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Marketing Products without Feature Differentiators

Part of understanding open source software (OSS) from a vendor’s marketing perspective is understanding that your product may not be unique. For that matter, you might not even be able to use the possessive “your” with an open source product. At least, not as you traditionally have used it.
Here’s the thing: if the product you are bringing to market is truly open source–not shared source or one of the other murkily-related-but-not-same definitions–then the barrier to entry for someone else to offer your same software product is probably so low as to make your product far less than unique. There are many Linux distributions available, for example, each using nearly the identical source code as all the others. Companies like Novell and Red Hat may innovate new features, but they have to contribute their innovations back to the general source code pool where any other vendor can use it, too. Today’s open source innovations, once generally accepted, are tomorrow’s feature that everyone else has too.
That presents a challenge to the software product marketer, who traditionally has had to present potential customers with product differentiators to compel a customer to decide on their product. Without product differentiators–or at least, without long-lasting product differentiators–how do you position your product as better than any other vendors? There are two ways that I quickly had to start looking at this to understand how to market open source products.
First is that, like open source development, open source marketing demands intellectual honesty. Product descriptions that include tired terms like “unmatched” and “unique” amount to pure puffery. The best way to describe an open source product is simply to state what it is, or what it does. Examples of this abound on some of the better OSS project homepages, where simple statements trump florid prose. Consider:

From http://www.kde.org:

  • KDE is a powerful Free Software graphical desktop environment for Linux and Unix workstations. It combines ease of use, contemporary functionality, and outstanding graphical design with the technological superiority of the Unix operating system.”

That opening sentence is the clincher. It just plainly states, this is what KDE is. Certainly, the second sentence stakes some more subjective claims, but because the first sentence was so direct and to the point, the claims come off as providing insight into the goals of the project rather than absolute declarations. There’s value in being direct and up front about what a product is and what it’s for.

The second thing I had to learn was that since your product cannot have long-term differentiators (unless you have somehow forked the code, and have diverged from the community and off into the cold wilderness), you need to differentiate your services. When the product is roughly the same (in feature set), the only thing that can make your product more compelling is the company that stands behind it (and how they stand behind it).

Both of those points indicate to me that marketing open source software is something of a different game. It’s not about generating as much hype as possible through overuse of superlatives, or by staking grandiose claims. That approach quickly shows its own limitations and may repel many would-be adopters who can quickly learn where the exaggerations lie. Being plain and honest about your product is step one. Step two is being plain and honest about your company’s relationship to the OSS products they provide, and how your company can help customers succeed with those products.

What I like about this most is that it neutralizes the marketer’s instinct to inflate a product’s capabilities or his/her company’s value. For a lot of people who have worked in more traditional marketing roles, this may seem like uncertain terrain. Alternatively, it may cause some to view their role in the value chain as having been rendered a mere tedious communicator of simple facts; all steak and no sizzle, if you will. What I am finding though is that it encourages a back-to-basics in marketing: state what your product is; stake your company’s position; and then price and promote on the basis of those first two.


One Response

  1. Linked comments from Don Marti
    “Same is the new Better”

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