Chinese restaurant at night, ducks hanging in the window, open sign lit up
PHOTO: Khachik Simonian

In the past, most infrastructure and developer software — the software used to build software — was proprietary. Over the past 10 years, however, a fundamental shift has happened in the software industry. While proprietary software still dominates some sectors (Microsoft Office anyone?), open source software has become widely adopted for infrastructure.

Two factors define open source. The most obvious is that the source is available for anyone to see, compile and extend, instead of kept secret. Hence the name, “open source.” The second, but more influential, aspect of open source is that it is developed by communities. Communities are collections of developers, testers, technical writers and project leaders who build, test and release the software together. Members of the community may be paid by companies to do the work or might be contributing their time as individuals. In any case, open source decisions and work is not dominated by any one company. They operate as collectives, brought together by shared interest.

Related Article: Is the End of the Benevolent Dictator for Life in Open-Source Software Here?

Open Source Upends the Traditional Marketing Script

There are open source models where the majority of development (and money) comes from a single company which then commercializes it. Even in this situation, a group of people from outside the dominant company are involved, and decisions happen (at least theoretically) in the open.

This shift in the software industry presents difficulties for traditional software marketing departments. In the past, marketing efforts often began at the top, with the CIO or CTO. Given the cost of proprietary on-premises systems, that made sense. The C-level had to be engaged if a million-dollar purchase order was going to be signed.

With open source software, outreach to the open source communities is the key to success. Not only will developers and system architects bring potential purchases to the C-level only after careful technical review, but they are also likely to simply order open source as cloud services, choosing what works best for a particular vendor. They might also simply install the open source software themselves.

To say “we need to engage open source communities” is a massive oversimplification of the effort. Communities are diverse in terms of type of companies involved and roles represented. Some are from vendors companies — potential competitors — while others are IT professionals that represent potential prospects. They are also diverse in terms of roles. Some members of the community are writing code for the open source project, while others are testing, or managing projects and releases. The wider community includes those who are users of the software, but they are still expected to report bugs and create feature suggestions. In open source communities, giving and getting are equal parts of the social contract.

Related Article: How Will the $34B IBM Acquisition Affect Red Hat Users?

Tips for Marketing to the Open Source Community

The following will help when marketing to open source communities, whether the product is open source in origin or proprietary:

  • Engage from within and meet prospects where they are. If you want to visit a physical community, you have to go there. Open source communities are similar. Hang out where they meet rather than try to draw them to you. If that’s Reddit, Slack, Github, open source conferences or meetups, have a presence there.
  • Know who to target a message to. Marketers should try to speak to everyone, but the message has to sink in for a particular type of member and role. Nothing can be all things to all people in diverse communities. This is the finesse of marketing to open source communities — saying something to everyone but being special to only part of it.
  • If the product is open source itself, then it has to be well differentiated from the core open source project and that specialness needs to be part of the upfront message. Typically you'll face too many competitors and there is always the free version, so prospects need to hear up front why a solution is better.
  • Accept that there will be haters. Don’t try and be vague so that everyone is pleased. Open source communities appreciate strong opinions, even when they are not popular. Authenticity matters.
  • Most important — give back. When a company is allowed to be part of an open source community in any way, even when marketing into it, they are expected to elevate the community somehow. Consider contributing software or ideas to the community as the cost of participation. That includes observing and especially marketing.

Traditional software marketing, no matter the modern rhetoric, is still push marketing. With open source marketing, everything hinges on community participation and engagement. What is given is what will be gained.