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 OpenOffice.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 OpenOffice.org’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, OpenOffice.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 OpenOffice.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 OpenOffice.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.

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