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.
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. 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.)
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:
You will not be greatly loved for having started one of these chain reactions.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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:
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 Andover.net. He currently works on freshmeat
and runs a computer lab for the
kids in his neighborhood in his spare time.
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