September 22, 2005
How To

How to Market Open Source Software: Top 3 Mistakes & 5 Useful Tactics

SUMMARY: \"Open source\" is almost as hot a buzzword these days as \"dotcom\" used to be. Unfortunately, that's not where the resemblance ends. If you screw up your open source marketing, the backlash can be pretty nasty. In our exclusive interview, MySQL's VP Marketing Zack Urlocker reveals how to avoid three most common open source marketing mistakes:
Marketers in the open source world deal with a technically sophisticated audience -- generally DBAs and developers -- that won't tolerate marketing fluff. "They're skeptical about puffery or anything that's too polished. There's a lot of cynicism toward marketing," says Zack Urlocker, VP of Marketing for MySQL.

How can you market to techies without a "marketing" voice or style that turns them off? Here's how to avoid three common mistakes, plus five specific tactics that work:

I. Top three open source marketing mistakes

Marketing mistakes are more dangerous in this community than others. You're not just risking your budget -- your brand reputation can get zapped hard and fast.

That's because your prospects are passionate techies who know what they want and are willing to make waves when they don't get it. When you turn off someone in the open source community, your mistake can spread like wildfire, because they talk to each other as a community online and off.

Mistake #1. Not being honest/open

Honesty means being clear about your licensing terms, how you make money, and what your policies are. "You might say, Why do I have to disclose all this stuff to people who aren't even my customers? But you need the community guys to like what you're doing and even approve of it," says Urlocker.

Don't proclaim that you are open source more as a marketing ploy than a true business model just to take advantage of the buzzword. Urlocker puts the trend in context, "In the late nineties, if you wanted to have a hot company you put 'dot com' at the end of your name. Today, a lot of people say, 'Yeah, we're open source,' but what part of you is open source?"

Be transparent: which portions are open, which closed, if any. How long will it be available, and will it always be open? "A lot of companies are saying, 'I'm going to take from the open source world, and then close it off and make it proprietary,'" says Urlocker. That's not okay in this community, unless you make it clear that that's what's going to happen.

Mistake #2. Lack of communication beyond standard launch marcom

This audience wants to know what you have planned, and they don't want to hear about it in a press release. "MySQL does a 'roadmap,' telling them what's planned for the next year or two," Urlocker says. This is posted on both the official site and on related community sites. The audience wants a level of transparency that they don't get from the closed source world.

With that in mind, MySQL employees are also encouraged to blog. "There's probably six or ten employees with their own blogs on open source and business," he says. Is it dangerous to have different employees blogging in the name of the company? "I think it's more important to have people communicating rather than not communicating. We don't always get it right, but our policies are very much about communications rather than commanding control."

There have been times, he says, when someone blogged about something for internal use only. In those cases, the employee quickly realized he had made a mistake and remedied it. An open source company generally can't get away with firing an employee for what they've blogged the way other brands can. So, you need honest and friendly lines of communication between your marcom team and the bloggers on staff.

Mistake # 3. Being overly religious

DBAs and developers get passionate about open source, but when marketers get overly zealous -- as in, this is going to change the world -- most get turned off, Urlocker says.

II. Five useful open source marketing tactics

With 40,000 downloads per day, MySQL is doing something right. Urlocker said the most important thing he does is to share technical information. Here's how:

Tactic #1. "Developer Zone"

Developers want practical, technical information. Urlocker developed an area on the MySQL site that includes book excerpts, resources, best practices, articles, blogs, and more. It also includes information on how to use new features of MySQL. "In doing that, I'm promoting the features, but it's not 'here's a bunch of aggrandizing marketing statements,'" he says. "It's a set of features, and they respond well to factual information."

Tactic #2. Webinars

When Urlocker plans a webinar, he'll get 500 to 800 people online at a time. "And they're involved, they're sending questions as we go. If the speaker starts giving fluff, they'll start sending comments: don't give us fluff, give us technical info…"

Sometimes Urlocker invites a MySQL product manager or technical consultant to hold the seminar. Or he'll ask a customer from the technical side. The most popular are those that get very detailed -- for example, on how a company implemented MySQL and the techniques used. One company went through 15-20 things to look for, questions to ask, and offered plenty of examples.

"People stayed on the line over an hour and a half asking questions, and he kept on answering them. That's a very good indication that we had a virtual roomful of people interested enough to stay well past the coffee break."

Urlocker promotes the webinars in monthly newsletters that go out to several hundred thousand opt-ins. (Note: sending email to a list with "assumed permission" such as past buyers and prospects who have not explicitly opted in to get your newsletter is a big no-no in open source. The community will bite the hand that feeds opt-out email to it.)

Tactic #3. Case studies

Again, technical information is the name of the game:

-- Pick a company that people are interested in and that they know (Yahoo, Craigslist, Sony, etc.)

-- Tell the story from the customer's perspective, including the problem (both the business motivation and the technical motivation)

-- Include technical diagrams that show what the company's architecture looked like. "Technical readers might flip directly to the diagram," Urlocker says.

-- Answer the following questions: How did the company implement it, who were the people involved, what was their skill set, what was the architecture like, what programming languages did they use. "Enough information that a technical buyer would feel like he got his questions answered," he says.

Urlocker produces the case studies as PDFs so they can be downloaded. (Developers don't mind if the graphic design is sleek enough to please upper management as long as the case studies are high in useful content.)

Tactic #4. White papers

Because developers are so interested in data, they're willing to fill out forms to get it. The Developer Zone on the MySQL site offers white papers on a variety of topics. In order to download one, people must fill out five to seven questions.

"We don't ask, What's your budget and when do you plan to buy?" Urlocker says. Rather, he simply asks for email, title, company, and how they plan on using MySQL.

If that same person downloads a second white paper, and they log in or are cookied so the system can recognize them, the new form doesn't ask them to type in all the same info again. Developers would be annoyed by that system stupidity. Instead Urlocker asks them to answer one or two other questions, such as what type of application they're interested in -- internal, data warehousing, etc. -- along with what industry they're in.

Every quarter, Urlocker adds a couple of new white papers to the site. Most recently, he says, he is starting to see interest from government users who want to understand what their peers are doing. "There's a lot of idea sharing at the government level."

Telecommunications companies are also seeking open source information now. "They're all about high availability and performance, so they're looking for how MySQL can enable them to achieve the type of performance that's unique to the telco industry."

Tactic #5. PR and blogs

Because communication is so important in the open source community, stay in tune with what's being said about your company online. Urlocker says, "You can't follow everything, but follow at least a couple," so when there's a posting on your company, you can respond regularly. "You can't just do a one-time, drive-by shooting." (Note: Link below to some resources for tracking this.)

MySQL has employees personally assigned to monitor a number of community websites, forums, and blogs. The company also has a dedicated VP of Community Relations to stay in touch with the open source community.

Urlocker doesn't downplay traditional PR, saying it's still necessary. "But people can choose their medium of communication easier than before," he says. "I'm not dependent on print the way I was five or ten years ago. If you only do the traditional form of PR or corporate communications, there's a large portion of people you're not going to reach."

Useful links related to this article

PubSub -- A free online service where you can sign up for a free RSS feed for new items on the topic of your choice (such as your company name) across 16 million blogs, newsgroups, and news sources:

Intelliseek -- One of several online buzz-measurement companies that function as clipping services for marketers, watching bulletin boards, blogs, and other "consumer-generated media" to see what they are saying about your brand:

Technorati -- One of several free blog search engines you can check for mentions of your company or brand name and/or bloggers hotlinking to your site:


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