Open Source Product Innovation and Marketing Collaboration

According to Wikipedia, “Innovation in its modern meaning is a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in the form of device or method. Innovation is also often viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs or existing market needs. Such innovation takes place through the provision of more effective products, processes, services, technologies or business models that are made available to markets, governments and society.

Personally, I like the use of the term “more effective” above. It says something important which is often missing in open source products. It’s not good enough to only write beautifully-engineered technology, because that’s often not what counts as more effective in the eyes of those who buy. We need to think through the whole context outside of engineering – the processes, the services, the business models etc – and we need to ensure that the big picture looks and feels more effective overall.

This is where marketing professionals, in particular, come in. Constantly measuring and updating market understanding and identifying buying triggers is central to their role. This is not a passive activity, but rather a very active one based on ongoing SEO, performance analysis and content generation, amongst other factors. If you’ve hired a marketing professional to make your website look pretty and announce solely releases, then please go and apologize to them immediately!

In general, product should exist at the crossroads of engineering and marketing

In general, product should exist at the crossroads of engineering and marketing. If it does not, I would suggest you to revise your strategy. Of course, not all open source development is about product, but where product is the aim, this guideline is important. At Crust, where we produce “The open source Salesforce alternative”, marketing and engineering constantly engage on feature shape and prioritisation.

Open source technologies, in particular where they are based on 100% open source code and freely distributed (i.e. not open core), can have an out-sized economic impact compared to upfront investment. Large-scale distribution is a natural course for well-conceived products to take and it takes high skill to maintain large feature sets on a fraction of the money of giant cloud vendors. This puts some natural downward pressure on budgets of the marketing departments of open source businesses. However, that downward pressure is a poor excuse for not setting targets to grow marketing expenditure. It’s the equivalent to coders saying “this problem is hard, so we’re not going to do it”. It, therefore, helps to look at the problem from a completely different perspective.

A good product manager cannot contemplate uncontrolled and unmaintainable feature sprawl. It makes sense, at a certain point, to put the emphasis elsewhere. In place of expanding the code base, one can expand marketing presence. Driving additional demand for existing features is a sustainable business model as long as you can count your return on investment, which any competent marketing manager should be able to do. Using marketing resources to understand which features are motivating buyer decision-making becomes critical to the healthy functioning of a growing business.

Open source vendors tend to be smaller in revenue terms than proprietary vendors, even if adoption of their products is often higher. However, there is at least one way open source vendors can get the most out of marketing expenditure. Marketing resources can, and should be, federated over certain subjects. For example, the open standards drum can always be beaten harder as can the growing requirement best practice education for free technology transfer as the world faces unprecedented challenges. But perhaps the the most immediate opportunity for strategic market(ing) alignment in Europe is the growing movement towards Digital Sovereignty, as espoused by initiatives such as Gaia-X and influential platform vendors such as Univention.

Digital Sovereignty demands that open source vendors start acting “cluefully”. Being smaller means having to be practical and the best returns can be achieved by optimising marketing structures and presence. The challenge is no means impossible – innovating our marketing models in line with our collaborative values should come naturally.

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