Open source's evolving marketing message

Open source has a much broader message to sell than freedom.

For years, open-source advocates like myself have fixated on freedom. "Don't get locked in!" has been our rallying cry to the teeming masses, yearning to be free from the shackles of proprietary lock-in. "Stop feeding your firstborn sons to the beast in Redmond!"

At Tuesday's Open Source Forum in London, however, "freedom" took a back seat to cost reduction, performance, and IT efficiency. Not surprisingly, the message was even more warmly received, and probably will result in far greater uptake of open-source software than the freedom cry.

The reason is simple: people get paid to get work done. The chief information officer of Company X has a job to do, and that job doesn't entail weekday freedom fighting, battling software overlords down on Canary Wharf. Rather, her job is to make the IT trains run on time, and while open source likely plays an increasingly prominent role in this, its importance has less to do with high ideals than high performance.

Open source, in other words, is winning because it works, not because it's saving the planet.

Some persist in selling technology, open source and otherwise, based on ideology. That's why Opera's "Freedom!" message for Opera Unite falls so flat, as Chris Messina points out:

What I find so fascinating about this marketing message is that it presumes that owning one's own data and "connecting directly" with friends is somehow relevant to people - as though it's a big problem that people have been complaining about for years, and that Opera has finally answered the call.

But I think they're missing the big picture here - or intentionally obscuring it -which is that, while the idea of owning your own data may be attractive to neo-libertarians and open source geeks - most people really don't care and are happy to outsource storage of their data to someone else who can be responsible for backing up their data and fending off hackers. 200 million Facebook users can't be wrong, right?

The appeal for this sort of message is so limited as to be nearly useless. Tim O'Reilly recently suggested that open sourcerers often fixate on the wrong thing (licensing), overlooking the real promise and mechanics for ensuring openness on the Web (data, APIs, participation, etc.).

Add to that the wrong message ("You have nothing to lose but your chains!") and you have a recipe for reaching a niche audience. Open source can do better.

Freedom is important, but if Iran has taught us anything, it's that there are far more important freedoms in this world than the right to modify software.

It's time for the marketing message around open source to move beyond "and justice for all." Cost savings, performance boosts, etc. are far more relevant to likely adopters of open source. Such open-source customers are less concerned by the intricacies of open-source business models than they are by tangible returns on their open-source investments.

It's the new open-source pragmatism. Try it, you might like it.


Follow me on Twitter @mjasay

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