The Real Unique Buying Proposition of Open Source Software

Matt Asay urges Open Source software vendors to rethink their marketing stance:

Open-source advocates for years have waved the banners of “freedom” and “no vendor lock-in” to sell the value of open source. It hasn’t worked. Chief information officers don’t buy vague concepts. They buy high-quality software at a compelling price. To better market open-source software to the world, open-source advocates need to match their message to what CIOs actually want to buy.

He furthermore argues that customers don’t care about “no lock-in” as a key reason to buy Open Source and states:

The reality is that open-source vendors should be pitching real value to real customers.

The question of what is reality and what is real is of course a philosophic one. In marketing, we need to be very pragmatic because it is all about the customer and the money, right? Matt’s blog posts sound pragmatic, nevertheless they are too narrow for my taste – perhaps due to his (welcome) intention to get the discussion going. Let my try to offer a broader perspective:

Real freedom

In general, I do agree with Matt that “freedom” might not be the most important Unique Buying Proposition (UBP) to first-time commercial users, but this is not where your marketing should stop. In fact, it seems that the longer someone uses FOSS, the more important the “freedom” aspects become — namely open standards, vendor independence (aka no lock-in), and the free and open source software philosophy.

This means that when pitching an Open Source product or solution, be it by the vendor or partners, “freedom” is nothing you should highlight directly. Instead, mention tangible business benefits such as saving licensing costs, greater flexibility and ability to integrate with third-party software, etc. Free Software advocates might argue that such business benefits simply translate the freedom aspect for CIOs – which makes a lot of sense to me.

Looking at the complete business ecosystem of an Open Source vendor (and not just the sales relationships), tells you that freedom is important for success. For example, every OSS vendor loves to argue that their software is so much more stable than proprietary software due to a large community using and testing it. Freedom is essentially also behind Marten Mickos’ main argument to the EU commission to approve the Oracel/Sun deal:

[…] the vast and free installed base of MySQL is using it of their own free choice, unencumbered by the vendor and under no obligation or restraint.

What this tells an Open Source advocate or sales person is that the CIO-centric business benefits on your product brochure are just as important as good technical documentation for developers that allows to grow a community.

Real regions

The type of engagement varies depending on the region you plan to market and sell to. For example, Open source adoption seems to be driven by commercial engagements in Northern Europe, while Southern and Eastern Europe is characterized by community-driven engagements. In Spain and Italy, users expect free software to be available for free. Clearly, this does not mean that freedom is the main UBP in Spain and Italy, as long as you don’t look at it from the cost perspective. What it actually means is that the partner sales channel is of strategic importance to Open Source vendors in these regions. Partners in Spain and Italy might not mention freedom directly to their potential customers, but they will strongly insist on it when the vendor wants them to sign a costly partner agreement.

What this tells an Open Source advocate or sales person is that different regions require different go-to-market strategies. The cost argument is not always the same one for every region and the freedom argument might just be waiting around the corner, especially when it comes to growing a partner network.

Real propositions

There is not the one and only real UBP. There are several. Each of them have different importance in different regions, let alone the fact that small businesses have different expectations than large corporations.

Most important to Open Source advocates it that there are communication and sales processes in Open Source Marketing that one should take care of. Open Source lead generation begins very early (Twitter, Weblog, etc.) and does not end once you closed a deal. It’s a continuous process. When a customer bought your cost argument, you’d better make sure that this customer can also experience the freedom of using your product. Open up endless opportunities through third-party extensions, technical tutorials and so on. This is how you retain customers in Open Source. It only works if you have built-in freedom into your business ecosystem.

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