Undoubtedly, open source software starts with software developers. But it takes a huge distributed effort of community and content to ever become more than a chunk of software code dumped on a server somewhere for random people to stumble across and ignore. To see what works, I've taken a look at the three open source projects I highlighted at the start of this post to see how they might have achieved and maintained their popularity. There are likely to be others that could be equally deserving of mention, although I wanted to pick projects with very different profiles and user-bases.
So, what works? Let's start with the real application developers, progress through some website designers and finish up with a bunch of people using their PCs to write a document and browse the web.
Ruby on Rails = Software development made cool, with a “get started fast” mentality
The Ruby on Rails web development platform is focused on developers, for sure. It has been adopted by companies ranging from startups (including Consected) to Groupon, Yellow Pages and Twitter. According to the website it has 2,100 contributors to the code and documentation of the project, which is no small number. And its focus on making web application development faster and more productive means that it has to live up to that promise the moment a new developer hears about it. The website pushes a "see it to believe it" approach, getting a new developer a quick buzz from building a quick application in less time than it takes to eat a sandwich one handed while typing an email to your boss.
The rubyonrails.org website is constantly updated, following the rhythm of the product releasing. It constantly shows new quick start guides, loads of screencasts showing how to perform simple and complex programming tasks, pushes Rails development and best-practices books, and has links galore to Rails related blogs and website through its Planet Ruby on Rails channels. This constant tick of content from the core Rails team, plus the huge amount of advocacy (and occasional griping) that comes from the network of regular and one-off bloggers keeps the community strong and the project in the spotlight.
Wordpress = Blogs about blogs and pure SEO from user generated content
You can’t argue with the success of Wordpress: it is used to develop 18.9% of all websites [view reference]
It is the broad Wordpress ecosystem that has made the project so successful, helped along with a big push from the technology. The ability for any software developer to produce a plug-in for a Wordpress blog, or a stunning theme to make it look amazing, and present these in a directory on the Wordpress.org website, has led to a constant stream of new Wordpress related content directly on the site. Every plug-in gains a space to present itself, to capture reviews and to support users (many of which are non-technical). This makes the Wordpress.org world an accessible meld of technology, bloggers, web developers and software coders with a huge amount of ever changing and growing content. This is an SEO dream. Google something about a blog, you'll most likely arrive at Wordpress.
When you tuck in the array of non-affiliated blogs about Wordpress matters, from those about the best looking themes to some clever hints and tips, (for example http://wpcandy.com/ and http://www.wpbeginner.com/category/beginners-guide/) you get what appears to be a great deal of testimonials to why a user should adopt Wordpress for their website platform. Then add in the commercial ecosystem that surrounds the project, all very vocal online, and you can see why they are on to a winner.
Ubuntu = A Linux desktop with clean design, and a constant push to appeal to non-technical users
Ubuntu represents the epitomy of design-driven free software, intended to appeal to a community of non-technical, semi-technical and complete geek users. To achieve this, Ubuntu has an obvious brand, and it pushes that brand hard on all of the core websites. Visitors know they have arrived at an Ubuntu site and are welcomed in with careful consideration of what they want to know, how it looks and the drip feed of constant new and useful information.
If the SEO potential is large from the six-monthly product release cycle, and the constant contribution of new content on the wikis even greater, then the community is key. There is an enormous amount of information about the desktop and server operating systems on the website; there are blogs; information about using the Ubuntu design and branding; Q&A forums; and more and more. There is a never ending supply of new, user generated content to help people get started, adopt and strongly shout about their use of the Ubuntu products.
Ubuntu is an open source project that has a marketing driven backer in Canonical. But it is the highly active, vocal, and welcoming community of users and developers that ensure the Ubuntu desktop stands firmly in the limelight.
What's the catch?
When I started looking at this post, I was considering how open source projects out-do their corporate cousins at social media and content marketing. Having really thought it through, I don’t know that is entirely true. Open source ‘social’ doesn't center on the use of Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. It is about Q&A forums, IRC chat channels and the occasional meetup. Open source project content doesn't have an editorial calendar or a careful email list tied into gated content, blogging and e-books. It is ad-hoc, unplanned and largely user generated, but there is masses of it and it never stops coming. In every form, media and every language. Open source projects rely on user generated content and collaboration that do not even sit on their own web properties, such as Stackoverflow and Github. With open source, the project's content marketing library is everywhere, published by everyone, with little control over what's being said. Corporate marketers are becoming familiar with this on Facebook fan pages, but the concept is still a little alien and uncomfortable. But open source projects know this is how it has to work.
Successful open source projects have more contributors than many companies have employees, more vocal advocates than big brands have Facebook fans, and more users than many companies could dream of having customers. It is the accessibility and openness of the community in some cases that creates this, and in others it is the lack of command-and-control over creation and publishing of content that makes the project come alive. There is no single answer, but when you stumble across a lively, active open source project you certainly know it. And it is that vibrancy and freedom that many companies could adopt in order to grow their social and content marketing into something really valuable, not just a droning broadcast of corporate messaging.