How I marketed free software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 13, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

In 2000-01, I was director of marketing and communications at Progeny Linux Systems. As an early hire in a startup, I had many jobs, but the most important was to create name recognition for the company. Relying heavily on the experience and talent of Optimium Design and Consulting, I created a series of three ads to introduce the company. Recently, I came across the ads, and, with no false modesty, I discovered that they held up surprisingly well as examples of how to market a project or company in free and open source software (FOSS).

Marketing to FOSS is radically different from general ads to consumers or to other businesses. To start with, FOSS can be deeply suspicious about exploitation and free-riding from business outsiders. Just as importantly, FOSS contributors are often as intelligent as they like to think, and would prefer to make decisions based on information rather than emotional appeals. For these reason, FOSS marketing needs a delicate touch in order to reach its target audience.

Such an audience cannot be counted on to look at an ad carefully. In fact, many, like me, have trained themselves not to notice ads consciously at all. My solution was an uncluttered layout that could hardly fail to catch the eye, especially with the vertically lines guiding readers from the top left, where people begin to read, down to the image, and then across and down to the company logo.

The ads were handicapped by the fact that the first two were released before Progeny had any product for sale, but that was not a handicap, because the campaign was building identity, not drumming up sales.

Selling Me Softly
With this assessment of the target audience, I developed a series of three ads to introduce the company: the first to introduce the company name, with next to no text, the second to continue with the same layout but giving a bit more information, and the third to play with the established theme and give more information. But there was never any need to give too much information, because each ad included Progeny's home page.

The theme for the campaign was kept simple: Progeny was different from other companies because it was already part of the community. This message was evident even in the graphics, one representing Progeny by itself, and another its competitors, who were also shown in a crowd in the first ad.

From the headline, the ads were painstaking soft-sell,  to the point of self-mockery. Beginning with "Some companies," each headline was completed with a message only slightly more specific: "are a breed apart" or "don't just toy with open source". Nothing in the text pressured readers, or even raised many questions.

After the headline, readers saw the contrasting images carrying the same message, and marking the headlines tongue-in-cheek. The idea was that, By the time readers reached the more earnest text -- or at least the bottom headline -- they should be more willing to read because the ad had drawn them in without any pressure.

My reasoning was that the one exception to FOSS readers' dislike of non-logical appeals was humor in general and self-deprecating humor specifically. Progeny did depict itself as a bigger, stronger animal than its competitors, but the choices of animals -- a lion cub, a macaw, and an elephant were not the ways that most companies depicted themselves. Moreover, the exaggerated difference with its competitors should make clear that Progeny was not taking itself too seriously.

After the second ad, I hoped, viewers with any interest would recognize the ongoing pattern. So, for the third ad, we exaggerated even more, showing Progeny as a rampaging elephant and its competitors as a stuffed toy. The text picked up the image, punning shameless about how other companies would "trumpet" about their open source connections and "toy with open source to be part of the herd" -- all of which was deliberately over the top, but, with any luck, all the more memorable for not taking itself seriously.

Sticking with the basics
We never had any metrics for the campaign. Part of the problem was that Progeny had attracted so many Debian luminaries -- for instance, Ian Murdock, Bruce Perens, Branden Robinson, and John Goerzen -- that we could never be absolutely sure how necessary ads might be.

Still, we had reason to think that the ads were noticed. People mentioned them to me at conferences, and there was even some talk for a while of making t-shirts from the ads. But the best indication of their effectiveness was that for several years Optimum Designed chose the campaign for one of the half dozen samples in its PDF brochure for potential clients. Looking back, I recognize now that the campaign started with classical layouts and went on to be memorable because it treated the whole idea of advertising irreverently. I don't know how much the bottom heading "Build on Debian. Build on Strength" convinced anyone, but my impression is that the tone of ads was even more influential in convincing the FOSS audience that Progeny shared its attitudes.

That was fifteen years ago, and FOSS has expanded and altered since then. In particular, print ads like the ones shown here have become uncommon. However, the basic attitudes assumed in the campaign still exist. I mention the ads here, not so much because of pride -- although I am proud of them -- as because I think the ideas behind them are still relevant. I long ago left marketing behind, but were I do another campaign today in any medium, it would begin with exactly the same assumptions as the ones mentioned here.

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