October 14, 2009

Open Source Marketing: Lead with Free or Benefits?

Article Source Dissociated Press
October 14, 2009, 7:51 am

Spent most of last week in Boston, Massachusetts. Actually, I spent most of the week in Waltham for Novell’s FY10 Interlock meetings. Since I’m the “community guy” most of the stuff wasn’t directly related to my job, but it is good to know what’s going on with the rest of the company and have a chance to see what the marketing priorities are for FY10.

On Saturday, I spent some quality time at the GNOME Summit. Most of the sessions were developer-oriented, and so I spent some time catching up on email and getting a few things done until the marketing / outreach session. Jason Clinton does a good job of summarizing the session on his LiveJournal.

One of the discussions we had during the marketing and outreach session is whether the marketing should emphasize “Free” or emphasize the benefits of GNOME.

At this point, I’m firmly in the “benefits” camp. Yes, Software Freedom is massively important. To the people producing GNOME, anyway. To the people who are consuming GNOME, I’m not so sure. The existing community, yes. The prospective community — the people who we target with marketing — probably not so much.

Talking about Software Freedom to most people is an “eat your vegetables” approach to marketing. It’s like telling people that they should diet and exercise (and eat their veggies) in order to be healthy and live longer — all of which is true, and sound advice. But what motivates people to exercise and diet, usually? The message that they will look and feel better in the short term. You’ve all seen the “join a gym now so you’re ready for swimsuit season” advertisements. Convincing people that getting slimmer and healthier to live longer is a hard sell. Convincing people that they can be more attractive and so on — that tends to seal the deal. Even though living longer and being more generally healthy is more important than looking good — it’s not something that resonates with most people.

One of the things we talked about in the marketing meetings in Waltham is this idea: Logic leads to conclusions, but emotions lead to actions. You can make the logical argument about Software Freedom until the proverbial cows (or gnus…) come home, but if people aren’t buying it emotionally, they’ll stick with their existing stuff.

The same is true for Software Freedom. Convincing people who don’t code, don’t compile, and rarely even install their own OS that the FSF’s Four Freedoms are important is a pretty tough task.

It’s best to lead with the benefits that people will see immediately or nearly immediately. Yes, we can still talk about Software Freedom, but leading with that as a key message? It’s probably not going to have the effect we want when talking to the “average” user.

This is a hard mindset to adopt for people who do care deeply about Software Freedom. It’s not logical! Why wouldn’t people care a lot about this?! Probably for the same reason that people like RMS don’t care much about having the new shiny if it isn’t Free Software — it’s an entirely different set of priorities.

Now, you can take the approach that you’re going to change someone’s priorities and then they’ll naturally gravitate to Free Software. All you need to do is:

  • Explain the difference between free software and proprietary software
  • Explain why free software is better than proprietary software
  • Explain why the benefits of free software apply to a person who doesn‚Äôt code or even know much about computers
  • Convince them that the benefits are important enough to switch
  • Then educate them on GNOME

The other approach is to de-emphasize the Free Software angle and emphasize the benefits of the project. This applies to GNOME, but it can apply equally well to openSUSE, or KDE, or any other project:

  • Introduce them to the project
  • Explain the benefits of the project, including Freedom
  • Educate them on how to switch

I hope it’s obvious why strategy number one has not been terribly successful. Note that part of strategy number two includes making sure that the software is, in fact, better than the proprietary alternatives. That’s a lot of work, but it’s likely to be less work than convincing the majority of users that they should eat their vegetables and use the Free Software even if it’s not as easy to use or full-featured as the proprietary alternatives.

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