Attract contributors to your open source project with authenticity

Check out these methods that open source maintainers can use to attract contributors in a genuine manner.
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Opensource.com

It's not a secret that maintaining an open source project is often thankless and time-consuming work. However, I've learned that there's one shared joy among open source maintainers: They love building with a group of technologists who passionately believe in their vision.

Marketing feels cringey

Community support and teamwork are major incentives for open source maintainers. However, gaining community support and contributors is a challenge, especially as a new maintainer. The hope is that technologists will find our projects and start contributing by chance. The reality is we have to market our projects. Think about it: Developers create several public repositories daily, but nobody knows those repositories exist. Without adoption, community, or collaboration, we're not truly reaping the benefits of open source.

Although marketing an open source project is necessary for a project's overall success, developers are hesitant to do it because marketing to other developers often feels inauthentic and cringey. In this article, I explore methods maintainers can use to attract contributors in a genuine manner.

Promote your open source project

If you want people to contribute to your project, you have to tell them your project exists. So what can promotion look like for you? Instead of spamming discord channels or DMs about an open source project, maintainers can promote their projects through many channels, including:

  • Conference talks: People attend conferences to gain inspiration. Don't be afraid; they're not necessarily looking for a PhD-level lecture. Take the stage at an event like All Things Open, Open Source Series 101, Codeland, or Upstream to talk about what you're building, why you're building it, issues you face, and discoveries you have made. After your talk, people may want to learn more about what you're building and how they can get involved.
  • Blogging: Leverage popular developer blogging platforms such as Aviyel, Dev.to, or Hashnode to talk about your project. Add a link to your project within the blog posts so that the right people can find it. You can also submit an article to the editors here on Opensource.com to raise awareness about your open source project!
  • Twitter: Twitter has a large tech audience, including Developers, UX Designers, Developer Advocates, and InfoSec professionals who want to collaborate and learn from each other. Twitter is the perfect platform to post in an authentic, non-pushy way about your discoveries, new releases, and bug fixes. Folks will learn from you through your tweets and may feel inclined to build with you.
  • Podcasts or Twitter Spaces: Like conference talks, use podcasts and Twitter Spaces to build your project's brand. You don't have to talk about it in a marketing way. You can geek out with the host over your vision and the technical hiccups you've faced along the way.
  • Twitch Streams: Stream yourself live coding your project to create awareness of its existence and pair the program with your viewers. Eventually, they might tell other people about your product, or they might ask to contribute themselves.
  • Hacktoberfest: Hacktoberfest is a month-long event in October that encourages people to make their first contributions to projects. By participating in Hacktoberfest as a maintainer, you may recruit new contributors.
  • Sponsorships: Contributions don't always have to include code. Corporations and individuals can contribute by sponsoring you. Learn more about creating an appealing Sponsor profile here.

Gain community support

The proverb "it takes a village" applies to more than child-rearing. It also takes a village to maintain an open source project. Community is a large part of open source and just general life success. However, community support is a two-way street. To sustain community support, it's a best practice to give back to community members.

What can community support look like for you? As you promote your project, you will find folks willing to support you. To encourage them to continue supporting and appeal to other potential supporters, you can:

  • Highlight contributors/supporters: Once you start getting contributors, you can motivate more people to contribute to your project by highlighting past, current, or consistent contributors in your README. This acknowledgment shows that you value and support your contributors. Send your contributors swag or a portion of your sponsorship money if you can afford it. Folks will naturally gravitate to your projects if you're known for genuinely supporting your open source community.
Acknowledge contributors on a profile page

(Rizel Scarlett, CC BY-SA 4.0)

  • Establish a culture of kindness: Publish a Code of Conduct in your repository to ensure psychological safety for contributors. I strongly suggest you also adhere to those guidelines by responding kindly to people in comments, pull requests, and issues. It's also vital that you enforce your Code of Conduct. If someone in your community is not following the rules, make sure they face the outlined consequences without exception. Don't let a toxic actor ruin your project's environment with unkind language and harassment.
  • Provide a space for open discussion: Often, contributors join an open source community to befriend like-minded technologists, or they have a technical question, and you won't always be available to chat. Open source maintainers often use one of the following tools to create a place for contributors to engage with each other and ask questions in the open:
    • GitHub Discussions
    • Discord
    • Matrix.org
    • Mattermost

Create a "good" open source project

Good is subjective in code or art, but there are a few ways to indicate that your project is well thought out and a good investment. What does creating a good project look like for you? Your project doesn't have to include amazing code or be a life-changing project to indicate quality. Instead, ensure that your project has the following attributes.

Easy to find

To help other people find and contribute to your project, you can add topics to your repository related to your project's intended purpose, subject area, affinity groups, or other important qualities. When people go to github.com/topics to search for projects, your project has a higher chance of showing up.

GitHub Scientist page

(Rizel Scarlett, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Easy to use

Make your project easy to use with a detailed README. It's the first thing new users and potential contributors see when visiting your project's repository. Your README should serve as a how-to guide for users. I suggest you include the following information in your README:

  • Project title
  • Project description
  • Installation instructions
  • Usage instructions
  • Link to your live web app
  • Links to related documentation (code of conduct, license, contributing guidelines)
  • Contributors highlights

You can learn more about crafting the perfect README here.

Easy to contribute to

Providing guidelines and managing issues help potential contributors understand opportunities to help.

  • Contributing guidelines - Similar to a README, contributors look for a markdown file called Contributing.md for insight on how to contribute to your project. Guidelines are helpful for you and the contributor because they won't have to ask you too many questions. The contributing guidelines should answer frequently asked questions. I suggest including the following information in your Contributing.md file:
    • Technologies used
    • How to report bugs
    • How to propose new features
    • How to open a pull request
    • How to claim an issue or task
    • Environment set up
    • Style guide/code conventions
    • Link to a discussion forum or how people can ask for help
    • Project architecture (nice to have)
    • Known issues
  • Good first issues - Highlight issues that don't need legacy project knowledge with the label good-first-issue, so new contributors can feel comfortable contributing to your project for the first time.
discover issues with GitHub

(Rizel Scarlett, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Exercise persistence

Even if no one contributes to your project, keep it active with your contributions. Folks will be more interested in contributing to an active project. What does exercising persistence look like for your project? Even if no one is contributing, continue to build your project. If you can't think of new features to add and you feel like you fixed all the bugs, set up ways to make your project easy to manage and scale when you finally get a ton of contributors.

  • Scalability: Once you get contributors, it will get harder to balance responding to every issue. While you're waiting for more contributors, automate the tasks that will eventually become time-consuming. You can leverage GitHub Actions to handle the release process, CI/CD, or enable users to self-assign issues.

TL;DR

Attracting contributors to your open source project takes time, so be patient and don't give up on your vision. While you're waiting, promote your project by building in public and sharing your journey through blog posts, tweets, and Twitch streams. Once you start to gain contributors, show them gratitude in the form of acknowledgment, psychological safety, and support.

Next steps

For more information on maintaining an open source project, check out GitHub's Open Source Guide.

headshot of Rizel Scarlett smiling with purple faux locs
Rizel is a Developer Advocate at GitHub. She moonlights as the Director of Programs at G{Code} House, an organization aimed at teaching women of color and non-binary people of color to code. Rizel believes in leveraging vulnerability, honesty, kindness, and open source methodologies as means to educate early-career developers.
Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.