openSUSE shows how to promote a release

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 14, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Over the years, I've written and talked several times about how free software projects should approach journalists. At times, I've been able to single out publicists who do an especially professional job, including Jennifer Cloer of The Linux Foundation and Sally Khudairi of The Apache Foundation. However, mostly, I've spoken in the abstract. I never had a detailed example to offer -- until last week, when Jos Poortvliet, openSUSE's community manager, contacted me about the new 12.3 release.

What makes the efforts of Poortvliet' and the rest of the openSUSE marketing team stand out? To start with, he contacted me with a link to DVD images six days before the release. By contrast, if the average project contacts me at all, its members email the day before, often so late in the day that I can't pitch any ideas to editors until the next day. I may also have other priorities and be unable to provide timely coverage unless the news is important enough for me to drop everything else. Usually, too, I like to use a distribution I'm reviewing for a few days, instead of rushing into print after an afternoon of playing with it, so my impressions solidify and I can notice anything not immediately apparent. Six days gives me time for all these things.

The immediate purpose was to provide links from which I could download a the news release and features list for openSUSE 12.3. These are always items that I look at before testing, but mostly I'm left to find them myself -- and you'd be surprised how difficult some projects make finding these basics. I don't rely exclusively on them, but they are a starting point, especially for under-the-hood improvements I might otherwise miss.

Better yet, the feature list was not just a readme file or half a page of generalities. It turned out to be a 29 page PDF file. Like some of the more ambitious features lists that projects post, it included that might interest developers and sysadmins. However, it also included videos and a breakdown of new features by application -- neither of which I've ever seen before in a feature list.

To tease my interest, Poortvliet's email itself also included highlights from the news release and features, especially information about openSUSE's status and future plans.

This information included the progress of the efforts to port the distro to 32 and 64bit ARM, and the support for Secure Boot (present, but the project is "not 200% confident about Secure Boot, in part due to the issues with Samsung laptops," in case you were wondering). Links to wikis and other information source were also included. By making all this effort, Poortvliet ensured that at least some of his message was communicated, just in case I wasn't inclined to follow through all the links or needed persuading.

Finally, to round things off, Poortvliet included a link to several dozen screen shots, and an offer to arrange any interviews I wanted. The screen shots are especially welcome, since taking my own either interrupts the flow of my thoughts or is a nuisance when I'm finished proofreading and chafing to send off the finished article.

Short of suggesting an opening paragraph or conclusion, Poortvliet did everything in his power to make the process of reviewing as painless as possible for me. In particular, by providing all this preliminary matter, he saved me one or two hours of effort, giving me more time to test and write.

As I write, I am still searching for an outlet for a review. Possibly, I may not manage one for this release. However, whether I do or not, Poortvliet's efforts leave me thinking favorably about openSUSE. If I write a review, his information package won't keep me from pointing out flaws, but I wouldn't be human if it didn't make me more likely to make the references to them less harsh and more diplomatic. It would take some determination to be nasty or sarcastic after someone has gone to such lengths to be helpful.

And even if I don't write anything else about openSUSE's 12.3 release, the courtesy leaves me more interested in openSUSE, and more likely to follow what it is doing in the future.

All the writers I know would react the same way. So, the bottom line? No matter what happens, by making this effort, openSUSE can't lose.

An example and a recommendation
openSUSE didn't do everything perfectly. Poortvliet's email was effective, but might have been improved by being less rambling and more concisely structured.

In addition, while I took as a joke his reference to the screen shots as being provided "so you don't have to test EVERYTHING," some writers might have interpreted it as a suggestion that they were unprofessional, or that openSUSE had something to hide.

However, these are minor points at worst. For some writers, they might even have helped, with the informality and humor seeming refreshing. Perhaps, after the two month delay of the 12.2 release, openSUSE was unusually motivated to do the current release right, but I can only advise the project to continue the efforts it is making.

Interacting with writers in this way takes time, and means coordinating the efforts with the release schedule. That takes planning, since the natural impulse at the end of development is to push the new release out the door so that everyone can take a rest. However, the result pays off for everyone, both in the long and the short term.

My recommendation is that anyone wanting to market their own project take the time to study openSUSE's latest efforts -- and to take copious notes. There's a lot to learn from openSUSE's example.


  • Thanks

    Greatly appreciate the compliment AND the tips for improvement! We're always looking for ways to do better.

    I'd like to note that what we did wasn't the first time - merely the outcome of a long process of optimizing how we do release marketing. And it certainly wasn't just me - I'm merely a spider in the web of contributors, both from the openSUSE team at SUSE and from within our community. Much of the preparation was done at a face to face marketing hackathon at our office in Nuremberg, where we had community members from all over the world join us to prepare the release.
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