Why Modern Marketing Loves Open Source

    November 29, 2004

For Modern Marketeers the Open Source Movement provides some great lessons in the power of online communities.

It may all sound like a geeky cult but open source is actually a way of working that involves huge, web-based collaborations among far-flung individuals and a shared, or open, approach to intellectual property rights. Instead of maintaining a tight grip on any findings resulting from a project, open sourcers share new knowledge in a central bank of information (often programming code) that anyone else can access and use for free, albeit within a set of usage criteria.

Another unusual characteristic is the way in which people are motivated by open source projects. ‘Open-sourcers’ often volunteer their time as they perceive benefits beyond straight financial gain, such as working in an online group to overcome a social issue. In this way open source projects are like super-powered, grassroots volunteer networks. And that gives them a real buzz.

However, don’t let the fuzzy, warm side of open source leave you thinking it’s just a new kind of wired charity movement. Open source projects might not be overtly profit-driven but they can have massive commercial impact.

Mozilla is the producer and distributor of Firefox, a new open-source web browser. The organisation’s primary mission is create a better experience for web users, not shareholder return. So Firefox is free to download and use. But in fulfilling this mission Mozilla plan to take the biggest slice of the web browser market possible. And as the web browser market is dominated by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, it puts the little software company straight into a fight with the world’s biggest. But it’s not lacking nerve. Firefox was written by an open source community of very smart programmers. And they have recently, raised $250k from their own customers to fund an advertising camapign. Small beer for Gates but indicative of some serious David and Goliath style inspiration.

You might think that Mozilla has no chance and that Bill Gates would ignore it or swat it away. However, the world’s richest man has reason to be concerned. He is already competing with an open source community in the shape of Linux, an open source operating system that he has identified as a real threat to his Windows product. Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer has far as gone as saying, “I’d put the Linux phenomenon really as threat number one”. So open source is already a playing on the largest of stages. (In fact, it is estimated that Linux would have cost $1 billion dollars to produce in a private company, as a proprietary project a resource that even gates would find hard to reproduce.)

But what does this techy stuff have anything to do with advertising and marketing you may ask? Well, open source has grown up in the technical sector so it’s not surprising that it has, to date, been used to produce software. But that’s slowly changing and the organisational model behind open source (massive web base collaborations by individuals outside of private organisations) is starting to starting to drive innovation in other areas.

Possibly the most famous non-technical example to date is from the world of politics, when Democratic presidential candidate, Howard Dean, used the open source ethic in his ‘Blog For America’ campaign. Although Dean was unsuccessful, his fundraising was record breaking and all the more notable as donations came from individuals, not big business. Speaking at the time his campaign manager, Joe Trippi said,

“We wanted to use the collaborative nature of open source, where more people filling holes makes it more stable and effective. We wondered how it would work in a political campaign.”

And now the world of branding and communications is waking up to the opportunities of open source techniques. When Budweiser launched the hugely popular Whassup! campaign consumers started making their own versions and competing to see who could be most innovative and entertaining. Groups of Rabbis, English gentlemen, superheroes and South Park characters started Whassuping! appearing all over the web. They may not have realised it at the time but they were effectively collaborating in an open-source style.

Last year, General Electric ran an online advertising campaign called ‘Pen’ which allowed people to create a drawing online and send it to a friend. Effectively, the campaign direction and content was handed over to an online community, once again a very open source concept. This incredibly simple idea was a multi-award winner and resulted in users from 140 countries e-mailing 6 million sketches to 1.5 million recipients. This year the company is taking the campaign one step further and allowing people to collaborate on sketches in groups of 3.

In 2004, Mercedes asked people to send in pictures of themselves with their beloved Mercs. The company received a huge number of highly prized photographs which became the centrepiece of a traditional campaign. Again consumers were asked to create an open source style community and provide the campaign with its content and direction.

So by borrowing some open source techniques (ie inviting huge online communities into the branding and marketing process for a product) marketeers can create huge amounts of energy, passion and loyalty: all highly desirable in a world where traditional advertising is struggling to reach more powerful, savvy consumers.

However, for marketeers used to a traditional approach the open source path can seem anarchic and disruptive. This is partly because the mindset is so different from ‘command and control’ branding campaigns, run to brand guidelines, by brand guardians.

Key to the Whassup! campaign was that Anheuser-Busch stood by as people trashed their lovingly crafted advertisements. The giant brewer knew that their customers were creating massive amounts of valuable content and that their passion and enthusiasm would take the campaign to a new level.

Howard Dean’s Director of Internet, Zephyr Teachout said,

“It’s not marketing and branding in the sense of demanding complete fidelity to a very succinct message, saying you can’t waver on font, colour or verb. We’ve allowed for local-interest, geographic ownership of the campaign. That necessarily runs counter to [brand marketing]. We have a flowering of different brands. If this was a branding contest, we’d be losing.”

It is also important not to focus too greatly on technology. Zephyr Teachout has no interest in technology for technology’s sake. “We want the simplest, dumbest tools we can get,” she says.

“The idea is to get people working, not to dazzle them, and to get their feedback on what could be done better as quickly as possible”.

Getting your own customers (or somone else’s) to determine the direction of your brand, with limited central control, may seem like a crazy idea. However, Howard Dean, Anheuser-Busch, GE and Mercedes are working on the theory that their supporters and customers are bright, intelligent people who can help them build campaigns, brands and businesses. And in doing so create huge amounts of loyalty.

Now does that sound so crazy ?

James Cherkoff is an independent marketing consultant based in London.
When he isn’t helping companies like GM and Nestle to get to grips
with the networked world he writes articles on the subject for online
and offline media, including the Financial Times.