Open-Source Marketing

The open-source movement is primarily associated with software. Linux, MySQL, R, OpenOffice, Mozilla, Apache, and many other open-source software development projects have a profound effect on the software industry. They cause some of our best and brightest business minds to reinvent business models and legal scholars to revisit the meaning and purpose of intellectual property (IP) protection.

Open source isn’t limited to software. It applies to many aspects of the IP and creative landscape. People publish pictures, videos, and music that can be used freely by others, providing there’s attribution. The Creative Commons project attempts to create a counterbalance to the overly restrictive copyright regime that makes it virtually impossible to include or quote any material for commercial use without enumeration if that material is copyrighted. According to the site, the project’s goal is, “Some rights reserved: building a layer of reasonable copyright.”

How do the open-source movement and initiatives such as the Creative Commons project affect marketing? Perhaps substantially.

A recent Wired article (“The Lost Boys“) points to how a core audience for TV advertisers, 18-34-year-old males, is watching less TV. What do they do instead? Surf the Internet for porn, music, auctions, and sports. In that order.

You don’t need a crystal ball to conclude fewer people are watching TV on broadcasters’ terms. If the Internet and video games don’t divert attention from broadcast advertising, then PVRs such as TiVo let them watch on their own schedule, easily skipping the ads.

The classic model of high production quality, broad distribution advertising, and marketing is becoming less effective, and certainly less cost-effective. What seems to work is the quirky, funny, sincere stuff. The Wired article points to the success of such recent campaigns as the Quiznos Spongmonkeys and Burger King’s Subservient Chicken ads with companion Web site. Silly? Absolutely. That’s the point. Glossy and slick are tired. Authentic, quirky, and funny are wired.

If the goal is authenticity, then openness might be a way to achieve the goal. If irreverent humor is the key to getting attention, then plagiarism and widespread, uncontrolled distribution spell success, not failure.

What if advertising and marketing materials were published with a Creative Commons license, perhaps requiring attribution but otherwise encouraging, rather than prohibiting, derivative works? What if the goal were less to restrict and control the use of images but rather to encourage derivative use? Let’s call it open-source marketing.

Under this model, blogging about a company, product, or service would be encouraged by said company as a rule, not an exception. Open-source marketing encourages openness and discussion, facilitates debate and idea sharing. It encourages free downloads of the finished ad and the “source code” — all the storyboards, video clips, raw animation, text copy, sound files, and other components — used to construct the advertisement. Open-source marketing enlists the audience to take a message, an image, or a jingle and “improve” it by creating derivative works. It encourages consumers to not just consume and critique, but to engage, improve, and redistribute improvements if the original doesn’t work or measure up.

Arguments against open-source marketing will probably sound a lot like arguments against open-source software: Open source just concerns commoditization, not innovation. It will stifle innovation. Who’ll want to put the resources behind developing high-quality advertising and marketing if anyone, including the competition, can just copy it without any legal recourse to protect the original works? In short, how can the makers of advertising differentiate and make money if they’re supposed to encourage their creative works be made available for free, for all to use and, surely, for some to abuse.

The core argument supporting open-source marketing is based on that old cliché, the customer is always right. The customer (“audience,” in ad parlance) will always decide what works and what doesn’t. Open-source software is fueled by a desire to avoid lock-in. People and organizations want freedom of choice. Open source is a reaction to proprietary solutions, especially if proprietary means consumers are on the receiving end of a monologue. Open source says yes to access and transparency, no to control and closed solutions.

Isn’t it time to let the audience in on the creative process? And I don’t mean focus groups. Make your advertising open source. If you’re lucky, your audience will improve your message and your image, making them better and more effective.

The open-source movement has taken the world by storm. Get ready for it to turn its sights on marketing and advertising. Marketing has long promised interactivity, but it’s remained more myth than reality. Maybe we got it wrong. Perhaps what people want isn’t click-and-branch “interactive” marketing. Perhaps what they want is creative freedom and control. Perhaps what they want is open-source marketing.

Next month: how open-source software and cheap creative tools affect marketing by gradually commoditizing high-cost, proprietary approaches and lowering entry barriers.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.