If you build it, they won't come: Why your project needs better marketing

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A community building a barn


FOSS (free and open source software) conferences are full of talks about how to improve your code, or how you manage your code, or what the latest and greatest languages and tools are. But a successful open source project is about more than good code. First, let's talk about what success is, because success isn't a guarantee.

University of Massachusetts faculty members Charles Schweik and Robert English have studied open source projects and their success extensively. In a study of 174,333 projects through 2009, they were able to declare success or abandonment for only 145,475. (Although this specific data is aging, I believe it is still accurate to prove the point.) Almost half of those were abandoned before a first release. Another third were left behind after that first release. Success also doesn't have to mean becoming a household name or having thousands of contributors. It's your project, which means you get to define what success means. But that also means that for your first step, you need to establish what your goals are.

Once that is done, you can write the most stunning code in history, build the most useful piece of software ever conceived, upload it to Github, and ... have no users. No contributors. What went wrong?

They don't know you exist.

And that's just the first of many problems you may have. Perhaps your next user knows you exist—maybe because of one of those other conference talks. He scribbled the name of your project on a scrap of conference center notepad and tucked it in his backpack. A month later, he comes across it, searches for you, and finds your project. The only problem is...

  • Your website fails to explain exactly what your software does.
  • There's a download link, but no information on the features.
  • You didn't offer any information on how to file a bug or join a mailing list.

As a result, despite your project's clever name and logo featuring an obscure animal, two puns, and your favorite color, that potential user clicks away to look for something else to solve his problems.

Remember: You are not your user. You know everything about what you've made. Nobody else does. Approach your public face as if you know nothing, and see what it looks like. Better yet, recruit other people—preferably not the person on the other side of your cubicle wall you've been discussing this project over lunch with every day—to tell you what they think.

In short, your project team needs marketers. You may think that's a dirty word, but that dirty word is the key to reaching those goals you established. You need someone who can write well, which means clearly conveying information about your project, including what it does, who its intended users are, and how to use it. (Note that marketing writers and documentation writers have different skill sets and may not appear in the same contributor.)

Ruth will be addressing all of this and more in her LinuxCon talk, If You Build It, They Won't Come, on August 22. Attend her talk to learn more about what you need beyond your code to build a successful open source project and community.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


Great teaser, Ruth. I wish I could make it to LinuxCon to see your full talk.

Hi Ben, I've heard a lot about Linux Con too. One of my team mate was there. Someday we can make it :)

Another thing, too many open source projects start with two strikes against them, even when potential users are able to find the. Many projects burden themselves with unprofessional naming and presentation. Not so much a problem if trying to get developers interested, but for the general user, the software'r attraction is crippled by third rate names like Grub, Gimp..., lame websites, etc. It's hard to take someone seriously who shows at a job interview wearing plaid and strips and paisleys.

As someone who has been fairly successful in marketing open source projects due to my love & passion of the ideology, I loved seeing this piece on Hacker News. I actually picked up my life and moved from Detroit to Atlanta just to work for an open source blockchain company.

I wrote a lengthy reply to this in the Hacker News thread and I think anyone here would love reading it too. It makes me want to share my experiences and wisdom at Linux Con as I would imagine that audience really needs to hear what I would say!

Here's the Hacker News Thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12267601

Thanks for the article Ruth. There is a lot of room in those technology projects for the human side of what is being worked on. I always stress to make communication human readable. It is mind-blowing how many project website do not explain what the project is about or kinda assume the obviousness. I also see that the inherent tech aspect of these projects, especially in the development phase do not have any room for that kind of communication. As community strategist I see there is a big responsibility for community managers to integrate marketing skills into the job, like Jono Bacon mentioned in his earlier article about the spider and the starfish (http://www.jonobacon.org/2015/01/19/bridging-marketing-and-community/).

Another thing that I think is very important is that we need to be aware the gap between humans and technology is getting larger everyday. Only in communicating clearly and in a human way from the very beginning can we keep connect the two in a meaningful way and keep technology sane and beneficial in supporting mankind.

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