August 13, 2006

Marketing FOSS projects

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier and Bruce Byfield

Why should you market your free and open source software (FOSS) project? After all, your project isn't selling anything. Besides, programmers notoriously don't get along with marketers. Yet a little marketing makes sense for many projects. Listing your project on Freshmeat and SourceForge.net is a good start, but greater efforts let users and organizations know that your code is available, so that they can start using it.

Marketing can also attract new developers to your project and help it to grow. And later, if your project grows like Firefox or OpenOffice.org into a major challenge to entrenched proprietary products, marketing may become a major part of your plans for world domination.

We're not suggesting that you run out and hire a public relations firm, or send out a news release for every new entry in the changelog. But if you make basic project information readily available, and learn how to write and distribute marketing material, you'll help your project to thrive by making it more user-friendly. Chances are, too, that if you survey other FOSS projects already engaged in marketing, you'll find other ways to market your project without expending a lot of effort.

Providing basic information

The first and easiest step in marketing your project to both the press and casual users is to have some basic information conspicuously available on the Web site. Like most people, when we're thinking about using or writing about a project, our first step is to skim the project's Web site to learn enough to decide whether it's worth our time. Projects that give little information or hide it several levels down are likely to be passed over in favor of projects like Gaim that keep us well-informed.

What kind of information? First and foremost, every project should have an About page that's clearly visible in the home page navigation. At a minimum, it should describe what the project is about and what licenses it uses. Better yet, it should also include a history of the project, a list of current features and advantages, a link to any news releases, and, for graphical applications, a link to current screenshots.

If your project is working consistently with commercial companies, you might also include pages that briefly explain FOSS and the advantages of your project over proprietary equivalents. You can also list project participants; whether you list the leads, or everyone involved, will tell a lot about relations within the project.

It might not be a bad idea to create a short style guide for your project as well. For example, should your project be written as MyProject, Myproject, My Project, or myproject? A lot of open source projects mix and match usage on the project Web site and in documentation. In some cases, it might not be a bad idea to provide a style guide for developers with difficult names.

Above all, don't forget to have a list of basic contacts, and keep the information current.

You'd be surprised at how often even commercial companies forget these essential details.

To accompany this material, designate a media contact or team that can field questions. Create a press email address that the media can use to contact the project and make sure to check it and respond to queries frequently. FOSS reporters understand that volunteer press contacts can't always respond as quickly as their corporate counterparts, but they do have deadlines. For a news story (one that needs to be reported right away), reporters usually need a reply in 12 hours, and preferably less. By contrast, for a feature story (one that can run almost any time), they can probably wait a day.

Even if you can't answer questions right away, send the reporter a note that says when he can expect to get a response. If we know we'll get a response by a certain time, we might hold a story we'd otherwise run to allow for the response.

Keeping reporters happy may seem time-consuming if you're not used to the task, but remember: make them happy, and they're more likely to make you happy by giving you favorable coverage. Conscientious journalists try to be fair no matter how they are treated, but they wouldn't be human if they didn't unconsciously give more breaks to people who help them in their work.

Writing press releases

Once you have the basic information on your Web site, you may want to write news releases in the hope of attracting more attention for the project. As you sit down to write marketing material, ask yourself if you have news that might interest people outside the project.

While the news of a new maintainer may be vitally important to those in the project, outsiders aren't likely to care unless the project has attracted a superstar developer. Nor, these days, is a story about an organization deploying the project software likely to be news -- even if it's abandoning Windows to do so -- unless it's a Fortune 500 company or equivalent, or your software fills a need that nothing else matches.

Most of your stories are likely to be about new releases and their features. Occasionally, project activities, such as the Get Firefox campaign, will be news. So will official responses to disputes that spill over into the public, although with luck you won't have to write many of those.

In writing, the first thing you need to do is rid yourself of your preconceptions about marketing. Whatever the case may be in other markets, you don't have to sell your FOSS project with exaggeration and mock excitement. Anyone likely to be interested in your project will be more likely to respond to a well-organized statement of facts than marketing hype. You might do well to think of marketing a project as a larger version of writing a résumé: In both, you want to present yourself in the best light while remaining truthful and avoiding misrepresentation.

All your material should get to the point as soon and possible, and use the clearest possible language. You have less than three lines to interest readers in your message. Don't waste them with the pompous, buzzword-laden releases that you see too often in commercial companies.

Outlets for your news may get several dozen releases a day, and clichés such as claims about being a "world leader" in your field only make editorial eyes glaze over. Instead, make sure your headline and first sentence explain exactly why your news might be interesting, then go on to give details. That way, you might convince recipients to read on. Think of your audience as victims of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, and you won't go too far wrong.

If all that sounds too complicated, a simple email that provides the relevant details and describes new features is good enough. A short history of the project at the end of the release is good as well -- and don't forget contact information for someone knowledgeable who can answer questions quickly by phone or email.

Just before you submit news, check for spelling and grammar. Mistakes may not kill coverage of your news, but they look unprofessional and are a nuisance to those who read your news first. In general, the more you can do make your news easy to absorb, the more likely that it will be used.

One last hint: preparing and sending marketing material is an ideal task for non-developers in your project. However, avoid making the common commercial mistake of thinking that people who know how to market can market anything, regardless of whether they know anything about it. At the very least, a non-technical marketing person should be an advanced user of your project's software.

Submitting releases

Today, mainstream magazines and news sites are covering FOSS more often than five years ago, but it's still an uphill slog to get detailed coverage of projects, especially small and unknown ones. You'll do better going to FOSS-centered outlets such as NewsForge, Linux.com, Linux Today, Linux Weekly News, and Slashdot. If you aren't averse to writing, you might try submitting an article about your project to those sites -- and pick up a little cash in the process.

On the other hand, if you're still traumatized by high school English classes, you could simply pitch your project as a topic to those sites. Staff writers and freelancers are always looking for new article ideas, so don't be shy. Drop a note to us at editors@ostg.com, for example, with a little background on your project and why it might be interesting. We get scads of releases every day from commercial projects, but we'd really love to start hearing more from open source projects.

Learning from others

All these suggestions take time to implement. For many, they represent a different way of thinking that may be hard to absorb. One shortcut you can follow in becoming more marketing-savvy is to learn from others. Take the time to read the marketing pages of large projects such as OpenOffice.org or PostgreSQL and make notes of what you think they do right and wrong. You'll soon get a sense of the possibilities, and also of what you feel comfortable doing.

Another way to learn is to try to develop a working relation with a few regular writers or sites over several releases. Don't bombard them with repeats of the same information, or emails asking if they've received your message of a few days ago. Unless your news needs to be published at once, generally you only need to do a followup if you're submitted something on request and haven't had a reply for about a week.

Instead, show that your project is quick to respond to information, and make experts available to writers covering it. Check if they are planning to be at LinuxWorld or the O'Reilly Open Source Convention when you are, and make a point of introducing yourself in person. The writers you'll be dealing with are probably also members of the FOSS community, so striking up a professional relation with them shouldn't be hard. Learn to work with them, and everyone will win: you'll be more likely to get the coverage you want, and they'll be more likely get the stories they want.

For example, last year, when Mozilla released the first few Firefox security updates, one NewsForge writer was able to get a Mozilla representative on the phone within a few hours for stories related to Firefox security. After a few stories, the Mozilla representative would contact the writer -- not the other way around -- when Firefox security updates were in the works. Even if the writer couldn't use use all these updates for a story, everyone benefited from the relationship.

The Mozilla Foundation, of course, is backed by full-time PR firms that can usually field questions and provide spokespersons within a few hours. Your project may not be able to provide similar service, especially at first. But if you can learn to overcome your queasiness about marketing, you'll not only help your project and journalists, but, most importantly, readers and potential users as well.

Category:

  • News
Click Here!