Marketing and Community- vs. Company-driven Open Source Ecosystems

Currently, customers at InitMarketing are solely companies who want us to support them in marketing their Open Source product. Yet, we do not work for community-driven Open Source projects which usually have an association or foundation as an organizing body.

The reason is quite simple: Associations or foundations which we have been in touch with lack money and business-focused decision-making processes. It seems to be much easier for companies to provide a sufficient marketing budget and to agree on a focused marketing strategy.

The cause mainly lies in how differently the two ecosystems are structured.

Company-driven Open Source Ecosystem

Company-driven Open Source Ecosystem

An Open Source company acts as the hub in its self-created ecosystem and can leverage all business advantages which stem from its superior knowledge of the product, copyright, etc.

Community-driven Open Source Ecosystem

Community-driven Open Source Ecosystem

Community-driven ecosystems lack a business hub. Usually the core of the community is focused on further developing the source code.

Pros and Cons: Company vs. Community

Company Community
Decision making Defined reporting structures and decision makers Meritocratic community, maybe with benevolent dictator
Motivation Business-oriented, want to make money Individuals who enjoy coding good software
Communication Partially confidential Highly transparent

Of course, this is an overly simplistic comparison table. I know, there are companies that are pure chaos compared with some well working communities. Also, companies might employ their best community members over time which makes it impossible to draw a clear line between community and company. And so on… Nevertheless, the above mentioned points allow to understand the impact of the fundamental differences between a company- and a community-driven ecosystem on marketing, which I’ll discuss next.

Impact on Marketing

Communities trying to reach broad consensus will have a hard time focusing their marketing activities e.g. to clearly position their OSS project, because this requires bold decisions to spend the available budget on a specific target audience only. The higher an OSS project is in the software stack, the more this becomes a problem due to the fact that they need to attract end users and pragmatic buyers.

Open Source companies see a constant need to raise visibility through marketing to achieve better lead generation. Quite contrary, some core developers in communities might have strong prejudices against marketing and especially public relations (of course, the same can happen within a company, but the business prerogative will prevail). Additionally,  Then again, communities are quite good in spreading the word among peers.

Preparing a marketing budget is a serious issue for communities. They could collect it from system integrators who are part of the community, but they might want to invest the bulk of their marketing budget into pushing their own specific solutions and services. Nevertheless, if the main beneficiaries of an OSS project financially support general marketing efforts of the community, they will profit not only from shared development, but also from shared marketing costs.

Shared marketing is especially helpful if the OSS project is rather a platform or framework instead of an out-of-the-box solution. The danger is that community members tend to have varying views on an OSS platform. Different system integrators will use it to implement different custom solutions. The OSS project could potentially mean anything to anyone, which runs counter a sound positioning in the heads of potential new developers and customers.

In general, it is very important for OSS communities to educate themselves when it comes to marketing, which includes open discussions that result in clear decisions. While the OSS market continues to grow, so will competition. More Open Source communities will eventually take a closer look at how marketing can help them to distinguish themselves from the competition.

The Perspective of an Open Source Marketing Company

Seen from the perspective of InitMarketing, it is much easier for us to provide Open Source marketing services to companies.

The risk with communities is that discussions could take long and decisions could be delayed, which means that, potentially, InitMarketing would spend more time than we would get paid for. Additionally, OSS associations or foundations usually ask for a discount, which we are happy to provide, but which adds to the risk of not really being able to cover our costs and time investment.

There are benefits in working with OSS communities, most importantly that we could enjoy open discussions about marketing strategy, planning and implementation, because this allows anyone to see how well we do our job – or not 🙂 – and we can learn a lot from a miriad of ideas and feedback. Last but not least, InitMarketing could help communities make the jump towards more professional marketing without sacrificing the community and its spirit – a challenge we can’t wait to accept.

Marketing 2.0 and its Resemblance to Open Source

There is this fantastic working paper over at Harvard Business School that sums it all up so well what has been labeled Social Marketing or Marketing 2.0: Digital Interactivity: Unanticipated Consequences for Markets, Marketing, and Consumers.

The authors hit the nail, positioning marketing in a constructivist manner by referring to Web 2.0 phenomena they describe as “consumer collaboration”, “digitally enhanced communication among consumers”, “peer-to-peer interactivity”.

[…] marketing is a cultural producer. Just as an author puts into circulation words that do not become ideas except in the minds and hands of readers who make them over for individual or social purposes, so marketing in this paradigm aspires to be an author in the culture of its customers. For marketing to play this role it needs to be welcomed, not resisted.

I can’t get that idea out of my head that Marketing 2.0 was actually invented years ago by Open Source developers. Their style of communication has lead to transparent and honest information about their products, something that customers of Open Source software highly appreciate.

Additionally, no Open Source company can afford a marketing guy who has no or only little clue of software technologies, because especially when it comes to community relations (which I regard as part of Open Source marketing) one can only convince by expertise.

Hence, I believe that the Open Source style of marketing aka evangelism aka community relations has very much formed the basis of Marketing 2.0 and contributed to the understanding that marketing needs to act more like an ally of customers rather than an intruder (e.g. by aggressive mass advertising).

This makes me hope that with Marketing 2.0, things will become more realistic in all kinds of businesses. Marketing staff will loose their nimbus of spin doctors, magical seducers and manipulators. Instead, marketing will be much more about forming trustworthy relationships based on human interaction between a company and its customers.

Marketing 2.0 also requires marketing persons as well as management and staff in general to develop their own voice, because only authentic communication e.g. via blogs can leverage “the power to mobilize identity” (as the working paper states) within and between customers and company.

Something I miss in the HBS working paper is a discussion of Long Tail effects on marketing. For example, whether and how social marketing needs to be different in the head and the tail?