Branding and the Open Source Marketplace

I’m quite busy with transitioning from my life as a consultant to working for Magnolia. Hence, I was not yet able to let you know that opensource.com published yet another article from yours truly.

In the extremely overcrowded open source marketplace, marketing managers find it difficult to think of innovative ways to raise their brand’s visibility. With so many brands jostling for attention, the low signal-to-noise ratio might tempt marketers into adopting an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, attempting every idea from the marketing playbook in the hope that one will stick. However, this would be a mistake: careful niche marketing offers greater opportunities for brand advancements and market share. Let’s see how.

Read more over at opensource.com: Branding and the Open Source Marketplace

Recap: Open Source India 2012

This is a guest post by my esteemed team mate Vikram Vaswani:

A few days ago, I presented a session entitled “Community Matters: Why Open Source Marketing Can Help Improve Your Product” at Open Source India 2012 in Bangalore. In this guest post, I’d like to recap my experiences at the conference and provide some insight into the state of Open Source in India.

  • The conference ran for three days, each addressing different aspects of Open Source technologies and practices. Day 1 was all about mobile app development and cloud deployment, Day 2 was about Web development, kernel development and IT infrastructure management and Day 3, simply entitled “FOSS for Everyone”, was about FOSS technologies, practices and community adoption in India. Needless to say, my session was on Day 3.
  • According to the event organizers, there were more than 1500 registrants in all, and more than 50 speakers. The audience consisted mostly of developers, but there was also a fair sprinkling of IT and project managers. My session took place on Oct 14 in a 1300-seater auditorium. It began 20 minutes later than scheduled mostly because of spillover from a very interesting panel discussion on the role of Indian LUGs in promoting FOSS. Given that it was a Sunday morning, only about 35 seats were full. However, the audience was engaged, interested and receptive to the material in my presentation (slides).
  • My presentation was divided into three main segments: understanding the nature of open source communities; understanding the role of marketing and community development in creating network effects within these communities; and practical tips and techniques for open source vendors to apply in their community marketing programs. There was a lot of information I wanted to communicate and fortunately, I was able to get it all in within the allotted 45-minute window.
  • Given that the next item on the agenda was lunch, I wasn’t surprised that the majority of attendees didn’t wait for questions. However, a few of them did walk over to introduce themselves. We discussed some of the differences between community and corporate marketing and how they were perceived in India, and many of the attendees asked for copies of the slides, either for their own review or to discuss with colleagues.

One of my key takeaways from the various conversations I had after the session was that community development in India is yet to be perceived as a valuable service. Most vendors still prefer to adopt traditional “top down” marketing, rather than the “bottom-up” adoption that’s more common in open source communities. Nevertheless, most of the people I spoke to agreed that community development was gradually becoming more important in India, especially with the growth of home-grown open source vendors, and companies that had the courage and resources to invest in community development and marketing would likely have an advantage.

In summary, the event was well attended, with an informed and tech-savvy audience, and the quality of speakers was extremely high. Photos of the event can be found in its official Twitter feed, and I look forward to attending and speaking at it again next year!

Age of Peers at Open Source India 2012

Open Source India is a well-known annual open source conference in India. This year, it will be held in Bangalore between October 12-14 at the NIMHANS Convention Centre, and my Age of Peers colleague Vikram Vaswani will be presenting a session on October 14 entitled “Community Matters: Why Open Source Marketing Can Help Improve Your Product” which was presented by webmaster who runs The Real SizeGenetics.

In this session, Vikram will be offering a primer on the nature of open source communities, together with information on how open source marketing can help create positive feedback loops and increase community adoption of your product. It promises to be a fun session, so if you’re in Bangalore this weekend, why not drop by and check it out?

My Article on opensource.com: Why Marketing Is For Geeks

Red Hat’s opensource.com has published my article “Marketing open source is made for geeks”, which has a case study and some ideas for how you can take your open source product “across the chasm“. Every open source business ecosystem offers multiple revenue opportunities to exploit. However, to do this successfully, you must have a good understanding of business dynamics within the ecosystems. Armed with this knowledge, you can use open source marketing techniques to raise your credibility and generate sales for your product. Read more

How to Hire Your (Quirky) First Community Manager

This blog post lists some important things you should think about when making your first community manager hire, why credibility is the most important trait of character and why being quirky might be a virtue.

Full Time Job

If you’re an Open Source vendor that is serious about using your community to drive product adoption, then you need to invest as much time and effort in community development as you would in any other business activity, such as marketing or PR. And one of the first things you should do, is hire a full-time community manager, who will engage with the community on your behalf with a view to fostering community growth. Yes, full-time, because only then your community development efforts will start to pay out.

Role and Responsibilities

A community manager serves as the vendor’s representative to the community (the “human face” of the product), and has the big-picture goal of creating strong, mutually beneficial relationships between the vendor, the community and related third-party communities. It’s an important and demanding role, and one which requires both tactical and diplomatic skills. The success of the company’s community development effort depends heavily on how well its community manager wields these skills, and how he or she is perceived by the community.

There are many roles of a community manager, the most important responsiblities are as follows:

Disseminating information: The community manager is responsible for writing blog posts, articles, and tutorials; answering questions in discussion forums and mailing lists; and providing news and updates through social media properties like Twitter, Facebook, and so on. In general, it is the community manager’s responsibility to ensure that there is an abundance of information available to the community on all relevant topics of interest. Of course, this responsibility includes that a community manager coaches and supports staff and active community members in doing the same.

Moderating community-vendor communication: The community manager is an intermediary between the company and the community. This means that he or she is responsible for bringing important community issues to the attention of company management and mediating between the company and the community to find a mutually acceptable solution.

Planning and attending community events: The community manager is responsible for planning community events, such as developer or user group meetings, workshops, BoF/unconference sessions and so on. The community manager is also responsible for attending high profile Open Source events to liaise with peers from other Open Source communities to either raise product adoption or to learn more about community development tactics of other vendors and projects.

Analyzing performance: The community manager is responsible for collecting statistics and success stories to allow top management to understand the effects of community development. The community manager is also responsible for collating community feedback (for example, product feature requests) into actionable items for the company.

Qualifications

First and foremost, a Community Manager needs to be a good (ideally great) communicator. He or she should be fluent in English as well as the native language of the region where the company is based or where its largest market is. This is because the community manager will be constantly interacting with end-users, developers, partners and other community participants and so, it is critical that he or she is able to identify the problem or need of the person being communicated with and respond appropriately. Language fluency is also important for creating content such as blog posts, newsletters, and articles.

A community manager also needs to be capable of dealing with different interest groups in a consistent and ethical manner. As a community grows, participants and needs will coalesce into groups, and managing the relationships and tensions between these groups is an important part of a community manager’s job. It’s important that a community manager demonstrate the enthusiasm and commitment to deal with important issues in a positive and respectful manner.

A community manager will be required to be present at (or even host) community development events, such as developer meetups, workshops, conferences and so on. Since this typically means interacting with strangers, a community manager should be comfortable in social situations involving large groups. The best community managers are approachable, outgoing and highly social, and are expert at making community participants feel included in, and valuable to, the community.

The community manager should also have some technical knowledge, both to understand and communicate the technical aspects of the product, and to ensure the availability of sufficient infrastructure for the community to collaborate on driving the product forward. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the manager needs to have previous experience as a software developer; it simply means that he or she should be comfortable with the typical tools of Web collaboration (wikis, mailing lists, forums…), and has a working understanding of the product’s technical platform and key features.

Finally, when it comes to community management, there’s no substitute for battle experience. An Open Source community is a sensitive animal and so, it’s always good to hire a community manager who can demonstrate relevant experience hosting and growing other Open Source communities. This ensures that he or she knows the tricks of the trade and has the ability to quietly (and diplomatically) head off confrontations and conflicts before they become serious problems or cause reputational damage to the firm.

Conclusion

The role of a community manager is an important one, and no single person can claim to know it all. Therefore, when making your first community manager hire, it’s important to select a candidate who meets most of the qualifications above, but is also willing to learn, evolve and grow into the role.

It’s also important to remember that no community manager will win the hearts and minds of the community on his or her first day at work. However, if he or she takes care to play a facilitative, ethical and neutral role, chances are that your community will quickly embrace its new manager.

What counts most is credibility. A good indicator for a good candidate is (no kidding) if top management finds him or her quirky. That’s because the candidate has a strong personality and tends to call things as they are. It can be quite hard to find a community manager who becomes highly credible and who also understands how to generate leads.

The combination of social skills and strategic thinking is rare in this field. Yet, once the community development strategy is well defined (e.g. by coordinating community development with marketing or through an external agency), nothing tops a community manager who nurtures community growth due to a genuine interest in helping each member, which will ultimately lead to increased profits.

Emotional Branding in Open Source

The power of a brand lies in its ability to communicate core product attributes to consumers and evoke an emotional reaction from them. Every marketer knows that emotions can drive purchase decisions and so, a brand that is able to evoke them effectively has a strong market advantage over its competitors. Apple is one of the best in the game at this: the emotions evoked by the brand are so powerful that the company is able to sell its products at a significant premium over its competitors, even though competing products may boast more bells and whistles.

Emotional Branding and Open Source

This type of emotional branding has been in use for many years in customer-facing industries such as automobiles (Ferrari and its sports cars, Volkswagen and its Beetle), but it’s just beginning to gain traction in Open Source product marketing. This is because, for many years, Open Source firms have focused mostly on communicating the technical features and business benefits of their products to end-users, rather than attempting to build strong emotional connections with them.

Today, however, Open Source marketers have realized that end-users aren’t just interested in technical specifications; they’re also taking buying decisions based on more emotional reasons such as ease of use, elegance, social acceptability and community engagement. And so, Open Source marketing is evolving as well, with more and more Open Source firms writing emotional taglines and carving out emotional positioning territory for themselves. Look at the CMS marketplace, for example, and you’ll see WordPress promising “beautiful sites”, Magnolia offering “simplicity”, and Drupal highlighting its “community”.

Reasons for Emotional Branding

There are a number of reasons why a mature Open Source firm should consider an emotional branding strategy:

Differentiation: As the marketplace becomes more competitive, with many products offering the same basic functionality, a firm must seek new ways to differentiate itself from competitors. A purely technical messaging strategy will not work, as other products in the marketplace will offer the same or similar features. An emotional brand provides a way for the firm to build a brand identity that is different from its competitors, and carve out emotional territory for itself. If it is successful, it will gain an advantage over competitors that have not yet begun emotional branding.

Identity: Emotional branding helps to imbue a software product with a life and personality of its own, distinct from its feature set. As an analogy, contrast describing a human being purely on physical attributes (two eyes, two ears, one mouth…) versus personality (handsome, joyful, elegant, …), and you’ll realize that the latter offers more meaningful insight than the former. In the same way, creating an emotional brand for a product helps give it a distinct identity and personality that is reflective of the parent company and also allows users to enter into an emotional relationship with it.

Community: An emotional brand helps with community development by creating excitement and enthusiasm. For example, by using a friendly green robot as its primary brand identity, Google has created a personality (user friendly, fun, innovative…) for Android that allows it to attract and excite even non-technical users and thereby motivate them to build a relationship with the product. This community is critical for bottom-up adoption and word-of-mouth marketing; it also motivates partners and staff.

Emotional Brand Architecture

In general, emotional messaging and branding works as a layer on top of current category- and feature-based messaging. The basic idea is simple: focus on the user rather than the technology in order to communicate the emotional aspect of the brand. This emotional brand identity is communicated through the visual identity and copy style of the brand, and by using product images alongside product features to “humanize” the brand (and avoid plain vanilla stock photos).

It’s also important to realize that emotional branding is not just about positioning the brand externally, but also has a relationship with the internal culture of the company. The emotional brand needs to resonate well with the corporate culture, because it’s important that everyone in the company should feel comfortable when communicating the brand externally. As any brand manager knows, consistent messaging and images requires thorough review (so-called “brand policing”), but the more the emotional brand is in sync with the company, the lower the cost of ensuring consistent communications. Syncing the brand identity with the corporate culture is even more important for organizations in Open Source due to a higher degree of transparent communication.

Conclusion

As the Open Source marketplace evolves and categories become more and more crowded, emotional branding provides a way for a firm to regain its competitive advantage. By building an emotional relationship with new and existing customers, it can speed product adoption, shorten the sales cycle and build a loyal following for its product. Emotional branding also provides a springboard for the firm to take its marketing activities to new levels, by connecting with consumers and making its Open Source product brand stand out.

Why Open Source Community Managers Should Watch Star Wars

The Community Leadership Summit (CLS) will start in a few days. This post was inspired by meeting notes of last year’s event.

Community development is a tricky thing to get right. In a typical vendor or consortium-driven Open Source community, the community manager has to deal with multiple stakeholders, each with their own agenda, goals and “hot buttons”. It falls to the community manager to understand these (often overlapping or conflicting) agendas and massage the relationships within the ecosystem – both between the various stakeholder groups and between the stakeholders and the parent vendor/consortium – to ensure forward progress. Needless to say, this can be quite challenging, even at the best of times.

The Death Stars

The task is further complicated when a community manager belongs to a so-called “Death Star” company (as discussed during CLS 2011). If you remember your Star Wars, the Death Star was a gigantic space station created by Darth Vader, capable of destroying entire planets with a single blast of its laser cannon. In a similar vein, there are some software companies that are perceived as Death Stars – in effect, they’re so big and powerful that they’re capable of destroying entire Open Source communities with small shifts in their business plans or software strategies. Companies like Microsoft and Oracle are the ones that are most often clubbed in this category and perceived as “evil”.

From the CLS meeting notes, it can be seen that community managers face various challenges when working with the communities of so-called Death Star companies. Some of these challenges are internal, perhaps due to company management or policies, while still others are external, arising from negative user preconceptions of the company as “evil” or “bad”. In both cases, community management becomes harder and can create frustration for both community members and managers.

Good, Bad or Ugly? It Depends on Where You’re Standing

Personally, when I hear companies being labeled “good” or “bad”, my internal alarm bells start ringing. Rather than adopting a moral perspective, which can raise emotions and tempers and hinder overall progress, both community managers and members should instead adopt a pragmatic perspective.

  • To begin with, it’s important to realize that companies want to make money and are themselves answerable to shareholders (most of whom have invested in the company because they anticipate a financial return on their investment). So, how a company relates to its community is colored by this fact, as also by its business model and its market environment.
  • At the same time, behaving ethically is becoming increasingly important for companies, to ensure a positive public image. Google is perhaps the most famous example with its “don’t be evil” motto, but thousands of other companies have also realized that unethical business practices, such as using cheap child labor in Asia, hurt more than they help. In other words, the “invisible hand” or market forces often themselves serve as checks and balances to prevent companies from behaving irresponsibly or unethically.

Keeping these perspectives in mind will help Death Star companies and their community leaders better define their relationship towards each other, as well as towards the community they steward.

  • Death Star companies should realize that Open Source communities are freedom-loving and opinionated, and adopting ethical business practices goes a long way towards creating a positive public perception.
  • At the same time, community managers should realize that companies aren’t de facto “evil” or “good”: business decisions often occur in reaction to rapidly-evolving marketplace events and so shouldn’t be necessarily imbued with moral implications.

The Moral of the Story

Remember that at the end of Star Wars, Darth Vader (the bad guy) turned out to not only be the father of Luke Skywalker (the good guy) but also learned goodness from him. All it took was a little understanding and time. In a similar vein, today’s so-called Death Stars might, if they’re given some patience and kindness, turn out to be the very champions of the communities they’re often accused of destroying. Something to think about, perhaps.

Then, there is an important figurehead, who believes that F/OSS is fueled by selfishness. Are we all little Darth Vaders?

Plus, it seems that IT companies in general are more aware of ethical issues than others. Doesn’t look all that bad, if you ask me.