Articles / How to Market Free Software

How to Market Free Software

Approximately three microseconds after the world discovered that I had an email address ending in "", it started slamming me with press releases for new software, hardware, services, Web sites, etc. Over the past year, I've watched the clue level of many Linux companies steadily decline, and I'd like to offer some suggestions on how it could be brought back to a level at which we'd all be willing to at least start listening again.

The Problem

A few weeks ago, two Linux companies (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) merged. They were apparently very happy about the occasion. So happy, in fact, that they decided to share the news with a few hundred of their nearest and dearest friends. I know this, because I was chosen to be one of those friends, and received the message in which the address of each of the friends was listed in the "To:" header. After scrolling through four or five pages of names, I came to the header I was expecting to see, "X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook". Pushing on, I discovered that the message was unreasonably large not just because it contained every email address to be found on a Linux-related Web site anywhere, but because it contained the same press release four (4) times:
  1. As text in the body of the message.
  2. As a .txt file attached to the message.
  3. As a .html file attached to the message.
  4. As a .doc file attached to the message.

An impressive beginning for the new company, but the fun didn't stop there. Two days later, a dozen news items were submitted through the freshmeat contributions page. Each was from the same person and had the same title: "Subject: Linux". My first thought was that someone had trouble with her browser and kept going back and hitting "submit" again, thinking the message wasn't going through. When I opened them, however, I found that each was different, and consisted of a URL of the form http://[unnamedcompany].com/story[storynumber].html and a short paragraph about the story. The expectation, I assume, was that we would change the subject to something related to the story, add the HTML to make the URL into a link, and send lots of traffic their way.

If one of the links had been to exclusive coverage of the suicide notes from the Torvalds-Stallman-Raymond Love Triangle Death Pact, it might have worked. In fact, not only were the stories not original, they were reprints of stories which had appeared on Slashdot the week before. They were deleted with extreme prejudice.

Get a Clue

What I hope to offer here are not suggestions about how to sell stuff. I don't know anything about marketing and have nothing to contribute to that discussion. When I say that this is about "How to Market", I mean to say that when you deal with Free Software, there are certain points of etiquette and certain bits of cultural knowledge that you need to understand, and that these may be foreign to you if you've just arrived at BigLinuxBiz, Inc. after years of marketing something else, even if it was at a technology company. I sometimes think that PR people only write for other PR people, on the assumption that no one but another marketing associate or an investment broker would actually bother to read yet another formulaic press release. If that were the case, demonstrations of ignorance would not be a problem, but be careful about thinking this way -- your words might actually reach someone at a news site who may find what you're announcing interesting and want to help you get the word out. If they do, what you've said and how you've said it can make the difference between your news passing unnoticed and an unexpected spike in your hit counts.

The good news is that you have teachers just waiting to tell you what you need to know. The fact that you work for a Linux company must mean that there are programmers hidden away in cubicles somewhere. Find them. Any one of them is immersed in the community all the time. They probably read Slashdot and various Linux mailing lists, they're probably members of the local Linux Users Group, and they're probably not much different from the people who will be on the receiving end of your press releases. They're in touch. They'll all be dripping with the commodity you need -- clues.

Listen to their opinions and suggestions. Until you get the hang of it, run your first few messages by them and ask, "If this came from someone you didn't know, would you read it or delete it immediately?" They can give you specific instances where you go wrong. In the meantime, let me give you some general clues that may not seem like a big deal to you, but will telegraph "Delete Me" in giant neon letters to your victims:

Don't Send Your Press Release in Microsoft Word Format

Don't. Just don't. I don't care if it's what you've always done. I don't care if the people you usually write spend six hours a day typing in Word. It's just bad form. It's like going to the Tibetan Embassy and singing the Chinese National Anthem before you say hello. It doesn't matter what you say after that; everyone has already decided that you don't know what's going on around you, and will discount whatever you have to say. Yes, we can all view Word documents -- we have tools to display them or reformat them into reasonable formats -- but we're not going to bother. Trust me on this.

(By the way, this happens to the best of us; I have first-hand experience of it. A certain company whose name rhymes with "Landrover" once bought a Web site whose name rhymes with "FlashBot". They wrote a press release about it and sent it all around the Linux community as a .doc file attached to an empty message. They luckily had an editor working for them (whose nickname rhymes with "Knobyimo") who lobbed a clue grenade in their direction, and it hasn't happened since.)

Learn to Use your Mail Program

Even the most broken, non-standard email client can usually be configured to send messages in a sane way. It may take a bit of investigation to find and solve the problems, as software companies have a tendency to try to hide what's really happening from you. I guess they genuinely think this is helpful, but in practice it often means that you can't notice that there's a problem with what you're doing because you're viewing it in the same program in which you wrote it, which has been designed to hide the problem from you.

You need to send some messages to other people and have them report back to you on what they're seeing. The technical people in your company probably deal with hundreds of messages a day and have strong opinions on how a message should be formatted for maximum legibility. There's a good chance that one of them will be happy to walk over to your desk and show you which "features" to turn off so he won't have to see them anymore.

Here are some general rules with which I'm sure they'll agree:

Learn to use the Bcc: header.
People who don't know any better send a message to dozens (or hundreds) of people by putting all of the names and addresses in the To: or Cc: headers. This has three effects:
  1. It causes people to have to scroll past several pages of addresses to get to your message. Most will not bother, and will just delete your message unread.
  2. It allows everyone on the list see who else received your message. People consider this an invasion of their privacy, and worry that your list of addresses will be adopted by someone else for sending spam. In the worst case, someone will reply to your message and not realize that she's replying to everyone on the list. Others will reply, "I didn't ask to be on this list; please unsubscribe me." Yet others will reply that no one can be unsubscribed because there's not a mailing list to which everyone is subscribed. Still others will respond that if everyone would just quit replying-to-all, they wouldn't be getting these messages. Others will reply to agree with this.

    You will not be greatly loved for having started one of these chain reactions.

  3. It makes you look like you have no idea what you're doing. After you've done this just once, people will start ignoring anything that you send them.
Instead of sending a Carbon Copy, you can choose to send a Blind Carbon Copy. The difference is that all the addresses on the Bcc: list are not present in the copy of the message everyone receives. Using Bcc: is probably the most effective change you can make to help ensure that people will listen to you.
Send your message as text.
Just text, that's all. No need for HTML or rich text or whatever proprietary format MailProgramsRUs has given you to make certain words red and others italicized.

Be careful about this one, as it's not as easy as it sounds. Some mail programs are set to send every message twice -- once as text and once as HTML. If you're just looking at your own message in your own mail program, it may just choose one of the copies to show you and not let you know about the other one. I'm sure that the lady who sent me four copies of the same press release in one message thought she was only sending it to me once.

Make sure your text wraps at 80 columns.
Your techies can (well, ok -- will) let you know if it doesn't.
Weed out any other little problems that you find.
A Web magazine whose name rhymes with "Salon" sends me links to previews of stories they're going to post the next day. They generally do a good job of this and show no sign of any of the problems mentioned above. One thing bugs me, though: They use Outlook (sigh), and whenever there's a URL that stretches past the 80 column mark, Outlook decides to just chop it into two parts and put them on separate lines. I can't just click on the URL; I have to copy the first half, paste it into Netscape, copy the second half, paste it, and then go. They've commiserated with me about this but not done anything about it. I'm sure one of their techies could help them fix it if they would just bother.

Get a Feel for What's Going On

You don't have to know as much about the history of technology and what's happening today as the Perl wizard down the hall, but you should have a basic grasp of what's going on around you. Don't send messages talking about the "TCP/IP programming language" or the "FreeBSD Linux distribution". No one expects you to know about technical issues; when it doubt, ask.

Be aware of the pace at which things happen in this market. Don't submit a link to a two-week old story about something that happened last month and expect anyone to consider it news. Everyone's already heard about it, discussed it ad nauseum, and moved on.

Don't Believe Your Own Hype

This may be the hardest suggestion for you to swallow, but bear with me.

People in the technical news field have been numbed by years of hyperbole and vaporware. If you come in with both hype guns blazing, you'll just be ignored. You need to have faith that it is possible to talk about how great your product is without implying that it can cure cancer and lead to world peace. Just tell us what it actually does. If it's interesting and useful, we'll be interested. Avoid at all costs expressions like "paradigm shift" and "revolutionary". Be sparing in your use of even "most" and "best".

As you write for us, keep one thing in mind: No matter what you say in the first few paragraphs, we're all going to scroll down to the quote from the CTO to read between the lines anyway. If you say, "KeepItUp provides embedded Linux systems with guaranteed 24/7 reliability" and the CTO says, "Our heartbeat system has made great strides toward the detection and repair of service outages", you've been caught in a lie. You're saying that your software is ready to go on an assembly line, and your technical team is saying that you're making progress but aren't there yet. Not being finished yet is not a crime. We'd rather hear "Here's some interesting development being done; you may want to keep an eye on it..." instead of hype that obviously doesn't match the reality.

Trust your techies; they know the true state of the project. I know you want to put the best spin on things that you can, but don't edit out everything they say that you think might reveal your company to be filled with human beings working on real problems instead of gods handing down perfect code from Mount Olympus. If you do, you'll be left with "It... is... a system... that... [is] good...", which will only set off warning sirens in our heads.

Make Yourself a Welcome Guest

When you send someone email or use the news submission form on his Web site, imagine that you're knocking on someone's door. Don't invite yourself in and track mud all over the living room. Above all, don't knock every day. An email sent every month or two updating someone about how your product is progressing may be welcomed. A daily email with "Subject: Here's a story that might interest you" will be deleted.

Make as little work as possible for the person on the other end. Follow the guidelines above to make sure your email is legible. Make your subject as precise and meaningful as possible; "Subject: Linux software" will not stand out in the list of messages. If you submit stories through forms on Web sites, be aware of what the person on the other end will see. Learn enough HTML to be able to make URLs into links instead of hoping the site editor will be interested enough to go to the trouble herself. Make sure you're copying and pasting from an application that uses only ASCII characters, not one (like MS Word) that uses proprietary extension characters that will show up in Linux versions of Netscape as question marks, e.g. "Our customers? needs aren?t forgotten". Work on a Linux desktop if you can; you're less likely to screw up if you can see just what the editor is going to see.

Whatever you do, if there's a preview button, use it, and pay attention to the preview display. freshmeat forces everyone to see a preview -- you can't submit anything until you've clicked "ok" at the bottom of the preview page -- and yet people still submit stories that are each a single 3,000 word paragraph because they didn't set the toggle to "plain text" instead of "interpreted html".

PR Companies

A pattern has been emerging this year. Whenever I see a press release that's a truly abysmal effort, I check the Web page of the company that sent it, and they're not a Linux company at all. They're a generic PR firm that the Linux company has hired to take care of their publicity. If your company is doing this or is considering doing it, let me warn you -- this is a Bad Idea(TM). The PR firm will market your product just as they market countertops or diapers for their other clients; they have no clue that there's anything different about this market and this community.

If you must use a third party service, do your best to find one that understands Free Software and the people who talk about it and buy and sell products and services related to it. If they don't, their bad manners are going to affect you, not them. Very few people will bother to look at who sent the message, but will remember for a long time that they got that awful spam about BigLinuxBiz's new line of tshirts. If you're going to let someone else handle your contacts, you'll have to:

  1. Educate them yourself.
  2. Keep them in close contact with your technical team.

Both of which are more easily done in-house.


If you're in charge of promoting a Free Software product, I hope you'll take at least some of this to heart. If you work in a company where you've been embarrassed by your PR department, I hope you'll point them at this and let them know how their behavior has been counterproductive. I'd like to hear any horror stories you have to share, and your thoughts about any problems I haven't presented here.

Jeff Covey received his degree in classical guitar performance but spent so much time with his computer that he fell in with a bad crowd and ended up working for He currently works on freshmeat and runs a computer lab for the kids in his neighborhood in his spare time.

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Recent comments

30 Dec 2001 11:28 Avatar garym

Winning through worse practices

99% of what Jeff says here is not specific to Linux companies; his advice is well deserved by the vast majority of business who try to make the jump into Internet markes. The only thing I would add here was not available when Jeff wrote this: Visit ( or at least read the Cluetrain Manifesto (

02 Aug 2000 13:23 Avatar rys

I completely agree.
Some comments below are a bit harsh, but really. The original idea behind the editorial is that, when addressing the Linux Community, sound smart, and do it right.

I see many comments below along the lines of "your a hypocrite", (someone made a comment about the use of html: well.. it's one thing when you know someone's program will interpret it, it's another to force someone to dump an email message to a file, so that it may be formatted to a reasonibly readable format)..

Someone else made a comment about Linux not being ready for the business desktop. To me, his editorial wasn't anything about Linux being ready for the business desktop, it was about how people in the business world (those using Microshaft products mostly), rarely come off as having a clue when speaking to the Linux community.

When responding to an editorial, read what the author is writing about. Often, it seems, people can be so desperate for an arguement that they are blind to what others are saying.

31 Jul 2000 16:56 Avatar richi

Two notes about mail standards

First, the reason the clue-seekers appear to be sending the same thing in two different formats is because they're sending in MIME "multipart/alternative" format. Essentially, the mail tool notices that they're sending in HTML (say) and provides an alternative, plain text rendition, for the benefit of "luddites" (ahem) who may not be HTML-capable.

Second, there's a new standard (well, "proposed" standard, stricly-speaking) for plain text that allows text not to be blindly wrapped at 72 (or 80, or whatever). It's the "Flowed" extension to MIME, RFC 2646. A mail tool sending this format will automagically wrap to 72 (a suggested value). Older receiving mail tools will just show the 72 character lines just fine, thankyou; newer receiving mail tools will re-format the paragraphs back to their original, intended flowed format. Cool. Why couldn't we have achieved this 15 years ago? Fine question.

Richi Jennings, Team OpenMail (
Hewlett-Packard Company
i n v e n t (

28 Jul 2000 17:03 Avatar elgreen

Other pet peeves
Here's some other marketing gaffes I've come across:

Vendor A makes a bold move into the Linux market and sends readers to, a site which runs on Windows NT/IIS. If you know so little about Linux that you can't run a Linux web server, why should we think you know enough about Linux to make a good product for Linux?

Vendor B was smart enough to install a Linux server for, but the marketing department uses Front Page to create the pages. No big deal, nobody expects /bin/vi to be the editor of choice... but they chose some Front Page format that requires ActiveX controls to be installed on the browser. Whoops, the Linux community can't even SEE your content!

Vendor C was smart enough to install a Linux server for, but their web design team is enamored of third-party plugins to do various "gee-whiz" things. Alas, one of these plugins is not available for Linux Netscape. Whoops, the target market STILL can't see your content!

Vendor D is a wanna-be major mover in the Linux hardware market. Their marketing department sends out EMAIL with an "Outlook Express" header on it. If you have staked your future on Linux, how can you allow Windows to be your default computing environment? (Note that at least in my division, the marketing department uses Linux -- this was a corporate decision, and they gripe and groan, but tough).

I can probably come up with a dozen more, but I'm shaking my head too hard to see the screen clearly at the moment...


28 Jul 2000 16:39 Avatar elgreen

Alternate mail readers for Windows
One thing to bear in mind: Outlook (or Outlook Express) is not the only mail reader for Windows. There are literally hundreds of them, free, shareware, and otherwise. My mother uses Netscape Communicator as her mail reader because that's what I set her up with -- I did not want to have to go 2,000 miles to her house every time yet another security breach was found in Outlook Distress. Eudora is another popular EMAIL reader for Windows.

Outlook comes "free" with MS Exchange. Outlook Express comes "free" with Windows. That's the only reason anybody ever would use them. In both cases, you got what you paid for. If you are a marketing person and wanting to send mail to a variety of other people, you don't necessarily need to find Linux geeks to make sure your EMAIL is not going to insult them by being foobar.vob file that they can't read... simply load up a few different EMAIL programs, send yourself an example, and see how it looks.



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