April 26, 2004

IRC log: How open source projects can improve their PR

Author: David 'cdlu' Graham

Saturday, NewsForge editor Robin "Roblimo" Miller hosted an IRC chat aimed at helping open source projects do better and more effective PR. This is the (lightly edited) log of that chat.

The Q&A session...

<roblimo> Good afternoon/morning/evening, depending on where you are.

<roblimo> One of the big problems with open source in general is that the "competition" usually has advertising budgets and professional public relations firms to talk journalists into writing about their products. So we (you) must outsmart them since we can't outmoney them.

<roblimo> Shockingly, this is not all that hard to do. :)

<QuestionBot> <miguel> I would like to know difference between "good PR" and spamming. I sometimes don't understand the difference :)

<roblimo> miguel, sometimes there's a thin line between the two. But as a rule journalists expect to get product announcements and don't consider them spam.

<roblimo> The trick is to target them a little. For instance, NewsForge isn't interested in your new Windows-only software, and "WWW.windowsweenies.tv" is probably not interested in your latest Linux-only game.

<roblimo> But, in general, journalists are receptive to announcements.

<QuestionBot> <ruskie> What should be the top 10 things to advertise for a linux distribution.

<roblimo> ruskie, that depends on the top 10 things that distro offers that others don't.

<roblimo> In other words, this is a null question. You need to promote what you have, and if what you have is exactly the same as a dozen others, why bother doing it?

<roblimo> If you have better hardware recognition than others, say so.

<roblimo> Cooler default menus? We want to know.

<roblimo> Specific purpose, a la some of the "business card" rescue distros, tell us.

<roblimo> In other words, talk up what you have. It might only be 5 things or it might be 20.

<QuestionBot> <enviro> Is sending letters, etc. to an organization encouraging them try some open source project, say OpenOffice.org, effective? I'd like to hear if others have had success.

<QuestionBot> 10 minute reminder, to ask a question please /msg QuestionBot your question.

<roblimo> I suspect that those letters or whatever would not be very effective if sent directly. Better = help consultants understand OOo or work with LUGs to promote free software demos locally.

<QuestionBot> <ElectricElf> There have been some news stories recently about some "journalists" simply re-printing vendor marketing material. If some FOSS project member did an honest, well-written writeup, even going so far as to point out where it stands with respect to any other software, would you have a problem with reprinting that?

<roblimo> On NewsForge, we run press releases and announcements verbatim *if* they're directly related to Linux and/or FOSS in general.

<roblimo> I personally consider "press release rewrite" journalism a lazy practice, and believe it's more honest to simply run the press release, identified as a "press release" or "announcement" and let readers see the original for themselves.

<roblimo> Obviously, many magazine and Web site editors do not agree with me. :)

<QuestionBot> <_ET_> What makes a press release or announcement interesting for journalists? What increases the probability that something gets published?

<roblimo> _ET_, I wrote a NewsForge story Tuesday that answered this question, and it linked to a piece published by the Internet Press Guild called "Care and Feeding of the Press." Please read those articles.

<QuestionBot> <miguel> I sometimes find it hard to do PR of a product that is not 100% complete, but the fact of PRing it will give visibility that would mean new developers for the project although could join the project's name with the status at the moment of releasing the PR (Like first Gnome versions being unstable and it has that mark for a long time)

<roblimo> miguel, again, I covered this in Tuesday's article. RTFA, please! :)

<roblimo> But the key is to be honest. *SAY* it's a beta, tell the world what works and what doesn't, and ask for people to test your work and supply feedback.

<roblimo> Once you have something that works -- and you must have working code to be credible -- you can invite others to test what you've done and add to it. Indeed, many people aren't aware that a project is open to feedback and contributions. So tell them.

<QuestionBot> <fplanque> should we position our product against the competition by mentioning competitor names and pros/cons

<roblimo> fplanque, This is touchy. A company we'll called "TinyLimp" to disguise their true identity is currently giving Linux great credibility by telling people to compare it to a product we'll call "Doors."

<roblimo> How many people would not have considered Linux at all without reading the TinyLimp sponsored case studies that "prove" TinyLimp products are better?

<roblimo> Comparisons are good when you're the underdog, but are usually not smart when you dominate a market.

<roblimo> (If any TinyLimp people are reading this, I hope you keep your present course, though.)

<roblimo> Let me add to this a bit....

<roblimo> *Honest* comparisons work, and dishonest ones don't. Ad maven Jerry Della Femina once said nothing can sink a bad product faster than a big ad budget.

<roblimo> His example was a beer hardly anyone liked that his agency designed a successful campaign for.

<roblimo> The problem with PR and promo is that it can get people to try a product, but that's all. If the product sucks, they'll try it and kick it to the curb. Getting more people to try a bad product just makes it fail faster.

<QuestionBot> 10 minute reminder, to ask a question please /msg QuestionBot your question.

<roblimo> This is the underlying point, always: Stumbling, badly written PR for a great piece of software is *always* better than slick PR for crap.

<roblimo> PR is simply telling the world that your project exists.

<QuestionBot> <McAction> Is there a list of major Free/Open Source press outlets somewhere?

<roblimo> McAction, you might go to Google News and some of the other aggregators, put in "Linux" or "Open Source" as search terms, and see what news outlets appear.

<roblimo> I know of no comprehensive list. Then we get to the problem of defining "major" - some sites are small but influential. Slashdot is huge, but NewsForge has many more *influential* (management) readers. Since I work on both sites I have no preference for one or the other. :) And there are many other Linux and FOSS sites, some with only a few hundred or a few thousand readers, that might target exactly the developers or users you want to attract. They may not be "major" to most people, but they might be the perfect place to publicize *your* project.

<QuestionBot> <jim-crafton> Is there a good way to get project information to journalists, for example, to promote a big release?

<roblimo> Email them/us. :)

<QuestionBot> <BruceByfield> Re: sending letters. Only if you can explain how using the software might benefit them. That usually means in a financial sense.

<roblimo> BruceByfield, perhaps.

<roblimo> You might also consider offering OpenOffice.org (or whatever) training for a low fee. Many companies still aren't hip to the idea of free software, but if you offer to do something at a low price but NOT for free, they may be more likely to accept your offer than one to get something free.

<roblimo> "FREE (fill in here)!" has become hugely misused in ads and promo.

<roblimo> "What's the catch?" is the common reaction, right?

<roblimo> This is why some people, including me, dislike the term, "Free Software." I love the ideals and support them, but I'm tired of explaining what it means over and over to the masses.

<roblimo> Charge for a seminar, offer that seminar in your letter, and this problem disappears. You can give them some free software indoctrination toward the end of the seminar.

<QuestionBot> <jim-crafton> Well I guess my question regarding journalists was what is considered the best way to contact them? If you're writing a cross platform toolkit what are the best outlets to let people know about it?

<roblimo> jim-crafton, You have access to the same search engines I do, my friend.

<roblimo> If it's a cross-platform toolkit for (language) you want to go to general developers' sites, plus sites dedictated to the platforms you cross. And you will never hit every potential medium or target only those you want.

<roblimo> Being too broad is better than being too narrow. Remember, journalists expect to get press releases. Unless you're wildly off-base, like the flak from Sony Pictures who seems to think NewsForge is going to run movie trailers, don't worry about being a spammer.

<QuestionBot> <dmp> The project I work on (xbox-linux) has been struggling under the weight of Microsoft FUD for some while. For example, eBay regularly pulls any auctions of any pre-modded Linux-only xboxes etc. With this kind of 'censorship', how can we get our product out there in a way the general public can use it?

<roblimo> dmp, email editors@newsforge.com tomorrow. I or one of my people will write about your problems, and since other media tend to follow us, word will get out.

<QuestionBot> 10 minute reminder, to ask a question please /msg QuestionBot your question.

<roblimo> People, we are always looking for story leads. "We" is not just the NewsForge crew, but all good reporters.

<roblimo> Never hesitate to send us a potential story, including contact info.

<roblimo> The worst that can happen is that we don't write the story, which we 100% for sure CAN'T if we don't know about it, right?

<QuestionBot> <ElecNiX> One big problem most open source user groups have is the lack of time. How such volunteers groups can benefit the most from PR?

<roblimo> ElecNiX, how long does it take to write an email saying what you're up to, then sending it to 10 reporters who cover the field?

<roblimo> 1/2 hour? 15 minutes?

<roblimo> In a crass "ROI" sense, if 10 hours spent doing project PR brings in 20 hours of development help, you just had a substantial net on your time investment.

<roblimo> The cash cost of PR is -0-!

<roblimo> At its heart, it's just sending emails to reporters saying, "we're doing (fill in here) and it might make an interesting story. Sign your real name and give real contact info, you'll get a call or two if what you're pushing has any substance.

<roblimo> And real name + good contact info is IMPORTANT! An email from yahoo@hotmail.bomb signed by "CewlDood2443 doesn't make it.

<roblimo> ***We have all the questions we're going to have time to take***

<roblimo> Please stop sending questions now. I'll get through the ones we have, then open up to general discussion.

<QuestionBot> <MadPenguin> Whare are some of the biggest mistakes you can make when doing PR work?

<roblimo> MadPenguin, please read my Tuesday NewsForge story and the "Care and Feeding of the Press" article to which it links. Long list. :)

<QuestionBot> <SpookyET> Would not it be better if the open source community would create an advertising service free of charge for open source projects? If you have this service on http://www.osdn.com/ (for example) and people register with it, the ads will be showed on all OSDN sites. This service could be global, and target many OSS web sites.

<roblimo> SpookyET, Great idea! I assume you're offering to sponsor it! Please contact me later so we can work out how best to use your contribution.

<roblimo> SpookyET, We are also considering opening a site we might call something like freshmeat.net that would do nothing but list projects and revisions to them. :)

<QuestionBot> <_ET_> How should I deal with open source base technologies compared to commercial products, i.e. Linux kernel vs. Novell/Mandrake/Red Hat Linux, OpenOffice.org vs. StarOffice or Mozilla vs. XYZ Browser?

<roblimo> _ET_, I'm not sure I understand the question. "Deal with" in what sense?

<roblimo> Let's save this for the open discussion that'll start in a few minutes.

<QuestionBot> 10 minute reminder, to ask a question please /msg QuestionBot your question.

<QuestionBot> <fplanque> should we write different press releases for each journalist, making each one more focused on the interests and backgrounf knowledge of a particular publication?

<roblimo> That would be a lot of work. I'd say it's more practical to write press release for different types of publications.

<roblimo> Think of a guitar notation program. You'd make one press release for music pubs, another for software pubs -- and if it's FOSS, yet another one for FOSS pubs, which is where a plea for developers or testers might be best.

<roblimo> Okay, we're going "open discussion" now...

<roblimo> And I'll answer as best as I can in between bites of supper. (Had no lunch.)

The subsequent discussion...

<LrDNattor> already!

<_ET_> I meant "Deal with" in the sense of "can I mention both in just one press release" or should I always keep them separate? Is it less (or more) likely that my OSS article gets published if it includes information about commercial derivative products, too?

<DanielC> If I want to suggest an article on my project (OpenOffice.org), is it best to contact journalists of the editor?

<fplanque> Anyway, thanks for the article on NewForge and this Q&A session. Very helpful!! :)

<roblimo> DanielC, Hard to say. Depends on the publication.

<MadPenguin> ditto from us. Roblimo fans from way back :)

<BruceByfield> DanielC: That depends. If you know the journalist, you might have a better chance than if you didn't know the editor.

<VJTD3> how should a release be formatted? (overview of updates/changes/features)

<_ET_> What do I have to keep in mind if I want to get my message out through other channels than NewsForge and Slashdot? What are the differences between "open source media" and the big commercial players?

<roblimo> _ET_, I'd say it's always best to stick to one topic per.

<_ET_> Do you often make use of PR contacts for interviews or to clarify something? If yes, what contact information do you need? How do I make sure that I see the result of an interview before it gets published?

<JediMoz> ha..good luck seeing your interview before it gets published

<roblimo> _ET_, Depends. A friend of mine who freelances for a small New York paper called the "Times" says they are totally UN-interested in open source right now. But eWeek is very interested.

<wilmer> roblimo: how often does slashdot accept release announcements of oss software as a frontpage article?

<roblimo> wilmer, nearly never.

<BruceByfield> _ET_: one thing is, you probably have to explain more to the larger outlets. You can't assume they understand open source or what your project's about.

<roblimo> What BruceByfield said. In fact, you might just want to talk about the software, with its opensourceness barely mentioned.

<JediMoz> Toronto Star Globe and Mail (globetechnology) Chicago Sun Time Rocky Mountain Post all cover open source as do 100's of other mainstream print pubs too

<emmguyot> Any key points to include in the PR to be sure to be read and included ? What about the length of the PR ?

<wilmer> it seems to happen from to time to time, i just fail to see a pattern :-)

<SpookyET> roblimo: I'm sorry Sir, but I cannot sponsor it due to college related stuff. It will be nice if my name (Sorin Ionescu) was mentioned, since I came up with the idea by whomever wishes to sponsor it. I could join such a project if my schedule clears up after midterms. I am glad that you have liked my idea.

<BruceByfield> emmguyot: In my experience, the shorter the better.

<roblimo> JediMoz, if you want to do an article about non-tech media that tend to run stories about open source, I'll run it. :)

<efm> Businessweek has been doing more OS stories lately

<warewolf> (just to keep questionbot quiet now)

<roblimo> SpookyET, In other words, you have an idea but want someone else to do the work and pay for it.

<efm> As has Fortune and Forbes

<BruceByfield> emmuyot: Also, get your main point across in the first couple of sentences. I always assume that editors have a low boredom threshold.

<roblimo> efm, true.

<ElectricElf> roblimo: OSDN makes money; it's not like anybody's suggesting it be banner-free.

<SpookyET> roblimo: I am just a poor, busy, college student.

<VJTD3> roblimo, do you have example PR articles for projects that have what to do, and ones nto to do?

<roblimo> ElectricElf, not everythig OSDN does makes money, and opening new sites is way-not-cheap.

<roblimo> VJTD3, ?

<ElectricElf> roblimo: Right. Just so you understand, nobody's asking for a free lunch or anything.

<DanielC> SpookyET: So am I. And I spend 30h/week working on OpenOffice.org. If'd you'd like to help send me an email (dcarrera@openoffice.org)

<ElectricElf> roblimo: (It's obviously possible for such things to generate revenue for whomever is taking care of it, I mean :)

<VJTD3> for example ones that that were the most intresting for other groups to want to run the articles, and ones that made you cringe

<ElectricElf> Even though the logistics need to be examined.

<SpookyET> DanielC: What about money?

<DanielC> roblimo: In the your article you say to not announce "point" releases unless the software is well known and widely used. OpenOffice.org is both, and our point releases aren't too frequent. Should we announce those?

<JediMoz> DanielC: Waht about Sam hiser doesn't he do alot of the pr marketing?

<DanielC> SpookyET: I don't have any money. If you think you can help, contact me.

<roblimo> VJTD3, The most interesting projects made the most interesting articles.

<JediMoz> DanielC for openoffice that is...whenever there's a release I see his name listed

<roblimo> DanielC, You should, yes.

<McAction> Has anyone considered phpadsnew for delivering a sort of reciprocal ad system for FOSS-related projects? I'm about to start offering such a service, but now I see there may be opportunities to collaborate.

<Fenix_NBK_> SpookyET, It's possible to make money with OSS. email me at fenix@theopencd.net I'll tell you how.

<roblimo> DanielC, we will run every release we get re OOo as long as we don't get it a week after other sites, as has been the past practice.

<efm> oh, do share Fenix!

<ElectricElf> DanielC: If you're part of the OOo team, by the way, excellent work. I'm writing a book, and all the publisher and all the editors use Word, and it's some pretty complex stuff, and it doesn't sweat it.

<ElectricElf> DanielC: (Though whenever it's saved there are a few dozen styles added; that's irritating :)

<SpookyET> Fenix_NBK_: I will do so.

<JediMoz> McAction : I've been running phpadsnews for a little over a year now and it's great!

<roblimo> I wrote what may have been the first book written in OOo. :)

<efm> how would you know, roblimo?

<SpookyET> DanielC: You need to balance money work and charity work.

<BruceByfield> DanielC: When I'm doing commercial PR, I try to do at least one release of real news per month. By "real" I mean things that most people will be interested in. I try not to do "PHB Becomes VP" type news releases.

<DanielC> ElectricElf: :-) Glad you like it. Really.

<ElectricElf> DanielC: It's great. I actually give you guys credit in the first chapter.

<roblimo> efm, "May have" because I don't know for sure, but I started it in SO 5, moved to OO build 641 when it came out. :)

<MadPenguin> lol warewolf

<cgames> did I miss the discussion?

<roblimo> BruceByfield, yes, promotions and "look, we sold something" releases - I call them "chest-thumps."

<MadPenguin> thx

<A_Jelly_Donut> Yes

<McAction> JediMoz: that's good to hear--I've liked it so far too. Now I guess I just need to start contacting FOSS project leads to see if they're interested in reciprocal ads.

<warewolf> cgames- Yes, but there will be a transcript online at some point

<cgames> k

<roblimo> McAction, That's a *great* idea!

<cgames> that's a shame

<cgames> I just HAD to go install linux today :-P

<BruceByfield> roblimo: Of course, PR flacks do non-news in the hopes that it will be a slow day and someone will run the stuff.

<enviro> like to TCP exploit... ?

<roblimo> BruceByfield, it'd have to be a *mighty* slow day for some of the stuff I get...

<Shish> on that meta-note: where can one find other transcripts, and news of more discussions like this one?

<LrDNattor> McAction: where can wee reach you?

<BruceByfield> roblimo: I like the term "chest-thumps." Think I'll steal it.

<DanielC> ElectricElf: :-D Send me an email when it comes out. Marketing will love that one.

<VJTD3> roblimo, when apache was gloating about having the largest portion fo web servers would similar PR be a nono?

<roblimo> BruceByfield, a "content commons" phrase.

<ElectricElf> DanielC: Mind if I PRIVMSG you?

<roblimo> VJTD3, Similar to what?

<VJTD3> 'we have the largest percent of x market thats now good we are' themed ones

<LrDNattor> can this log be published anywhere?

<roblimo> McAction, the "open source project banner exchange" is something I like - takes no money, little time, does everyone good. I might even poke our people to run some of those banners free...

<ElectricElf> LrDNattor: I'd bet roblimo will be publishing it on NewsForge; might want to let them get the scoop.

<roblimo> LrDNattor, Going to be on NewsForge after editing, elsewhere is up to you.

<LrDNattor> roblimo: k, thanks

<roblimo> VJTD3, sure, if you have enough market share to be worth a boast.

<DanielC> ElectricElf: np. But I am holding 3 discussins atm :-)

<ElectricElf> K.

<roblimo> LrDNattor, So you know, if you were holding it, I would let you scoop it, link to your transcript. :)

<BruceByfield> VJTD3: Though you can usually find some market share to boast about. You know, we are the Number One choice of left-handed Shelties in Tuktoyuktuk."

<LrDNattor> not holding it..

<McAction> roblim: I've never seen that. It looks great!

<Fenix_NBK_> QUESTION: is that one time event, or they will be an a schedule?

<LrDNattor> probably be published later on http://www.linux-quebec.org/ or something like that though.

<MadPenguin> we can host it at madpenguin.org as well if anyone needs it

<roblimo> Heh.

<roblimo> Thanks for the courtesy/respect, guys.

<SpookyET> I don't see why a new ad service needs to be created. It can be incorporated into existing ad services. The only thing that needs to be created is a different registration process.

<BruceByfield> An ongoing forum might be worth while, if anyone can host it.

<BruceByfield> That way, I can IRC at work - just got a new job yesterday working with an open source company. :-)

<roblimo> BruceByfield, we've been kind of experimenting with different IRC chats and publishing the logs.

<BruceByfield> roblimo: any thoughts about them yet?

<roblimo> Sure - happy to do them, with a variety of guests, on a variety of topics.

<roblimo> But this is oftc's ballpark, so a lot of it depends on their willingness.

<roblimo> They have great ops.

<JediMoz> BruceByfield : Congrats. Which company?

<roblimo> We experimented today with a brand-new Question-moderating bot, and it did a nice job.

<BruceByfield> Sxip Networks.

* warewolf bows

<JediMoz> BruceByfield what do they do?

<Fenix_NBK_> What it does?

<BruceByfield> It's a new company founded by Dick Hardt of ActiveState.

<warewolf> I'm glad the Q&A session went as smoothly as it did.

<roblimo> BTW, major props to OFTC people, who hosted this and did the moderation.

<LrDNattor> roblimo: except for the extra reminder, the bot did good ;)

<BruceByfield> JediMoz: I'm not sure how much I can say right now. Just a minute...

<roblimo> LrDNattor, I thought it did well for a maiden voyage.

<warewolf> roblimo- we're glad to have you. Anytime.

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