Posts

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.”

Community

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.

open source culture

Open source involves a culture of understanding change. It’s about evolution as a group, says Mesosphere’s CMO Peter Guagenti.

In the early days of open source, one of the primary goals of the open source community was educating people about the benefits of open source and why they should use it. Today, open source is ubiquitous. Almost everyone is using it. That has created a unique challenge around educating new users about the open source development model and ensuring that open source projects are sustainable.

Peter Guagenti, CMO at Mesosphere, Inc.

Peter Guagenti, the Chief Marketing Officer at Mesosphere, Inc., has comprehensive experience with how open source works, having been involved with several leading open source projects. He has been a coder, but says that he considers himself a hustler. We talked with him about his role at Mesosphere, how to help companies become good open source citizens, and about the role of culture in open source. Here is an edited version of that interview.

The Linux Foundation: What’s the role of a CMO in an open source software company?

Peter Guagenti: The role of a CMO in a software company is fundamentally different from that in any other category.  We have a really interesting role in marketing and technology, and it’s one of education and guidance. There used to be a place 20 years ago where, as a marketer, you would come up with a simple pithy message and buy a bunch of advertising and people would believe it.

That’s not true anymore. Now we have to position ourselves alongside the architectures and the thought leadership that our customers are interested in to prove our value.

The Linux Foundation: Can you explain more about this approach?

Guagenti: I love that instead of focusing on marketing taglines, you really have to know the technology so customers have the confidence that they will get the support we promise. Since this space is changing so quickly, we spend probably half our time simply on educating and informing about the market and the challenges that customers face.

I don’t think about talking about DCOS, for example; I think about how connected cars are really important but nobody really knows how to build them. We serve six of the largest car makers in the world. So getting them to talk about how they’re approaching this problem — what they think about Edge computing, what they think about computing in the car, or what they think about data and moving that data around. These are the real exciting things.

The Linux Foundation: Can you talk about other work you have done in open source?

Guagenti:  I’m a long-time open source advocate. I’ve been in open source for over 10 years. I built an open source services practice in a large digital agency called Razorfish when I was at a client services there. I’ve spent time at three open source companies: Acquia, which is in the Drupal open source project; Nginx, which is the world’s most popular web server and application delivery controller; and now I am at Mesosphere, the container company.

The Linux Foundation: Open source has become the de facto software development model — almost everyone is consuming open source these days. That creates a new challenge as many new consumers don’t fully understand how open source works, which can lead to problems like not being part of the ecosystem and creating technical debt. Have you come across this problem?

Guagenti: Open source has evolved dramatically over the past 20 years. I would argue 10 years ago you were crazy if you were a Fortune 500 company and you were the CIO and said I’m going to integrate open source everywhere. But now open source is the default. I’ve worked in large state and national governments around the world. I’ve worked in the Fortune 500, and they all have adopted open source. But how they adopt open source successfully is different. If you look company by company, if you look at projects, there is a difference.

There are community-driven models, there are corporate-driven models, and there are things in between where you see things like Kubernetes, where you’ve multiple companies contributing at scale. There is a great mix, but companies don’t always know how to make the best use of that. It becomes critical for them to find the right enterprise that helps them understand how to use and deploy it. More important than that is to help them ensure they are making good decisions with that software and driving the roadmap forward by contributing or at least by being a voice in that.

We take for granted that open source exists, but open source requires involvement—either contribution of code or cash—to keep those projects healthy. We are at a point where open source has been around long enough that we have seen early open source projects just die because they didn’t have core maintainers able to earn a salary.

I was told that every great technology company needs a hacker and a hustler. I was a good coder early on, but I wasn’t great. I’m more of a hustler. I loved being able to see businesses build around open source and then have have that really be the heart of a healthy ecosystem where everyone is able to benefit from that code.

The Linux Foundation: What role does culture play in open source adoption?

Guagenti: It matters. Look at the digital transformation that we have been going through for the last 20 years. Look at the companies that have done it best. You will notice that the old stalwarts have now reinvented themselves in a meaningful way. They are continuing to evolve with the time and are competing effectively. They had a culture where they could embrace and accept a lot of these things.  

If you look at hiring the great technology talent, what’s the number one thing great technology talent expects? They want to work with the tools they want to use. They want to do it in a way that fits their pattern of behavior, their pattern of building these things. It’s not the money, it’s not the stock options, it’s not the fancy work. It’s about the kind of work I want to do everyday and and the way I want to do it.  

I work with some of the largest banks, I work with some of the largest government entities. What I have noticed, with some of the most successful ones, is that they have a culture internally where they understand this stuff. They understand what it means to not just use open source but to be a part of an open source community. Sometimes you do run into hurdles. I work with a lot of large companies that are either not comfortable contributing code back or just simply don’t feel they have the time to do it. But they do their bit in a different way; they may do things like contribute  financially to projects, send people to to events, or actually go and tell their story.

That’s what we do a lot at Mesosphere. Since this space is changing, we love having our largest customers talking about what they’re doing with open source. Their culture matters because it’s not just the culture of open source and using open source. It’s a culture of innovation. It’s a culture of understanding change.  And that’s what open source is all about. It’s about evolution as a group.

Learn more about best practices for sustainable open source in the free Open Source Guides for the Enterprise from The Linux Foundation.