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F/OSS Marketing: Attracting Users AND Contributors

I gave my Expanding Involvement in F/OSS talk at PLUG West this past Monday. One of the great things about PLUG is how our different venues give us different audiences. When I gave this talk down at our Central chapter held at USP the majority of the audience was college kids, hobbiests and consultants, while talks at a business park in Malvern yield a wider audience of IT professionals in large companies. Since I encourage audience participation during my talks, the direction the talks took was very different in each area, at Central we ended up with the lead dev of OpenHatch.org giving a demo, at West we ended up discussing how F/OSS is marketed.

Now my talk focused on getting more people to contribute to F/OSS, in part, by attracting contributions from people who traditionally may not have been involved, more stay at home moms, professional usability experts, Joe the Plumber testing your point of sale project running on Linux. The point that brought us in the general Marketing direction was when I said “F/OSS needs to change their Marketing strategy to get these people interested” and immediately I received a comment from the audience “F/OSS has a marketing strategy?” Everyone laughed, but I quickly wrapped up the rest of my slides (this was toward the end anyway) and our Q&A focused on the Marketing of F/OSS. A lot of great points came up in the discussion that I hadn’t thought much about.

Some of the topics that were discussed:

How do I convince my neighbor to switch?

Within the F/OSS community we frequently want to tout the virus-free nature of Ubuntu and how it’s free. In some ways I believe we’ve already converted most of the adventurous folks we can convert by using these arguments and randomly giving out LiveCDs

For the rest of our audience? Unfortunately we’re up against a couple of common misconceptions:

  1. Computers are supposed to crash and have viruses, when the computer gets slow you reboot, reinstall or take it to the computer shop down the street
  2. Windows is free, it came with the computer!
  3. Software is a black box on the shelf, there no way to impact development, feature requests or bugs, you just have to buy something else if there is a problem or deal with it and hope the next version fixes it

It’s time to redefine our message and get more personal.

  1. Offer support personally, through your LoCo team and introduce them to the Ubuntu support community
  2. Do demos where you show off Synaptic, not only is Ubuntu free (afterall, “Windows is too”) but all these thousands of amazing software packages are also free!
  3. Don’t oversell it – I love Ubuntu and have been using Linux full time for almost 8 years, it’s tempting to just tell stories about marathon uptime and flawless upgrades, but people will run into problems. The key is to carefully impress upon the potential user that every OS has problems, but the ones in Ubuntu are ones you can fix, complain about, maybe even help resolve!

Related to this question but perhaps drifting away from the neighbor example. I also believe in selling a solution, not necessarily F/OSS itself. When you approach a non-profit to help them create a classroom where they can teach job-hunting on the internet, bring in a small Ubuntu Linux Terminal Server Project deployment (can be three old laptops, one acting as a server and the others as thin clients) as a demonstration of what can be done with a handful of discarded Pentium 3s. Use this for free, on old hardware, and there is no need to maintain OS installs on a whole room full of PCs! Another example is an Open Source Personal Video Recorder, by far the most successful events for “regular people” that Ubuntu Pennsylvania has hosted have been our Mythbuntu presentations and installfests. It’s not Ubuntu we’re getting people to switch to, it’s a Tivo alternative with many benefits that include lower cost and more flexibility.

How do I explain that F/OSS is Free (as in beer)?

At the Trenton computer festival earlier this year we had an encounter with a fellow who decided to argue with us about whether Ubuntu could be anywhere near the quality of Windows since Microsoft pours hundreds of millions of dollars into development and Ubuntu doesn’t have near that much and it’s given away for free. This surprised me, and was difficult to convincingly respond to on the spot.

And perhaps more important than responding to a single person at a computer festival? Business-wise, there are companies pouring a significant amount of money into marketing their products and portraying F/OSS as “insecure, unreliable, unsupported and developed by random people on the internet.” This misconception is one that the F/OSS community needs to work against.

Much of what we came up with during the discussion at the meeting is that it’s not strictly volunteers working on F/OSS. Companies all over the world are built using F/OSS and are constantly contribute back, LinuxForce (if I do say myself!), Google, Linode and Unisys are the first examples that come to mind, but there are thousands and thousands of others that contribute in large and small ways by employees who are paid for development. You also have companies like Red Hat and Canonical who have full time developers contributing to the operating systems and run with a business model of support contracts rather than software sales. Contrary to popular belief, today’s F/OSS demographic is not all white college nerds in basements.

I’d also be interested in seeing articles about the finances of F/OSS (something more concrete, practical and current than The Cathedral and the Bazaar, please) so I could better explain with real examples.

How do I get non-standard contributors to contribute?

My talk centered around things you can do to make your project attract more contributors of all kinds, but I didn’t explore deeply into how this is done because my talk was too general. I think this probably deserves a whole talk itself.

Our meeting discussion primarily came up with the need to target individual strengths, show how they can be useful within the F/OSS community. It’s very frustrating when I hear people with their “I tried to get my girlfriend to use Ubuntu, but she didn’t care” lines. If that’s the response you’re getting you’re Doing It Wrong. A perfect example of Doing It Right is from Duda Nogueira yesterday, in his post My mother on Ubuntu Artwork Karmic Release Shortlist!!:

Since she knows about the whole Open Source thing, and uses Ubuntu since 2006, I told her about this contest. She start sending her photos right away! She was excited to help the Ubuntu Project with what she can, and have her photos used all over the world!

Last week, she was VERY HAPPY to to have 5 photos selected to the Ubuntu Artwork Karmic Release Shortlist!

Bravo! Thank you! He shared knowledge about the Open Source community with someone, and knowing her strengths he let her know of opportunities within the community where her skills could be used. There needs to be much, much more of this. F/OSS has opportunities for all kinds of people with all kinds of skills, moreover F/OSS involvement is extremely rewarding on both personal and professional levels. Many people don’t even realize such a community exists, and if they do the assumption is often that it’s “just a bunch of coders, I can’t help.”

There was also a very good article published over at ITWorld.com by Esther Schindler titled Mentoring in Open Source Communities: What Works? What Doesn’t? As we reach out to a broader range of folks to contribute to F/OSS, I feel mentoring programs that work with individuals to pinpoint their skills and interests are important. Huge thanks to Fred Stluka for posting this to the PLUG list following my talk and generally being very engaging during the talk and follow-up discussion. Oh and I do quite like his tradition of buying the speaker dinner when we all go out for food and drinks afterwards, yum, thanks again!

I’ve only scratched the surface of this discussion by summarizing what we were able to discuss at a single LUG meeting, but it’s a fascinating and important topic and one I hope more folks will take time to embrace and discuss.

Last minute addition: Fred just posted this to the list, a second article by Esther, the same subject as my talk: How to Attract More People to Your Open Source Project Excellent!


  • Virgil

    This is a good post, I too try to show people that alternatives exist, and experienced much of that. To not oversell it is the most important perhaps. Also the most difficult. :D

  • pleia2

    Thanks! Yeah, it certainly is difficult. As marketing goes the general rule seems to be that over-selling is good. Unfortunately with F/OSS many people are starting with the impression that “free == lousy” and when they hear you say it’s perfect, they take it home and it’s not, I think there is often an overwhelming sense of “See, I was right, this is junk, I was lied to.” I often hear these stories of people who tried Linux a few years back and felt lied to about how perfect it is, so they’re super cautious.

  • RoboNuggie

    People put a value on things that have a monetary value…. let me give you an example….

    A person was clearing out his garage, he found some old electrical equipment, furniture and clothes…. he put them on the street corner with a sign saying “free to a good home”…. after a couple of days, the stuff was still there. Puzzled, he realised that people thought that because it was free, it must be junk, none working rubbish.

    He proceded then to write a new note, saying that “For Sale, only £10″… left the stuff again, went to bed.

    In the morning all the stuff had gone, stolen… it seems that if people are given something for free, they will think it isn’t up to much, and not touch it… If on the other hand it has a monetary value, they will want it…. either buying or stealing.

    I have found that if people are after a free OS, they would rather obtain a copied Windows disc than download and try Linux. A shame…

    I think we have to start in the school environment if we want to change perceptions.

  • Virgil

    I feel a bit angry when people steal software especially Xp, and Photoshop. It was one of the reasons I went to all Free Software was that I used some high quality ones on Windows, such as Firefox (a godsend) and Audacity. Then I decided, why use all free software on a proprietary (and quite bad) OS? The rest is history.

    I think that I am quite loyal to Ubuntu, even through any rough patches. I have gotten at least 20 people to try it personally, and many stuck with it. Especially the GNOME users.

  • alan

    I think we need to focus less on selling the technology and more on selling the user experience. Which means, among other things, that selling “Linux” is meaningless, because “Linux” can be one of a thousand different user experiences by the time you turn it into a distro.

    People who go on and on about how Linux is more “stable/secure/efficient/etc” too often leave uninformed users with the impression that Linux is just a drop-in replacement for Windows, or some kind of program you install in Windows to make it work better. The impression is that the computing experience won’t change, it’ll just be better.

    We all know that’s not true. Using a Linux distro is a completely different computing experience from Windows — and two different distros can be two completely different computing experiences as well.

    In a nutshell, it needs to be sold top-down rather than bottom-up.