Tech Marketing the Open Source Way: Lessons from RedHat and GitHub

GitHub, a popular gathering place for open source projects and communities, is increasingly enabling brands to forge new, deeper and more engaging connections with audiences. Tim Yeaton, Chief Marketing Officer, Red Hat, shares his insights.

Consumers want to trust the brands they love. So, marketers must ensure that engagement with their brands is authentic, personalized, and engaging.

And the best way for them to do this, I would argue, is to be open.

More than ever, communities are impacting what brands do and how they do it. As Tomi Ahonen and Alan Moore note in their book, Communities Dominate Brands, “communities of interest have changed the relationship between brands and their customers forever.” I witness this dynamic every day at Red Hat, the open-source software company where I’m chief marketing officer. The software communities that power our business are animated, energetic—and vigilantly watching everything we do.

So, marketers at Red Hat use many of the same open methods and platforms that open source software communities do when we engage in marketing activities. GitHub is one of those platforms.

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Many marketers may not be familiar with GitHub and what it enables. GitHub is one of the most popular global platforms for collaborative software development. Built to work with Git, a system for software development version control and source code management, the platform is an epicenter of activity in open source communities. Git allows programmers to copy (or “fork”) materials, make changes to them, then “merge” those modifications with the work of others. The process is at the heart of open source software development, and it fuels the kinds of sharing, collaboration, and transparency that the world’s most innovative open source software communities are known for. GitHub is a social platform that connects coders across the globe—more than 40 million people, last I checked—aligning them as they learn, share, and work together to build software the open source way.

But even marketers can use GitHub. In fact, if they’re interested in forging new and deep connections with audiences, they should use GitHub, because it enables them to:

Give back. Today, marketers are intensely focused on generating new forms of value for their businesses. That means they’re often creating things that enhance others’ lives and linking their brands to a spirit of giving back. TOMS Shoes, for example, gives a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair sold. Likewise, for every pair of glasses it sells, Warby Parker donates a free or discounted pair. These marketing models improve reputation and image, as do others that embrace corporate social responsibility. More than half of U.S. consumers factor values into their purchase choices, as noted a 2017 presentation “The Power of a Values-Based Strategy,” by market researcher Forrester Research. For marketers, GitHub provides a unique channel for sharing valuable resources (be they content assets or datasets) with the rest of the world. It also allows users to utilize and even modify those resources, fostering goodwill and enhancing trust with audiences.

Build authentic connections. Almost nine in 10 consumers say authenticity is important when deciding which brands they like and support, research shows. Because GitHub is, in part, a social network, it facilitates more dynamic, two-way conversations between audiences and brands. Conservations foster authentic connections. But brands using GitHub can do more than just talk about what they’re working on with their consumer audiences. They can literally show them and share with them. And on top of that, because one of GitHub’s central features is version control, interested audience members can “follow along” as brands update their materials, even comment on the changes they’re seeing or propose their own alternatives. CO.LAB, Red Hat’s on-site engagement for middle school girls, for instance, shares source files on GitHub so anyone can watch the curricula develop. When people engage in a CO.LAB event, they don’t just receive something. They make something—and they share what they make with others, who can build on it too.

Harness the power of community collaboration. GitHub’s true power is the same power at the heart of open source software innovation: the power to facilitate community collaboration and meritocratic decision-making from contributors all over the world. On GitHub, marketers can release early versions of materials that communities can build on and add value to. They can also release materials others can fork, remix, and re-release—to further the conversation, and to further the brand’s reach. GitHub turns a marketing organization into a community enabler. When Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst published his book The Open Organization in 2015, a community of readers continued their conversation about the book on GitHub—by creating follow-up books that advance the book’s original ideas. The book is now a six-volume series, entirely developed on GitHub, transparently and collaboratively.

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Breaking the mold
Sure, developing and hosting marketing content on an open platform breaks some molds from traditional marketing. Critics may claim that by using GitHub brands distract attention from their own websites, which are often their key marketing vehicles.

And yet I heard very similar arguments decades ago, when open source software was becoming more popular. People wondered how a company could make money by sharing code for free and letting others build on it. As Red Hat has shown, having just been acquired by IBM for $34 billion, sharing with others and forging a successful business aren’t mutually exclusive activities. We often describe Red Hat as an enterprise software company with an open source development model. We’ve adopted this same philosophy—enabling open, collaborative, community innovation—in our marketing.

Part of being open is thinking about what you can share, rather than simply about what you can receive. And at a time when building trust with audiences is paramount, that’s precisely the attitude brands will need to adopt.

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