Successfully Balance Commercial and Open Source Interests



Today, there are many ways for enterprises to participate in open source culture. As more companies run their critical systems on open source technology and offer open source solutions of their own, the lines between commercial and open source interests blur. According to Swarna Podila—a marketer with a wealth of experience marketing to both worlds—the key to building trust with both enterprise and open source audiences is to define your organizational goals and put the needs of your audience first.

On this episode of Open at Intel podcast, host Katherine Druckman and Podila share tips for effectively communicating with enterprise and open source audiences in a way that helps both communities thrive.

Catch the full episode here. This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Katherine Druckman: Can you tell us about yourself and the type of work you do?

Swarna Podila: I’ve been in product marketing for a long time, both leading community and open source marketing for B2B technology companies and leading commercial marketing for traditional hardware and software companies. I’m currently working on marketing strategy for early-stage startups that have an open core offering they’re seeking to monetize and for startups that are good citizens in the open source community that are trying to figure out how to be a successful player in the space.

Katherine Druckman: In the open source community, there’s a delicate dance balancing community interests and enterprise interests. How do you navigate the challenges of communicating with various audiences?

Swarna Podila: Everyone starts with good intentions and tries to be an authentic member of the open source community, but somewhere down the line, business interests kick in. Investors get antsy to see returns on their investments, and public companies have stakeholders who become keen to see results. When this happens, many leadership teams and marketing teams quickly pivot to sales-led initiatives or focus on the commercial side of marketing, which can turn off open source users who are there to collaborate and participate in the community, not necessarily become a paid customer.

In the early stages, businesses must understand what they need to do, what they want to do, and when to do what. Define your short-term and long-term goals of starting an open source project. After you’ve established trust and credibility in the open source community, maybe you want to translate open source interests into commercial interests; you need to identify how to bring your audience along for the journey of enterprise purchase. Other organizations may not have commercial goals, and that is perfectly ok. When you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’ll know when to double down on your open source marketing initiatives vs. when to slowly infuse commercial interests so that you’re bringing your audience along on the journey and not taking a bait-and-switch approach.

Supporting the Open Source Community

Katherine Druckman: What should companies keep in mind when they’re communicating with an open source audience vs. an enterprise audience?

Swarna Podila: It’s all about communicating what you’re trying to do. When you’re talking to an open source audience, you must always communicate the value of your technology and the importance of collaboration. You may be leaning on the open source community as a technical advisory board to help understand how to take the project forward. Or you may be seeking contributors and maintainers; in that case, be very clear about what you expect from the community and how you’ll support those expectations. Maintainers get burned out quickly, and many of them do this work in their free time, unpaid. Companies that are seeking maintainers need to have a plan to support maintainers before they burn out.

This is very different from a commercial marketing support system perspective where the marketing team’s focus is aligned with sales goals. In enterprise marketing, you want to make sure you have enough sales support and that you’re providing enough support to the sales team. Do your marketing activities contribute to revenue? Your goal is to be able to attribute all marketing activities to sales, such as tangibly associating a field event or webinar with a specific sales opportunity or revenue stream. So there are very different metrics and ways to measure open source marketing success vs. enterprise or commercial marketing success.

Katherine Druckman: There are different approaches to open source projects. Some start as an open source project or academic pursuit, and suddenly there’s a business ecosystem built around it, while in other cases a business might create software and decide to make it open source later. Are there unique challenges that come with each approach?

Swarna Podila: In any approach, communication is key. How we engage with the audience and what we intend to do has to be crystal clear from the start. And we must be clear about how our approach evolves over time because we have to admit: this is a very smart group of users we’re talking about. The open source community cannot be easily taken advantage of. Be transparent and—true to the open source ethos—publish everything in a well-documented format, get feedback from your community, iterate, and see if it makes sense for you to monetize the open source project.

Katherine Druckman: In scenarios where people are seeking contributors or maintainers, there’s a social contract between the company or project and the community. Companies value contributors, but it can be hard to show people you value them. Do you have any recommendations for how to show gratitude to your community?

Swarna Podila: There are many ideas companies can experiment with. Ambassador programs and contributor programs are really good for explicitly acknowledging everyone’s efforts. But companies need to provide a real support system on a day-to-day basis. Contributors should have the power to say no. If there’s a problem, companies should identify someone who can intervene and make sure contributors are treated with respect. A code of conduct helps to spell out the elements of the social contract in an explicit way—what behavior is acceptable, what behavior is not, and what are the consequences of each? That provides the maintainers with a sense of assurance and comfort that they have support day to day, beyond annual award programs.

Taking an Audience-First Approach

Katherine Druckman: Let’s switch gears to the commercial side. Could you share best practices for communicating with enterprise customers?

Swarna Podila: For our clients that have paying customers, there are very definitive service level agreements involved. We’re obligated by these agreements to send out customer communications first. In my experience, it works best to create a communications plan specific to customers, defining the tone of voice and how you’ll communicate important updates like changes in pricing, features, or packaging. Create a separate communications plan for open source communities, which will be slightly different because pricing and packaging may not be quite as relevant. Always focus on the audience and what matters most to them. If we’re announcing something, how will the audience receive it? Try to anticipate what questions will pop up in their heads and answer those questions in your communications. While there’s an unspoken social contract with the open source community, there’s an explicit written contract with our paid customers, so it’s even more important to communicate methodically.

Katherine Druckman: What are some basic pitfalls people make when trying to balance multiple audiences?

Swarna Podila: One of the biggest missteps I see is the bait-and-switch approach, especially when investors put pressure on leadership to see quick returns on marketing investments. Many open source projects don’t collect leads from marketing initiatives when they start the project, but leadership teams ask them to start. If you said you were going to bring the audience on an open source journey but abruptly switch them to an enterprise track, the audience may feel misled or deceived.

For example, let’s say you have an open source newsletter with an informal and educational tone of voice and you don’t track open rates or other specific qualifiers, but by leadership’s request, you add calls to action asking people to click on a link or sign up for something. If you start badgering people to click, and your audience senses that you’re tracking how often they engage with your newsletter, it rubs them the wrong way. An authentic communications approach is critical in open source. It takes a village; it's not on one person. Every team needs to realize who they’re talking to and how to stay true to the audience.

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About the Author

Katherine Druckman, Open Source Evangelist, Intel

Katherine Druckman, an Intel open source evangelist, hosts the podcasts Open at Intel, Reality 2.0, and FLOSS Weekly. A security and privacy advocate, software engineer, and former digital director of Linux Journal, she’s a longtime champion of open source and open standards.