Choosing open source as a marketing strategy

More than contributions to source code and word-of-mouth, open source software is also the best product marketing strategy.
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It can take a while to understand the concept of open source software—at least for me, it was difficult to understand why anyone would develop a product and then open it up to the entire world. It is a general assumption that products are developed to be sold, not to be given for free, and I saw software as such a product. After a while, however, the value of open source, especially in terms of product development, became clearer to me. Two heads are better than one, as the saying goes, and any developer, regardless of their location, can work on an open source project and contribute with incredible results—a dynamic not as easy or possible to achieve in proprietary software projects. But what I want to discuss here is how the benefits of open source are as relevant from a marketing strategy point of view as they are for product development.

Traditional businesses are not used to opening up "the source code" of their products, but there are some interesting cases out there. Brewdog, a craft beer brand, provided their detailed recipes to the general public free of charge, and that move was crucial in their marketing strategy. Today, they are quite popular in the homebrewing community worldwide because of that. They don't leverage the community to improve their beers; Brewdog's beers were already good, and product development was not the point. They wanted to increase awareness of craft beer as an alternative to the mass-produced brands, and their strategy was to help the community learn to make beers on their own, and thereby appreciate the craft. It was 100% a marketing strategy, and it paid off.

It is also common to find traditional companies with larger marketing teams than product teams. There's a reason for that—selling products can sometimes be difficult. Marketing teams need to understand which direction the market is going. What are your customers' demands and wishes? What are their new pain points, and who are the personas they are serving? These days we're also dealing with general behavior changes due to impactful events, such as the COVID-19. Gaining rich insight into your customers' wants and needs is more important than ever. Having a community serve as the business' backbone helps marketing teams to better and more quickly understand market changes and needs.

When we at TotalCross decided to start supporting our SDK for embedded systems, we realized that moving to an open source model could be a good strategy to engage engineers to help us in our technical challenges. Coming from the mobile market, it seemed the best way to improve our code and promote it quickly. The community of users could fill our technical gaps by building new features, documentation, and tutorials, and help us to spread the word. But the commitment was made when we figured out how important this change would be to our marketing strategy.

The community delivers not only product improvement but also tells you what they want. They will give you daily feedback, provided you are delivering value back to them. As such, open source companies do not need to spend much time (or money) trying to figure out consumer needs and expectations. That frees up more resources to be spent on product development than marketing. Granted, all open source software needs good support from their marketing teams, and it still is a challenging part of the business. But once a strong community is built on top of a technology, the marketing team will receive data, insights, and new trends 24/7 at no further cost. It is the marketer's heaven.

Finding the best revenue model is one of the biggest challenges in open source business. It is hard to figure out what the market has a willingness to pay for because its needs change frequently. Having a close connection with users allows marketing teams to quickly understand these market changes and offer the best free and paid solutions. That way, the marketing team's work is more related to digging into ideas coming from the community than coming up with new features based on market research.

Starting a hard-tech business is simpler than starting a regular business. Hard-tech is more difficult to develop, more time consuming, and more expensive. But once it is done, the rest is easier, generally because the technical risk is bigger than the market risk. The same is true of starting an open source software business. It is hard to develop a relevant technology and even harder to build a strong community on top of it. But once you succeed in these first steps, all the rest will be easier, especially when it comes to delivering a product that answers your customers' evolving needs.

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Nathalie Risbakk
I'm a Frontend developer. I create and bring user interfaces to life. I'm in charge of TotalCross website, documentation, and GitHub repository. I also organize the infrequent Age of Empires II company tournament. I have a STEM background, and a Master's degree in Engineering from NTNU. I love all things tech and science.
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I'm an enthusiast of open source businesses and their strategy to add value to the community without giving up profit.

1 Comment

It is a great article! Thank you!

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