Marketing an open-source project – Part IV. Open Source and its relationship with marketing.

In this fourth post of the “Marketing an Open Source Project” series. I introduce the realm of open-source software (OSS), discussing its origins, expanding applications beyond software, and the growing interest of businesses in OS projects. It also examines the marketing aspects within OS ecosystems, where branding, awareness, and credibility play a pivotal role, and the dynamic relationship between companies and OS communities. The article underscores the importance of balancing short-term popularity with long-term sustainability and highlights the unique characteristics of OS projects, such as the merging of consumers and producers. If you haven’t read the first article, you can find it here.

Open Source

Open-source (OS) refers to products, services, and ideas where intellectual input is non-proprietary, a concept initially rooted in computer programming. It stands in contrast to commercial or proprietary software, where intellectual property is privately held. OS has expanded beyond software to other industries. For example, Wikipedia and even certain drugs are now being made OS so that the chemists are free to copy and alter the chemical structures of the physical compounds. Therefore, even when the nature of the “source”‘ is different (software, written content, etc.) the philosophical ground is similar. [1].

OSS has its roots from near the beginning of computing and was born as a pragmatic alternative to conventional software development. It is rapidly transforming into a business opportunity [2]. Even though OS projects are mainly developed by volunteers, and the concept of OS itself relies on virtual communities, more and more firms are participating in OS projects [3]. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the different OSS business ecosystems.

Open-Source Ecosystems

Groganz separates the OSS business ecosystems into three divisions:

  • Community-driven ecosystems, decentralized and community-based. Characterized by a vibrant developer community, extensive questions and answers, and active word-of-mouth marketing.
  • Vendor-driven ecosystems, centralized and dependent on a single vendor. Other actors in the ecosystem, such as system integrators, customers and partners, exhibit a high degree of dependence on the vendor.
  • Consortium-driven ecosystems, combining community principles with formal governance.

Accordingly, vendor-driven ecosystems produce commercial OS projects (e.g., former MySQL, SugarCRM, Jaspersoft, Zimbra, Alfresco), which are generated and led by a firm that has decided to release all or part of its codebase under an OS license. The impact of firms on these projects is unquestionable given their leading role. [4]

This contrasts with the intention of the OSS movement which “was founded with the intention to avoid firms appropriating the joint effort of voluntarily contributing developers.” [4] Community-driven ecosystems seek to produce projects where any firm does not control knowledge and significant parts of the software but are rather controlled within one or more communities that coexist with some firms. [5]

In summary, vendor-driven ecosystems produce commercial OS projects, which diverge from the original OS intent to avoid corporate appropriation [4]. Community-driven ecosystems aim to create projects where knowledge and software control are not tied to any single firm.

On one hand, in vendors-driven ecosystems, the marketing strategies should not represent a problem, because they are supported by a corporation. This means that like any corporation, they own their brands and unilaterally determine their positioning and evolution. On the other hand, in community-driven ecosystems, “the power and control are radically decentralized and heterarchical” [1], raising some issues: How to determine the brand image that wants to be projected? Who should oversee the branding strategy? The community? The leaders? An external expert? Where would the resources for marketing come from?

Marketing in Open-Source Projects

The perception of OSS as something different and possibly better has triggered research on several topics in areas such as business models, computer science, management and organisation science, psychology, economics, and law [6]. However, it seems to be the case that marketing has not been an important aspect of OSS projects.

Perhaps because most OSS projects are led by software developers who do not bother to market their projects. This may be because software developers think that only great code is needed, do not want their project to look “corporate”, “owned” or “biased”, or fear they will lose control over the project. Maybe it is just because there are not enough marketers in the open-source communities. However, in the current market, it is wrong to believe that having the best code is enough to reach all the potential users.

“It is equally important and sometimes more so to convince a significant number of people that your project is the best solution to their problem.”

Marz, 2014 [7]

In a truly OSS project, the project itself is not for sale. This implies that the end-users (users who use the software) are not the target market, but the companies that implement the software for those users, together with the developers, consultants and functional experts who contribute to the project. This causes the roles of consumers and producers to coalesce into ‘prosumers’. The more consumers you have, the more producers you get, helping the project to grow, evolve and improve [1].

Therefore, marketing plays a role in increasing brand awareness, which can be crucial for the seller’s role companies take, because great code alone is insufficient in reaching users. Brand awareness and credibility are essential, even in OS projects.

“Linux is probably the most prominent OSS, and it is a community-driven project but it is also a brand like any other. For its users and customers, it fulfils the same functions that other brands do”.

Leyland et al, 2006

Traditionally brands seemed to do more for sellers than buyers [8]. The evolution of powerful OS brands radically changes this picture (See Image below). Here, a non-proprietary brand does very little for commercial producers and a lot for its users. However, the margins between buyers and sellers are blurred in open-source projects, because the consumers usually are the producers. [1]

The Evolution of Brands From a Buyer-Seller Perspective [1]

This leads to thinking that companies implementing the OSS benefit from the project when acting as buyers, but that the brand does little when they are selling. Therefore, greater brand awareness of the project can lead it to become a strong brand, facilitating the seller role of companies.

Moreover, marketing is not free, and it is usually not cheap; thus, it requires resources. Except for some exceptional cases, such as WOM marketing, money is one of these resources. A problem that community-driven projects might face is the lack of it. These resources can be collected in different ways: sponsorship, donations, etc. A common way to gather resources is by involving a firm in the project.

When participating in a community OS project, a company can use the power of its structure to leverage the community. In turn, the popularity of the project can benefit not only from the spontaneous WOM generated by the community but also from the structured marketing actions of participating companies. These two effects can be complementary and reinforce each other [4].

Nonetheless, it is important to draw the limits when a firm gets involved in a project. The role firms play must be clarified from the beginning to avoid long-term issues. A firm putting capital into a project might want to have a return on the investment, which leads to the creation of demands, deadlines, and, finally, control over the project. In the long term, these practices can harm the project and potentially bring it to an end [4].

A study conducted by Capra et al [4] showed that firms’ involvement had a positive impact on the overall popularity of OS projects, but at the same time indicated a negative effect on software design quality. The short-term effects of the improved project image, faster development, and sacrificed code quality led long-term to the software underperforming and to the original community, generally volunteers, to stop contributing and leave the project.

Dries Buytaert categorizes companies as Makers (actively contributing to projects) or Takers (monetizing OS projects without contributing). Usually, there are one or more Makers behind the success of OSS projects. For instance, Red Hat helps make Linux, Acquia helps make Drupal, and Automatic helps make WordPress.

On the other hand, now that OS adoption is widespread, several companies, from technology start-ups to technology giants, monetise OSS projects without contributing back to those projects.

The community-driven nature of OS projects attracts talented developers who value freedom and sharing [9], making marketing essential to attract highly qualified contributors while preserving the project’s quality and image.

Furthermore, when the success of an OSS project depends considerably on one or more corporate supporters, the OSS community should not overlook that customers are a common good. Given the fact that a customer cannot be shared among companies, it is important for the OSS project which company serves that customer. If the customer is served by a Maker, the project can be certain that a percentage of the revenue associated with that customer will be invested back into the project. Conversely, if a customer is served by a parasitic company, free-rider or Taker, the project does not stand to benefit. Therefore, the OSS community and the project brand should find a way to route customers to Makers [10].

In conclusion, marketing OSS projects can be a delicate balancing act, as increased popularity in the short term should not compromise the project’s long-term sustainability.

Next week, I will introduce a successful open-source software project and provide a brief explanation of how it manages its marketing.


[1] Pitt, L. F. et al., 2006. The Penguin’s window: Corporate brands from an open-source perspective. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Volume 34, p. 115–127.

[2] Fitzgerald, B., 2006. The Transformation of Open Source Software. MIS Q., Volume 30, p. 587–598.

[3] Capra, E., Francalanci, C., Merlo, F. & Rossi-Lamastra, C., 2011. Firms’ involvement in Open Source
projects: A trade-off between software structural quality and popularity. Journal of Systems and
Software, Volume 84, p. 144–161.

[4] Capra, E., Francalanci, C., Merlo, F. & Rossi-Lamastra, C., 2011. Firms’ involvement in Open Source
projects: A trade-off between software structural quality and popularity. Journal of Systems and
Software, Volume 84, p. 144–161.

[5] Dahlander, L. & Magnusson, M. G., 2005. Relationships between open source software companies
and communities: Observations from Nordic firms. Research Policy, May, Volume 34, p. 481–493.

[6] Hauge, Ø., Ayala, C. & Conradi, R., 2010. Adoption of open source software in software-intensive
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[7] Marz, N., 2014. History of Apache Storm and lessons learned. s.l.:s.n.

[8] Berthon, P., Hulbert, J. A. & Pitt, L. E., 1999. Brand management prognostications. Sloan
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[9] Baytiyeh, H. & Pfaffman, J., 2010. Open source software: A community of altruists. Computers in
Human Behavior, Volume 26, p. 1345–1354.

[10] Buytaert, D., 2019. A cure for unfair competition in open source. s.l.:s.n.