Fire the Marketers!

Observations On Marketing Open Source Projects

On a number of occasions I have been asked for advice on how to ‘market’ an Eclipse open source project. I know there is no one secret formula but I do think there are some best practices. Here is what I often tell people.

1. Fire the marketers. Well maybe not fire them but if you expect the marketing department to make your open source project take off, you are deeply misguided. Let’s face it; the success of Eclipse is not based on traditional marketing. Right now, there is a marketing department of 1 at Eclipse and even when IBM started Eclipse there were only 2 people working on marketing. Contrary to what some people might say, the Eclipse marketing machine is really the community. Successful open source projects are about developers talking to developers. It is about building the community.

2. The conversation starts with code. Unless you have code in cvs, don’t expect a lot of people to listen. Developers like the ‘show me, don’t tell me’ approach. To keep the conversation going, a project needs lots of incremental releases. A release once every 18 months doesn’t cut it. The Eclipse platform team does one every 6 weeks. The conversation about 3.2 has already started here, here, here. And remember 3.2 isn’t expected to ship until June 2006!

3. Make it easy to start the conversation. Once code is available, make sure you have the tutorials, examples and white papers available so someone can easily start using the technology. Also be darn sure that a skilled person is monitoring the newsgroup and bugzilla database to respond to any questions or issues.

4. Create technical content. There are tons of developer oriented portals, publications and conferences that are always hungry for good technical content. Within just the Eclipse community we have EclipseZone, EclipseTechForge, Eclipse Developer Journal, Eclipse World, EclipseCon that are always looking for good technical content. Writing articles always seems to be the last thing developers want to do, but it is a great way to get the word out. Getting articles published is really not that difficult. Lawrence Mandel and Jeff Liu have taken the time and I think the results will be great for the Web Tools Project. Giving presentations at technical conferences is also a great way to meet your users in person. For the real keeners, a number of book publishers have successful Eclipse titles and are always looking for the next hot thing.

5. Create a persona for the project. I think there are two essential things that each project should be doing: 1) the project leaders and key committers should be writing blogs, and 2) each project should have relevant, up to date project web sites. Blogs are a very popular media for communicating directly to developers. It takes less than 5 minutes to setup a blog. Postings don’t need to be long but just provide some insight into the activities and people working on the project. Arthur Ryman and the BIRT team are two examples. (Although I do wish the BIRT team would clean up their spam :-). If you do create a blog, make sure you send your feed into planeteclipse. Project web sites should be the gateway to the community. Make it easy for people to know how to participate in the community. The BIRT web site is a good example.

6. Get your competitors involved. I often get blank stares when I mention this. Well in open source, if you can get your competitors to adopt your project, you have just grown the entire community. It is not just you talking about the project, it is your competitors too. The Eclipse Web Tools project is a great example: IBM, BEA, JBoss, ObjectWeb, Oracle are all building on top of Web Tools. Now, that is a lot of people talking about Web Tools.

7. Thank the contributors. If someone writes an article about your project and mentions your project in a blog, make sure you thank them. Often the best way to do that is link to the blog posting from your own blog or leave a comment. Bloggers love to have more traffic to the web site.

8. Promote companies that use your technology. Eclipse gets embedded into hundreds of software products. A good way of showing adoption and momentum is to promote organizations that have embedded your project into their offering. The CDT team did a recent press release that acknowledged companies embedding CDT. It is even better when a company advertises that they are using your project. It is essentially an ingredient branding strategy.

9. If you love something, set it free. It is important that companies don’’t claim too much ‘ownership’ of a project. That is something we are constanly vigilant against at the Foundation. Open source and Eclipse is about being vendor neutral, transparent and open. If a project is too tightly aligned with a company then the momentum is stunted. Having a project referred to as ‘Company ABC’’s Eclipse Project’’ is bad. To IBM’’s credit, they realized this with the original projects and created the Eclipse Foundation.

10. Give the marketing guy a hug. Okay, I don’’t have a tenth observation but I was just kidding that they should be fired. The point is that we are all marketers. If you think your project is not getting the attention it deserves, then maybe there is something you can do. Besides Mike, I really do like my job. 🙂

I am sure I have missed some other very valid points on marketing open source projects. I’d be interested in hearing peoples experiences.

7 thoughts on “Fire the Marketers!

  1. Ian – I’m shocked! Wasn’t it just a couple of weeks ago you hosted an Eclipse marketing summit in Chicago and now you want to fire us all? I’m so confused…

  2. Isaacxu, I agree it is an odd article. One of the few articles on developer tools I’ve seen that doesn’t mention Eclipse! Sometimes analyst firms work in mysterious ways.

  3. Ian:

    this is very cool. thanks for the post. I share most of what you say here – particularly in my own experience in the software industry, i have been wondering about “marketer” for a while and have come to similar conclusions.

    The open source involved software companies or projects requires a very different kind of marketing from traditional software companies. It means different kind of “marketer” as well as approach.

    In the open source involved software company or projects:

    First of all, marketers need to be able to speak of the language of developers – means that the marketers should be capable of coding and converse in code. Such marketers are not going to be your typical MBA trained folks (Ian: i assume that you don’t have an MBA degree, right?:-). I have seen lots of marketers with impressive resumes but not be able to perform in this environment due to lack of technical conversastion capability.

    Secondly, the importance of “community” has dramatically changed marketing itself. “Developer community” concept is not new itself, but the importance of community is becoming fundamental only in recent years. In fact, today, the single most strategic role of marketing is to build and maintain a community. Anyone succeeds in doing this would result in the success of a company or a project.

    Lastly, your post applies to more than “open source marketing” – i believe it applies to software marketing in general.

  4. Coach,

    Thanks for the feedback. I actually do have an MBA but I guess my saving grace is that I also have a computer science degree. 🙂

    For me the main thing is that we are all marketers, including the developers. If the developers of the project don’t participate and are actively involved with building the community and marketing the project, it will not be successful.

    I do think a lot of people, marketing professionals and developers, are learning how to operate in the new world of communities and open source development.

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