely valuable, which is people’s time and attention. That may feel counterintuitive, because open source generally means giving something away, but it does have substance and it does have worth. In fact, it is so worthwhile  that people contribute time, money, talent, and effort to the cause. However, they can only do that if they are aware of your project and convinced of the value of supporting it.

Additionally, competition is fierce, said Deirdré. To succeed, your project must compete for attention and support with some 25 and a half million other open source projects. Thus, open source marketing is about capturing very scarce attention and resources in a very crowded environment. It’s about attracting people and resources to your project, which can be difficult to do.

According to Deirdré, the main resource projects need is people — their time and effort. They may be people who use your project, or they may be contributors. Of those who are contributors, some will work independently, often in their spare time. Others may be assigned a project by their employer, or, as is increasingly common, be specifically hired to work on a particular open source project.

“And, yes, in some cases, you are also asking for money. We would all like to believe that pure technical goodness will be rewarded, and that we should never have to think about money. However, most of us need some money to survive,” she said.

Open source is increasingly supported by companies, but many companies are unsure about which projects to invest in. To succeed, your project needs to rise above the crowd and to attract not just independent contributors, but also companies that could offer material support.

Common points of failure in marketing

“Even so, marketing often fails to happen in open source. A common reason is that many people in tech despise marketing. But you shouldn’t automatically recoil from the mere mention of marketing, because you need to be doing it if you want to survive. It will be difficult to do marketing well, if you go into it thinking it’s sleazy,” Deirdré said.

Sometimes resistance to marketing comes from a literal machismo, according to Deirdré. Marketing is considered a soft skill, a job for women, as opposed to the (ahem) “manly” work of coding. It is perceived as a lower-status role (until you get to the VP or CMO level). Other reasons for lack of marketing involve lack of funding, or simply the fact that nobody working on a project happens to know how to do it.

At its best, Deirdré said, marketing helps people understand what the technology is about, and how they can use it. It is a form of  communication that is informative, truthful, convincing, and even inspiring.

Marketing tools

There are many marketing tools readily available. First in importance, Deirdré said, is your code. GitHub is your resumé. Your basic code should be architectured purposefully and offer the capability to write libraries or modules so that the barriers to entry for a newcomer are fairly low. It should be well coded and offer tools that help people learn to use and contribute to your project.  

A common pitfall relates to documentation. Many companies don’t bother with it, but documentation will help attract people to your project. Documentation usually explains all the commands and parameters and what the output means. This information is necessary, but insufficient. Additional types of documentation are needed, according to Deirdré, such as, white papers, blogs, video, podcasts, and conference talks.

Once you’ve created all this content, you need a place to put it. Obviously, a GitHub repo is necessary, but you’ll also need a website and/or wiki.

Discoverability is crucial, Deirdré said. You have created all this content, but people still have to find it. Toward that end, you should be cautious about project names. For example, if your project name is also a common word, searching for it is going to be difficult. To maximize results in a search engine, you can use keyword tags and categories that will help people find your project.

Search engine optimization is an arcane art. Being on the first page of search results for a keyword is extremely valuable. For that reason, “SEO best practice changes frequently, as search engines are in an arms race with the black hats who want to game search results,” she said. “You can easily find recent tips and tricks on how to improve your rankings. However, it usually takes about a year to make any real progress in search engine rankings. You’ll need patience.”


Everything that touches the customer is marketing, Deirdré said. For example, consider airlines. Everything about the airline experience affects what consumers  think about the airline. From buying a ticket, the check-in process, boarding, the plane ride and experience, the atmosphere of the airport, timeliness in departures and arrivals, and whether luggage arrived on time and unscathed — all of these processes and experiences help shape the consumer’s opinion of the brand.

“This is also true for technology, and especially for communities and projects. Everything that somebody experiences around your project — good or bad — affects their perception of that project and whether they are going to want to participate in it,” she said.

So, community is important. Community culture is important, as is diversity.  Nurture your community. If your open source community is not diverse, ask yourself why, and think about how you can attract a wider range of participation.

Diversity also means diversity of contribution. Does your project recognize and value contribution beyond just the code? Again, you’re asking people to help you do this work, so make sure that they’re recognized for it.

Kindness also matters

Look closely at the newbie experience. What is it like onboarding someone to your technology? Think, too, about growing pains. Projects, like startups, can reach a critical inflection point, when there is rapid success but things start to fall apart, because there just aren’t enough people to respond quickly.

“In conclusion, I’d like you to take away that marketing is not evil. You may already be doing it. You just may not think of some of what you’re doing as marketing,” Deirdré said.

“And marketing, particularly that which is appropriate for open source, is mostly stuff you’re probably already doing, or at least know how to do. There are even people out there who would love to help. They’re just waiting to be asked.”

Deirdré Straughan is the Content Lead for the AWS Open Source Community Engagement team. Her work for AWS includes the new AWS Open Source blog and @AWSOpen on Twitter. You can find her at @deirdres on Twitter.

Sunday I will partake in something I’ve never tried before: a Tough Mudder (TM).  If you’re not familiar with this event, it’s a 10-12 mile run with an obstacle about every half mile. Most people participate with a team, and it’s generally not timed.  It looks something like this:

(Electroshock Therapy – all pics from

I’ll admit I’m a little nervous. Will I be able to make it through the obstacles? What happens if I wear out and let my teammates down?

But I think I have a secret weapon. It’s not miles of running or hundreds of pull-ups and pushups. It’s not having the right gear…

It’s participating in open source.

Yep, I think that having participated in open source – specifically in the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) project where I’m on the TSC — will be the differentiator in helping me get through the Tough Mudder.  It all comes down applying what I’ve learned in open source to the obstacles along the way…

Lesson #1: You’re going to get dirty

Open source is not always a clean process.  It doesn’t run top-down like software development inside of most companies. There will be things that go wrong. People will have differences of opinion. You have to expect it and find a way to work through it. In ONAP we had to merge two different projects (OpenECOMP and Open-O) into our first release due in November. There was overlap between the projects, and (naturally) pride of ownership.  But the community made the tough decisions and did the hard work to bring the best of each project into the final product.

Knowing I’m going to get dirty, I’m now prepared for the Mud Mile…

Lesson #2:  It can be intimidating

If you’ve never worked in open source before, getting involved can be intimidating. Everyone seems so smart, what can I possibly contribute?  I’ve learned that you can start small with documentation, testing, or easy bug fixes, and as you build up your reputation, you can take on more responsibility.

Knowing that it can be intimidating, I’m now ready for the King of the Swingers.

Lesson #3: You can do things that you’ve never imagined

The great thing about open source is that it’s often tackling new and interesting problems. Many of the best new technologies today are coming from open source, and if you participate, you can say that you helped build it. In ONAP, we’re working on making the network virtualized & running it at a scale never seen, while still keeping the 100-year-old expectation that the network will always work. Big stuff.

Knowing that I can do things I never imagined, I’m ready for Funky Monkey the Revolution

(OK, maybe not… that looks really hard)

Lesson #4: If you work as a team, you can accomplish your goal

Possibly the best part about open source is how people work together for a common goal — not just a group from a single company, but people from around the globe. In the ONAP project, it’s not unusual to be on calls with people from China, India, France, Canada, and the US all at once. Some of us are even competitors. But, we know that only by working together can we build great software and make automated NFV (Network Function Virtualization) a reality.

Knowing that not just my team, but all Tough Mudders will have my back, I’m ready to tackle the Pyramid Scheme.

So, wish me luck on Sunday. If my open source lessons fail me, then I guess it means I should’ve done more pullups!

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Measure success

Measuring Your Open Source Program’s Success is a free guide to help any organization learn exactly how their open source program is driving business value.

Open source programs are proliferating within organizations of all types, and if yours is up and running, you may have arrived at the point where you want to measure the program’s success. Many open source program managers are required to demonstrate the ROI of their programs, but even if there is no such requirement, understanding the metrics that apply to your program can help optimize it. That is where the free Measuring Your Open Source Program’s Success guide comes in. It can help any organization measure program success and can help program managers articulate exactly how their programs are driving business value.

Once you know how to measure your program’s success, publicizing the results — including the good, the bad, and the ugly — increases your program’s transparency, accountability, and credibility in open source communities. To see this in action, check out example open source report cards from Facebook and Google.

Facebook’s open source program office periodically posts the month-over-month results from its open source projects internally and sends an executive report to management. “Reports are just a good way to raise awareness,” said Christine Abernathy, Open Source Developer Advocate at Facebook. “Even though Facebook places a high value on open source (as an organization), it’s still always a good thing to market yourself internally all the time and show your value.”

Existing tools can help you measure program success. You can begin by setting up the right tools for collecting data and make sure the data sources are clean and in a format that everyone can understand. Many organizations create a dashboard of metrics for their open source programs, to track all of the data in one place and provide project snapshots that can help assess progress at a glance. (See our guide on Tools for Managing Open Source Programs.)

Key metrics for measuring open source program success

There are countless ways to measure success and track progress for open source programs. Project health isn’t the only thing to track, but is important. “How do you actually get the smartest people in the world working at your company?” asks Chris Aniszczyk, Executive Director of the Open Container Initiative and COO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (and former head of open source programs at Twitter). “Well, you open source stuff and then you convince them to contribute to your projects.”

It helps to be able to quantify project health. GitHub’s guide on open source metrics gives a great overview of what project maintainers should pay attention to.  Some key project metrics to track are:

  • Number of contributors (and ratio of internal to external contributors)
  • Number of pull requests submitted, opened and accepted (and time remaining open)
  • Number of issues submitted (and length of time remaining open)
  • Number of commits per contributor (internal and external)
  • Number of external adopters
  • Number of projects created or contributed to (program wide)

Other metrics include popularity and awareness, influence, and program costs. As you delve into these metrics, you can concretely report everything from diversity of contributors to your projects to the number of followers you have across channels.

The Measuring Your Open Source Program’s Success guide can help you with all these initiatives and more, and it explores how to set program goals and measure whether or not they are being met. It is one of a new collection of free guides from The Linux Foundation and The TODO Group that are all extremely valuable for any organization running an open source program. The guides are available now to help you run an open source program office where open source is supported, shared, and leveraged. With such an office, organizations can establish and execute on their open source strategies efficiently, with clear terms.

You can read more in previous articles, on How to Create an Open Source Program and Tools for Managing Open Source Programs. We encourage you to check out all the guides and stay tuned for more coverage of them.

Community manager and author Jono Bacon will provide tips for building and managing open source communities in a free webinar on Monday, July 24 at 9:30am Pacific.

In this webinar, Bacon will answer questions about community strategy and share an in-depth look at this exciting new conference held in conjunction with this year’s Open Source Summit North America, happening Sept. 11-14 in Los Angeles.

The Open Community Conference provides presentations, panels, and Birds-of-a-Feather sessions with practical guidance for building and engaging productive communities and is an ideal place to learn how to evolve your community strategy. The webinar will provide event details as well as highlights from the conference schedule, which includes such talks as:

  • Building Open Source Project Infrastructures – Elizabeth K. Joseph, Mesosphere

  • Scaling Open Source – Lessons Learned at the Apache Software Foundation – Phil Steitz, Apache Software Foundation

  • Why I Forked My Own Project and My Own Company – Frank Karlitschek, ownCloud

  • So You Have a Code of Conduct… Now What? – Sarah Sharp, Otter Tech

  • Fora, Q&A, Mailing Lists, Chat…Oh My! – Jeremy Garcia, / Datadog

Also, if you post questions on Twitter with the #AskJono hashtag about community strategy, leadership, open source, or the conference, you’ll get a chance to win a free ticket to the event (including all the sessions, networking events, and more).

Join us July 24, 2017 at 9:30am Pacific to learn more about community strategy from Jono Bacon. Sign Up Now »

Check out the session highlights for the new Diversity Empowerment Summit (DES), which will take place Sept. 14, 2017, in Los Angeles as part of Open Source Summit North America.

Featured sessions and speakers for DES include:

  • Chaos Theory + Civil Liberties = 21st Century Corporate Practices – Kate Ertmann, GO

  • Open Your Arms to Open Source – Solutions to Bring in Social Innovation to All Walks of Life All Over the World – Arpana Durgaprasad, IBM

  • You’re Not a *Real* Software Engineer – Amy Chen, Rancher Labs

  • CO.LAB: A Collaborative, Mobile Learning Experience – John Adams, Red Hat

Other diversity and inclusion activities at Open Source Summit North America include:

Note that registration for DES is included in Open Source Summit registration fees at no additional cost.  Anyone in open source who wants to learn more about furthering diversity and inclusion in the community, as well as the broader technology industry, is encouraged to attend.

Onsite resources to increase accessibility to the event include:

  • Nursing room

  • Complimentary child care

  • Wheelchair & medical equipment rental from One Stop Mobility

  • Quiet room where conversation and interaction are not allowed

  • Communication stickers to indicate an attendee’s requested level of interaction

  • Non-binary restrooms

  • Strictly enforced Code of Conduct

The full lineup of all Open Source Summit North America sessions, including those at the DES, features more than 200 sessions covering everything from Cloud and Containers, to Security and Networking, to Linux and Kernel Development. Register now & Save $150!