Lately, I’ve been think­ing more than ever about ways to pro­mote free and open source soft­ware to a non-tech­nic­al crowd. This has largely been promp­ted by the Edu­ca­tion Expo in Sydney, for which I am co-ordin­at­ing the Linux Aus­tralia stand (Stand F9). Cur­rently on my mind is Open CeBIT, which is right around the corner. I’ve been doing some (for­tu­nately not all) plan­ning for two stands, my employ­er­’s and Linux Australia’s.

Here are some thoughts I have had regard­ing FOSS mar­ket­ing. It’s a bit of a jumble, but hope­fully it comes of some help.

  • Mar­ket­ing is just struc­tured, meth­od­ic­al, non-rabid evan­gel­ism. It isn’t inher­ently dirty, and it is not syn­onym­ous with advert­ising (advert­ising can be a part of mar­ket­ing, but the two aren’t con­joined). We in the FOSS com­munity need to get over the stigma that is some­times attached to ‘mar­ket­ing’, so that we may har­ness it for good and not evil.
  • Identi­fy your tar­get audi­ence, then determ­ine what kinds of ques­tions they will be asking/​thinking. This is Mar­ket­ing 101, but it can be easy to lose sight of. While can be good to cast a wide net, being tac­tic­ally focused can often yield bet­ter res­ults. For the Edu­ca­tion Expo we have a leaf­let spe­cific­ally for stu­dents, and for CeBIT we have one for busi­nesses.
  • As a fol­low-on from the pre­vi­ous point, know whom to keep on-side. While your school/​university might be using Microsoft products, that does­n’t neces­sar­ily mean that they are in bed with Bill Gates. Don’t assume malice when the more likely reas­on is simple ignor­ance or mis­un­der­stand­ing. Writ­ing an accus­at­ive art­icle in your stu­dent paper might give you a tem­por­ary sense of sat­is­fac­tion, but such a hos­tile approach is more than likely to back­fire on you and cement the Estab­lish­ment’s neg­at­ive (or lack of) opin­ion on FOSS. Try to gently edu­cate, not censure.
  • Rel­ev­ant case stud­ies are pure gold. If you’re deal­ing with the edu­ca­tion sec­tor, talk about suc­cess­ful school deploy­ments, inter­est­ing pro­jects like One Laptop Per Child and appro­pri­ate devices like the Asus Eee PC.
  • Ref­er­en­cing hon­est, inde­pend­ent stud­ies can be much more per­suas­ive than refer­ring to press releases or vendor-sponsored reports.
  • There are some angles that might not dir­ectly apply to the tar­get professions/​market, but might peri­pher­ally be of interest to people. This includes things like the bene­fits to the loc­al eco­nomy and industry, the envir­on­ment, gov­ern­ment and so on.
  • Most people either have chil­dren, are chil­dren or have a soft spot for chil­dren. FOSS is great for kids and edu­ca­tion, so be able to talk about that! Par­ents are always look­ing for ways to get their kids engaged in fun and con­struct­ive activ­it­ies, if only so that they can have five minutes of peace and quiet in the house 🙂
  • Focus on value, not cost. It might not cost any­thing to acquire and use FOSS, but people are nat­ur­ally scep­tic­al of things that are pro­moted as hav­ing no cost (and really, who can blame them?). Lead­ing your argu­ment with “it’s free” leaves people to won­der if there is a catch or if the product is of a less­er qual­ity. To take Open​Of​fice​.org as an example, it com­pares very favour­ably to Microsoft Office in terms of func­tion­al­ity and of course free­dom. To stress the ‘free­ware’ angle is to sell it short, and could leave your listen­er to believe that it’s just an ‘el cheapo’ knock-off. The fact that many com­pan­ies (e.g. Sun, Nov­ell, IBM) con­trib­ute to and bene­fit from’s devel­op­ment is evid­ence that it is of a high stand­ard and is of eco­nom­ic value. Fire­fox is a great example to use, as almost every­one has some famili­ar­ity with it. Fire­fox has benefited greatly from Google and AOL, to name but two major con­trib­ut­ors. In turn, these com­pan­ies have built busi­ness mod­els around it (not so much AOL these days, but they are still prob­ably the largest con­trib­ut­or overall).
  • FOSS is very pro-free-mar­ket, and is in fact sim­il­ar to the ideal held by many eco­nom­ists known as per­fect com­pet­i­tion. As already men­tioned, Linux has and con­tin­ues to be bene­fi­cial to a very wide range of com­pan­ies and industries.
  • Free­dom is vital, but I find that people nor­mally don’t under­stand if you begin your explan­a­tion by talk­ing about dis­trib­uted devel­op­ment or Soft­ware Libre. Start by talk­ing about more obvi­ous bene­fits, like soft­ware qual­ity, rap­id devel­op­ment, long-term afford­ab­il­ity, reli­ab­il­ity and so on. This will inev­it­ably lead people to won­der how this can be achieved, and of course the answer is that it is all Free Soft­ware. Then you have your open­ing to talk about soft­ware free­dom and the FOSS com­munity, and it will seem much more rel­ev­ant to your audi­ence. This isn’t a mat­ter of de-emphas­ising Free­dom, but rather a way to pre­pare your audi­ence so that they can be more recept­ive to it.
  • Of course, there are the age-old argu­ments versus Win­dows sur­round­ing speed, vir­uses, and so on. But it is bet­ter to keep the Microsoft-bash­ing to a min­im­um. Going off on an anti-Microsoft rant only fuels those who like to falsely label FOSS sup­port­ers as com­mun­ist­s/an­arch­ist­s/anti-cap­it­al­ists.
  • Nev­er­the­less, pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware is poten­tially cap­able of match­ing FOSS for qual­ity, speed, secur­ity, etc.. The one thing they can­not match is Free­dom. Free­dom is our fun­da­ment­al advantage.
  • Ana­lo­gies to parts of every­day life can help to make people con­nect with the ideas behind FOSS. Simple things like shar­ing and modi­fy­ing recipes, lend­ing a book, open­ing the bon­net of your car and remix­ing music are already accep­ted (indeed, expec­ted) by the gen­er­al popu­lace, and have dir­ect par­al­lels to the prin­ciples of FOSS.
  • Speak­ing of ana­lo­gies and examples, appro­pri­ate ones are closer than you may think. Just about every­one uses FOSS in some form or oth­er. Fire­fox, Open​Of​fice​.org, the GIMP, Google, You­tube, Face­book, Wiki­pe­dia and Apache are all great examples. There is noth­ing to be afraid of.
  • Mac OS X users are already pro­lif­ic users of FOSS, as their oper­at­ing sys­tem con­tains some BSD, Samba, CUPS and more. They are famil­i­ar with FOSS without even know­ing it.
  • EULAs and DRM mean that the soft­ware or media file that you just bought isn’t really owned by you. Your rights are restric­ted and can be revoked at any time. This should be cause for con­cern for any consumer.
  • It might help to cap­it­al­ise Free Soft­ware in doc­u­ment­a­tion, as a means of emphas­is and to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from freeware.
  • Be hon­est! Free soft­ware is inher­ently hon­est and account­able by vir­tue of being open. We should be using his hon­esty and open­ness as our advant­age. Remem­ber that there’s a dif­fer­ence between explain­ing some­thing in an attract­ive way and out­right lying. Don’t make FOSS sound bet­ter than it really is. Noth­ing is per­fect, and if you make FOSS sound per­fect you’ll likely be met with sus­pi­cion. Linux isn’t Win­dows — it does look an feel dif­fer­ent. But it’s not neces­sar­ily any bet­ter or worse (depend­ing on the par­tic­u­lar soft­ware in ques­tion), it’s just a bit dif­fer­ent. If you lead people to think that Open​Of​fice​.org is the same as Microsoft Office, they might rail against it at the slight­est dif­fer­ence they find. It’s dif­fer­ent, but cer­tainly no more dif­fer­ent than Office 2003 is from Office 2007. At the end of the day, it’s about man­aging expect­a­tions — por­tray­ing FOSS in a pos­it­ive light but not cre­at­ing unreal­ist­ic hopes. The last thing we want are a bat­talion of users dis­gruntled because they expec­ted FOSS to be able to vacu­um their house. Those people will be far less likely to try FOSS again, even years later.
  • As a corol­lary of the pre­vi­ous point, advocacy is about man­aging expect­a­tions. Set real­ist­ic expect­a­tions and people will be less likely to be dis­ap­poin­ted in the longer term.
  • Avoid sound­ing like you’re selling snake oil. Copi­ous use of all-caps, bold text and exclam­a­tion marks runs the risk of mak­ing your well-inten­tioned writ­ing look like just anoth­er scam.
  • Be pos­it­ive! People don’t want to read bad news, and there’s plenty of good stuff to say about FOSS. Hon­esty takes pri­or­ity, but phrase it well.
  • Be pre­pared to fight FUD, but remain positive.
  • Free soft­ware is more trust­worthy. Would you trust your pri­vacy and sens­it­ive data (Web brows­ing his­tory, e‑mail, fin­an­cial records, etc.) to non-audit­able soft­ware? Iden­tity theft and oth­er forms of cyber­crime are a major and under­ap­pre­ci­ated prob­lem. The old asser­tion that nobody would both­er to “hack” into your home com­puter is mis­lead­ing, as most intru­sions are made by bots and worms.
  • A pic­ture can tell a thou­sand words. A video can tell a mil­lion. A good screen­cast works won­ders. If you’re run­ning a stand at an expo, have a mon­it­or play­ing a pile of screen­casts in a con­tinu­ous loop, with sub­titles (because people are unlikely to be able to hear any­thing on a crowded show floor).
  • Inter­na­tion­al­isa­tion and Access­ib­il­ity can be power­ful draw­cards for some, espe­cially those of non-Eng­lish speak­ing backgrounds.
  • Not every­body loves FOSS (yet), but few can argue against the mer­its of open stand­ards. Most FOSS is built around open standards.
  • Open stand­ards are at least as import­ant as Free Soft­ware. Don’t con­flate the two — pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware can employ open stand­ards. Even if someone rejects Open​Of​fice​.org, I’d feel some solace know­ing that they’re con­vert­ing their MS Office doc­u­ments to PDF (an open stand­ard) for shar­ing with others.
  • Make it as easy as pos­sible for people to get involved. Hand out CDs or DVDs with soft­ware use­ful to your audi­ence, like Ubuntu/​Edubuntu and the OpenDisc/​OpenE­duca­tionDisc. Don’t expect people to jump ship straight to Linux. Let them get their feet wet first with FOSS apps on Win­dows, LiveCDs, dual boots and so on. Baby steps are much easi­er to make than massive strides.
  • Wel­come people to get involved in your com­munity. Ask them to join your mail­ing lists. Invite them to your next LUG meet­ing. Make sure they are fully aware that there’s a vibrant com­munity out there to help them. They can even make friends and employment/​business contacts.
  • There’s only so much that you can include in a short article/​spiel, so be sure to refer to oth­er resources that have more inform­a­tion. Quote or link to sources if you feel they do a good job — there’s no sense in try­ing to rein­vent the wheel. Nobody wants a link farm, though. Be select­ive in your ref­er­ences so that people don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • And finally, keep it short and sweet. I’ve lis­ted a lot of points here, but if you tried to cov­er them all in one go you will end up with a speech/​document that is unac­cept­ably long or lack­ing in depth (like this one! 😉 ). Split them up, or struc­ture them so that the basic mes­sage is passed early on, with the rest being elaboration/​explanation.

We’ve got lots of good stuff to say about FOSS, but what mat­ters is not so much what we say but how we say it.

Marketing FOSS / Sridhar Dhanapalan by Sridhar Dhanapalan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.
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