Incrementally Marketing an Open Source Product Launch to Win Your First Customers

There is no need to spend a fortune in marketing dollars to launch a new Open Source product. You can create substantial buzz with a low marketing budget to win your first customers.

The basic rules are:

  1. Don’t think big, think smart: Acquire a bootsrapper’s state of mind.
  2. Communicate early, communicate often: For every step of your software development and release process, think of a related small marketing initiative.

The good thing about Open Source software is that there is nothing to hide. You can inform the public and let it participate in your project from the second you had the idea of building it. The openness of the Open Source development model allows low budget micro-marketing on the internet to build an ecosystem with emerging sales leads even before the product is ready for production use.

The benefits of launching a product the Open Source Marketing way are:

  • Less error-prone: Just like the OSS model allows developers to modify the software incrementally based on feedback from a growing community, so does it allow Open Source Marketing to adjust campaigns on-the-fly based on interactive communication.
  • Immediate results: Instead of spending a lot of time upfront on developing an optimal marketing solution, incremental and satisficing steps allow to achieve immediate marketing results with a very basic product marketing strategy to start from.
  • Risk reduction: An OSS company can gradually grow its marketing efforts from tiny initiatives focusing on a very specific and small audience to large-scale global media campaigns in parallel to a growing customer base and confidence through an adaptive marketing approach.

Here are some sample marketing actions, applicable on different stages of the product development life cycle:

  1. You got an idea about a new OSS product? Why not discuss it on your blog right from the start and invite others to comment on your thoughts? Most likely, you will get some good input that will allow you to tweak your idea and save money on business consulting. Furthermore, you have planted the first seed for growing a community related to your upcoming product by attracting visionaries.
  2. Get the product website ready a month or two before you make the source code available. Provide a registration form where everyone can subscribe and get notified once you publish the code. This is how you can collect leads. You can later turn the notification service into a newsletter where you inform about upcoming releases.
  3. Make the source code available publicly ASAP. Even if you don’t think it’s ready for prime time yet (a perfectionist’s trap), get the software out there and continue developing it in SVN. There are plenty of great developers who enjoy trying out a cool new OSS product even in pre-alpha state. Maybe one of them will become a contributor and early adopter?
  4. Of course, you will keep blogging about the progress of your development and business efforts to attract new community members and to increase loyalty of those already observing or participating in what you are doing.
  5. It’s time for an alpha release. Create a blog about it, with brief general information about your product, including business benefits. If applicable, include some screenshots as well. Link to the installation documentation you wrote. Nicely ask some of your peers to blog about the release and to refer to your blog entry or the product website.
  6. For the beta release, it might make sense to contact a PR or marketing agency (I heard of InitMarketing providing all sorts of OSS marketing services 🙂 ) who help you to create some buzz in the blogosphere. Set up an invitation-only online demo which will allow you to collect some more leads. Include a screencast on the product website that explains what your software does and what it’s good for.

Once you have reached the beta release milestone, you might want to employ a marketing expert or outsource some marketing work to an agency. After the beta release you might start to charge for support, especially installation and configuration to companies who can afford that – make sure that you still help out those with related questions on the forum for free.

Additionally some early adopters might consider using your software in production based on their good impression of the beta release and once the stable version is out. These potential customers share your vision of the product and see the same business benefits as you do. They might pay you for standby support , consulting, customizing.

Inexpensive prosumer software and social media marketing tools allow you to decide for each task of a marketing action if you want to do it yourself or pay someone else to do it for you. The same choice that OSS customers can make between investing time (install, configure, extend yourself) or money (get support and services from the OSS vendor) is true for OSS companies marketing their product.

For example, do you want to create the product screencast yourself or have a marketing agency record it? Do you want to upload it to YouTube or run your own video streaming platform? This choice allows you to keep your marketing efforts for a product launch low at the beginning and to expand your marketing budget over time as revenue grows.