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Do free software projects need marketing teams?

The announcement of the GNOME Mobility & Embedded Initiative was generally popular within the GNOME project itself. There was one complaint which could be heard in the right places, however: it seems that this whole initiative was conceived of and agreed to without the involvement of the GNOME marketing team. One might well ask: if the marketing team does not get involved in an agreement like this one, what does the project keep it around for?

There's a couple of responses which are worth a read. Dave Neary, a member of this team, had some stark comments:

Here it is again: no-one cares about the marketing team. We produce nothing. We have not shown ourselves to be useful. So no-one is going to come and talk to us about anything until that changes.

Jeff Waugh, the driving force behind the embedded initiative, states:

We make things happen by taking the reins, establishing buy-in, and kicking arse. Not by waiting to receive blessing or permission.

One might well argue that the GNOME marketing team has failed to live up to expectations. Some members of the team are doing so and beginning to think about ways to change that situation. As a result, we might well see a more active team in the future. But there is a question which is worth asking here: to what extent might the comments quoted above apply to any project's marketing team? It might just be that a project which is trying to grow its user and development community has little to gain from the formation of a marketing group.

In the corporate environment, a marketing team takes a leading role in identifying potential customers, designing something that those customers might just want to buy, and finding ways to motivate customers to make that purchase. Once a marketing strategy has been worked out and adopted, the rest of the company is expected to work to execute that strategy. In successful companies, marketing tends to lead the way.

Most free software projects are not amenable to this sort of leadership. What gets done in free software is what individual developers decide to do - or are told to do by their employers. Paid developers may well be working toward the execution of a marketing plan, but it's their employer's plan, not the project's plan. Free software hackers will be working to make a project better, but they are not marching to the project's drummer. They will not seek approval from a project's marketing team when they decide what to hack on.

The same is true of project members who work to create initiatives or alliances in a specific area. GNOME's support of embedded applications comes as a result of work by interested developers and the companies which are operating in that area. It was a natural consequence of the way the embedded market is going; there was no need for a marketing team to foresee, plan for, or mandate a bigger role for GNOME in the embedded marketplace. If a GNOME marketing group were to call for such a role, it would have little effect on GNOME developers working on more traditional desktop applications. Free software projects are not corporations; free software users and developers will not wait for a marketing group to sign off on their plans.

Some projects do have marketing organizations which appear to be effective. The push behind the Firefox browser is arguably one of the most prominent examples; the alliances and promotional campaigns which have been arranged have undoubtedly helped to increase adoption of the software. The marketing of packages like MySQL has also been effective. There is a pattern to be seen here: in almost all of the cases where a free software project has had an effective marketing operation, that project is owned and controlled by a single corporation. In such cases, the project's marketing plan is, in fact, a component of the company's plan; it's the company's control of the project which allows its marketing objectives to drive what the project does.

In the absence of that sort of control, it's not clear what a free software project's marketing team can achieve. Certainly a marketing group can point out areas of opportunity in the hope that developers will choose to pursue those opportunities. Such pointing-out must be done carefully, though; free software hackers tend to be irritated by those who seem to be trying to tell them what to do. Marketing teams can also fulfill a useful sales role by, for example, organizing booths at trade shows, distributing live CDs, convincing distributors to package the software, etc.

But it's not the marketing group which will bring about a project's success; that depends on the code, artwork, music, documentation, support, etc. provided by the project's members. A project is made by its community, not by a marketing plan. It's hard to imagine wanting that to change.

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Do free software projects need marketing teams?

Posted Apr 26, 2007 3:51 UTC (Thu) by dberkholz (guest, #23346) [Link]

The last half of this article talks about marketing to the developers, but what volunteer projects need to do is market to the users. Not to decide where they're going next, but to showcase what they already have! It's really more of a PR team than a team making active decisions about where the project will go next, although doing user studies can help to inform the developers of areas they might want to work on.

Do free software projects need marketing teams?

Posted Apr 26, 2007 5:19 UTC (Thu) by JoeBuck (guest, #2330) [Link]

You are confused. Showcasing what you already have, and trying to get people to buy it or adopt it, and without having influence on what comes next, is not marketing. It's sales, which is a completely different function in most businesses.

Marketing is future-directed, and is about getting both the developers and the customers/users to buy in to future plans. Marketing, in a company, is about setting that company's future direction.

Do free software projects need marketing teams?

Posted Apr 26, 2007 5:41 UTC (Thu) by dberkholz (guest, #23346) [Link]

Probably. I wasn't a business major. But it seems to me that we need to redefine terms to fit the reality of a volunteer-based project, where we don't have any control and we're limited to persuasion.

Do free software projects need marketing teams?

Posted Apr 26, 2007 9:49 UTC (Thu) by jschrod (subscriber, #1646) [Link]

This is a very narrow view of marketing. And written with such assurance, even though many business folks can't agree on the meaning of that term. (I'm the CEO of a successful mid-sized company; and speak here from personal experience.)

See for a non-scientific overview. You refered only to the first third of the core objectives: creating value for customers. But communicating and delivering a project's value is also part of marketing; and you seem to neglect that, or to dismiss it as PR or advertisement.

Do free software projects need marketing teams?

Posted Apr 26, 2007 17:14 UTC (Thu) by JoeBuck (guest, #2330) [Link]

The comment I was replying to contained the quote "Not to decide where they're going next, but to showcase what they already have!" I contend that such a narrow role belongs to sales, not marketing. Of course marketing involves advocacy of the company's current position, and not just the future. But to explicitly advocate not focusing on what's next seems like strictly-sales to me.

Do free software projects need marketing teams?

Posted Apr 29, 2007 14:28 UTC (Sun) by dark (guest, #8483) [Link]

The problem is that calling it "sales" makes no sense when it's something you're trying to give away for free. Do we need a new word here?

Do free software projects need marketing teams?

Posted Apr 27, 2007 14:10 UTC (Fri) by kevinbsmith (guest, #4778) [Link]

I think most FLOSS projects would do *much* better if they had marketing teams. Let's start with the fact that many/most FLOSS project web sites are absolutely terrible. Someone new (user or developer) coming to the home page for the first time should be welcomed with "Here is what our project is, here is why you might be interested." Unfortunately, few projects have anything like that. That's marketing.

Next, speaking as a sometime FLOSS project lead, I can list a few tasks that I didn't really enjoy, but which took a ton of time: Writing introductory documentation; writing release announcements, updating all the links to the project (freshmeat, ruby-org, etc); first-level tech support; responding to comparison reviews including our product. All of those could be considered marketing.

I also ran a survey at one point to find out what features would be most useful in the next release. Marketing. I managed the project roadmap. Marketing. We needed a logo. Marketing. We probably needed a catchy tagline. Marketing.

I would love to have had a marketing person or group who could have taken on all that work. It would have freed me up to write code, or answer the really tough tech support questions. Perhaps because I actually have a business background (degree), I appreciate that role.

In the case of GNOME, the developers either weren't aware of the marketing group, or didn't realize the potential value they could offer, or had decided that this particular marketing group was not capable of helping. Whatever the reason, that is unfortunate. And it certainly is no reason to come to the conclusion that marketing teams are not helpful to FLOSS projects.

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