What Do You Mean, “Open Source is a Type of Marketing”?

Open Source software isn’t just about collaborative development and free distribution

The two-way dialogue inherent in open source software is also a marketing aspiration

While taking part in a discussion at Open World Forum in Paris earlier this month, I said something that seemed to make waves – “open source is a type of marketing” – so I thought I’d use this post to explain what I meant by this.

In some respects, marketing and open source are viewed as having totally opposite value systems. That is true if we refer to “marketing” simply as creating desires out of thin air, or hard-selling what the customer doesn’t need. But if we approach this concept in a non-dogmatic fashion, I think the answer is clear: While open source is much more than simply creating attention, interest, desire and action, it does go hand in hand with many marketing goals. When properly applied, open source creates awareness and wins over traditional, outdated methods of marketing in many situations. Applying open source properly involves working within the value systems of open source, while meeting its expectations.

Many exciting software startups, like Eucalyptus and 10Gen/MongoDB, are based on open source. Offering free access to the software allows for low barriers to try and adopt. It achieves greater visibility and a broader user base in less time. Hence, it is a very efficient marketing mechanism.

Marketing is defined as “the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers. Marketing satisfies needs and wants through exchange processes and building long term relationships.” Open source software… “permits users to study, change, improve and at times distribute the software. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner.”

One company taking heed of this idea is OpenERP. I was impressed with its presentation at Open World Forum in Paris earlier this month. The company has shown strong growth based on its marketing approach and leverage of open source. OpenERP saw twice the visibility of the #2 company in the same market, with 7 times less funding. Open source is essential to how they generate awareness and leads.

With 55% of all startups failing by year 5 (according to StatisticBrain), and that number jumping to 63% in the information industry, it is critical to learn essential lessons in distribution and marketing early as well as quickly.

Open source is traditionally viewed as a licensing and innovation model. But I believe more should be made of the potential it also offers as a means of marketing. Open code enables community contributions that capture more and better ideas, hence accelerating innovation. By encouraging early and broad adoption through open and free access, you can make a bigger impact in a shorter time. Once you have a broad user base, it is easier to find ways of offering additional value that users are willing to pay for.

As someone who spent much of my career in the mobile industry, I see many parallels between mobile app stores and open source software. Nearly 9 in 10 mobile apps available this year are free. The apps aren’t open source, but the app store business model and marketing strategy give similar reach and visibility.

Think of Instagram. This early team of 5 could never have achieved the tens of millions of users and global awareness it had before the Facebook acquisition without offering the app free of charge. Same goes for open source software strategy. Make your core code widely available free of charge, but have an idea or two of how to monetize it once it’s being used widely.

App developers have been clever in finding innovative ways to motivate free users to pay in return for what they perceive to be added value in the premium versions of apps. Offering free games with premium features – like tips for winning, or giving access to additional levels – entices enthusiastic users to pay.

The SkySQL management team and I did some soul searching recently. While we as individuals, and as an organization, are big proponents of open source, and our business is geared to open source users, we as a company have not previously contributed code to the community. That is why we decided to take a different approach starting last month with the launch of the SkySQL Cloud Data Suite. SkySQL aims to be the leading provider of valuable, performance-enhancing and revenue-generating solutions for the 15 million users of MySQL and MariaDB open source databases both in the enterprise and the cloud. We aim to leverage the multiple facets of open source as a means to achieve this goal.

Marketing is no longer about broadcasting messages to your target audience. Today, especially thanks to social media, marketing is a 2-way exchange between producers and consumers. This is not much different from open source.

As always, I welcome your feedback and look forward to your comments!

Join the conversation – follow us / like us / join us
Twitter:@skysql /Facebook/LinkedIn