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Community Articles: Opinions, Interviews, Analyses

Editor: Louis Suárez-Potts

2001 September 11


About Marketing in an Open Source Community

-Gianluca Turconi


The idea of an OpenOffice.org Marketing project is born from the assumption that an Open Source community should know what the needs of its members are, so that it can resolve problems in a fast and fair way. The reaction of our community to the proposal was contradictory, even if encouraging. In fact, many people believe that marketing is applicable only to the free enterprise system and to the world of the corporations.

Is the OpenOffice.org suite a product? Do the developers receive a suitable support from the community? Is the OpenOffice.org suite only for Linux? These questions and many others very similar were asked in OpenOffice.org lists in the last couple of weeks. The answers were very different, and they were sometimes incompatible. This example shows how an Open Source community can have several voices inside: the developer, the user, the researcher, the amateur, the professional. And everybody will have his or her own answer, because everybody has his or her own needs.

Doing "marketing" in an Open Source community has an additional difficulty in comparison to the traditional market analysis. Normally, a corporation knows what its productive capabilities are, what it can afford and what it cannot. On the other hand, we need to know what we can do and only then, we will be able to define a strategy to achieve our goals. Several uncertainties can affect the success or the failure of an Open Source project. The most important among them is surely the consistency and quality of its members. But, how can we increase the number of our members without knowing the needs of those people who are currently part of our community and of the others who may join the community, if only. . . ?

An OpenOffice.org Marketing project could be the solution. The working structure would be simple: Analysis, Interpretation, and Communication.

On the internal side, this concept first means to understand the motivations of the members, how they express them in their work for the community, and how they would react to specific community behaviors. The "Linux vs. MS Windows" diatribe can be used as example. Many members are Linux users and a high percentage among them considers OpenOffice.org as a Linux project. They demand or propose improvements for Linux only, forgetting that one of the most important features of the OpenOffice.org suite is to be multi-platform. This is the Analysis phase. Now, we know that Linux users can have a monothematic vision of the OpenOffice.org Project. In the Interpretation phase, we should understand the reasons behind this behavior, by asking: Do they understand the full nature of the OpenOffice.org Project? Are they ignorant of the Project? Or, is this a problem related to their philosophical interpretation of Open Source? After we have a sure answer, we'll be able to communicate in the right way that OpenOffice.org is a multi-platform project. Nobody will be unsatisfied (which would risk member's defection) and the correct information will be received.

On the external side, an OpenOffice.org marketing project would have to face a double challenge: How to gain new members and how to handle the growing success of our suite! Fortunately, whoever is a potential member of the community is also an potential OpenOffice.org end-user. So, the classical marketing techniques can be applied to both categories. The contradictory reactions, of which I was speaking above, were just about these topics. Must the OpenOffice.org community provide marketing, support, and other related services for the end-users? Some community members object that we are not ready to offer such kind of services. They say we lack the developers, the members; in a nutshell, the forces to meet the challenge.

The secret of an Open Source community is that nobody knows its potential. Neither the founders nor the members. It can only be perceived by intuition or with a marketing survey. . . . The weekly increasing number of binaries downloads mean something: Out there, in the world, there are several thousand of latent OpenOffice.org members; and they are end-users.

Another objection to an external marketing effort is that a lot of end-users are non-technical people (in a strict sense) and they could ruinously flood the OpenOffice.org web site and mailing lists. Put aside the fact that many non-technical people are already contributing to the Project, we have to understand that when an Open Source community achieves the success level OpenOffice.org has achieved, it has new needs that the developers cannot satisfy. Of course, using a technical terminology, the "kernel" of the Project will be the developing of the source code as essential priority, but the superstructure will be composed (and partially is already now) by non-technical members: lawyers, marketing experts, writers, and journalists. So, the source is the base, but law must protect it, it must be valorized in the software market and the world must know of its existence!

Finally, the hardest objection made is that whatever expectation the end-users could have, no member can guarantee that the community will satisfy it. This problem can seem equal to the first one discussed in this article: the lack of available forces. Instead, it is quite different. Here, the focus is not pointing to the number of developers, but to their will. A programmer's motivation can vary considerably: study, amateur or professional interest, ambition (yes, even that!). What would happen if a group of core developers, who are working on a code Project, didn't want to change their program to follow a suggestion of the marketing project based on an end-users request? Well, it can be said that marketing management individualizes the problems, suggests the solutions, but doesn't solve them directly. The community is based on the collaboration; we'll find a workaround.

In conclusion, an OpenOffice.org Marketing project has its pros and its cons, but seeing the enthusiasm raised from this proposal, there's no doubt that the benefits will be more than the costs.

 

About the author

Gianluca Turconi is a writer living in Italy whose passions are law, literature, and competitive cycling. And, of course, OpenOffice.org, where he is a member of the Documentation project, the leader of the Marketing project, and a frequent contributor to the general discuss list. You can read his bio in our Spotlight.

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