Marketing OSS as a service

In looking at ways and means of marketing the specific features of service products, the management of the relationship with the customer is, thus, always important.
The nature of a service also makes it hard for the customer to evaluate an offer prior to purchase. Unlike a car, it cannot be test-driven; it is difficult to encapsulate in a technical specification; and quality is uncertain. As examples, it is hard for a potential customer to assess a bank before opening an account with them, and a stay in a hotel can only be judged after one has checked out.
Thus, a crucial aspect of marketing services is to provide, as far as is possible, tangible evidence of the product quality. This highlights the need for careful attention to the ‘product promise’, such as the initial points of contact, descriptive literature and the peripherals that provide clues to the product’s integrity… Here, word of mouth or third-party endorsements become particularly influential. These can come from existing customers, referral markets and media institutions, all of whom can provide powerful testimony to the quality or value of an organization’s offering. The increasing use of the internet has enabled many more organizations to collect and display customer views
.”
Malcolm McDonald and Mike Meldrum
in their book, “The Complete Marketer: 60 Essential Concepts for Marketing Excellence

When I saw the quote above whilst reading The Complete Marketer, it dawned on me that OSS are equally suited to being marketed as a service rather than a product. Let’s look at a few key points:

  1. The management of the relationship with the customer is always important – Obviously relationships and trust are important for marketing anything, but more so in OSS because there are generally multiple layers of stakeholders to develop trusting relationships with, from the executive, to the technical teams, to the myriad of other departments that are key stakeholders/influencers in the buying decision
  2. It is hard for the customer to evaluate an offer prior to purchase – The complex nature of major OSS projects means that there is no way for the customer to completely evaluate the product / service being offered. The customer can never be perfectly informed as to what will be delivered
  3. Unlike a car, it cannot be test-driven – Actually an OSS can definitely be test-driven (via product demonstrations and proofs of concept), but they can never be tested to their full capabilities without actually implementing the project. It’s a bit like test driving a Ferrari without being able to take it out of first gear. For example, a proof of concept can be built that emulates the customer’s working environment, but they’re not going to be able to activate all of the interfaces with other systems, trial all of the customer’s operational processes, etc
  4. It can’t be encapsulated in a technical specification – Again, it can, but not in a fully prescriptive manner. The intricacies, complexities and unknowns of a large OSS project make it impossible to be perfectly encapsulated in a specification. Technical specifications tend to fit somewhere on the continuum between “intent” and “over-specified”
  5. A crucial aspect of marketing services is to provide tangible evidence of the product quality – This is always the challenge. How to provide tangible evidence of quality to a customer on a product that is abstract / intangible to anyone who has never implemented the particular product? Being experienced across many products in the OSS industry helps to identify the clues that indicate quality (or lack thereof)
  6. Provide careful attention to the ‘product promise’, such as the initial points of contact, descriptive literature and the peripherals that provide clues to the product’s integrity – Product promise and integrity are definitely discernible from contact, literature and peripherals, but one of the points that I look for is the number of tripods that the vendor brings to customer contact sessions.
  7. Word of mouth or third-party endorsements become particularly influential – This comes back to the first point above. If a vendor is maintaining trusting relationships with their existing customers, these customers will be delighted to provide endorsements and testimonials. It’s equally telling when existing customers aren’t represented for testimonials (although I should note that some customers have a no-endorsement policy)

But the astute observer will notice that the service marketing alignment described above is a completely obvious one. When it comes to OSS, the products are only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg consists of the services that are required to deliver the products. 😉

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