Why your open source project really needs marketing

Engineers like to think that their code speaks for itself—it doesn't. Here's how to "market" your open source project successfully.

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Image: ViktorCap, Getty Images/iStockphoto

There's never been a more vibrant, global open source community. That's the good news. It's also the bad news.

"Bad," anyway, if you're hoping to get anyone to pay attention to your newest open source project. As such, developers (and companies) that hope to make their projects stand out might just have to resort to the "M" word: Marketing.

But we're developers!

Yes, marketing. I know, I know. Engineers like to think that the only thing that matters is beautiful code, as this Dilbert cartoon depicts. In it a "marketing guy" asks Dilbert why engineers get paid more, to which Dilbert responds, "Maybe because engineers designed and built every important part of modern civilization and all you did was misrepresent it." When pressed by the marketing guy that you need both, Dilbert counters, "You really don't."

If only. It's a convenient fiction that a well-made product sells itself, but it's just that—fiction.

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: A look at the pros and cons (Tech Pro Research)

Just this past week Microsoft open sourced its Windows calculator. The NSA released its Ghidra reverse engineering tool. Uber, not to be outdone, got its geek on and open sourced a P2P Docker registry. And so on. These are some of the bigger names that open sourced projects last week, but there were many more repositories launched.

Which raises the question: If an open source code repository launches and nobody notices, does it make a "sound"? Does it matter?

Where is everybody?

I was talking with the engineer behind a popular open source security compliance project the other day. He's seen a great deal of interest in the project, with his employer (a large Fortune 500 company) using it for security auditing and compliance, among other things. It has also been embraced by a leading IT automation company as the heart of its security tooling.

Despite that success, interest within his company has waned somewhat for actively supporting the project at events and such. Ironically, the criticism has been that not enough other developers actively contribute to the project. The thinking seems to be that if the project were good enough it would "sell itself," and developers would flock to it.

Nope.

You need a "marketing guy"

Name a hugely popular open source project—Linux, Docker, Kubernetes—what do they have in common? Answer: Millions upon millions of dollars in support (engineering and marketing and otherwise) from big-name corporations. Linux didn't really make it big until IBM pledged $1 billion to advance its cause, a hefty chunk of that cash paid in the form of marketing dollars.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Not every project needs that kind of support, but all projects need at least some marketing support. That doesn't mean TV commercials or Google search ads. It means engineers showing up at conferences to speak or mingle. In fact, it means doing much the same thing that a company would do to launch a paid product.

Product success doesn't magically happen. Neither does open source success. Not most of the time, anyway. So if you want the benefits of a successful open source project, you're going to have to match great engineering with great marketing.

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By Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.