I recently attended an event with a large number of advertising executives. All of them are coming to grips with the change from the era of push media to the era of social media, which might more properly be called “pull media.” At its core, the social revolution allows people to consume what they want, when they want, and largely on the recommendation of friends and other non-professional influencers. Attempt to graft old models onto it and you are doomed to struggle; find models that are native to the medium and you will thrive.
At O’Reilly, we first learned this lesson in 1992, when we published The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, the first popular book about the Internet, and the first to cover the as-yet undiscovered World Wide Web. (When we published the book, there were only about 200 websites, and the first web conference which we convened, “the World Wide Web Wizards Workshop” had thirty attendees, albeit among them such later luminaries as Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreesen.) We had the great good fortune to hire Brian Erwin, formerly the head of activism for the Sierra Club, to help us with our PR and marketing.
“People don’t care about your book,” I remember Brian saying to me. “They care about the Internet itself.” Instead of marketing the book, we used the book to market the Internet. And we used the native tools of the Internet (at the time, principally mailing lists and usenet newsgroups) to find people who were also evangelical about the power of the Internet, and offered them free copies of the book to help with their evangelism. The book sold over a million copies, and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the most significant books of the 20th century.
We never looked back. Activism has been the core of our marketing ever since. We tell big stories that matter to a community of users, and together we use those stories to amplify a message that we all care about. Framing ideas in such a way that they include and reinforce the identity of a group of people who might not previously have seen themselves as part of the same community allows everyone to tell their own story in a way that adds up to something bigger than any one of them might tell alone. And once they start telling their story as part of the bigger story, it suddenly looks like a parade.
Jim Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape, once told me that his working principle was to “find a parade and get in front of it.” But what’s most important about a parade isn’t who’s in front – it’s how many people are in it, and how many people are cheering them on.
For example, in April 1998, I organized an event originally called “the freeware summit” but later known as “the open source summit” because it was at that meeting that the new term “open source software” was voted on and agreed to by the leaders of all the most important free software projects. Up to that time, free software was thought of as a fringe movement, largely because Richard Stallman had identified free software as a moral issue, and had also confused in many people’s minds the two meanings of the word “free.”
In 1997, Eric Raymond‘s essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” changed the narrative about free software from a moral crusade to a practical discussion of the utility and benefits of sharing source code. And in April 1998, a few weeks before the freeware summit, Christine Peterson had suggested changing the name from “free software” to “open source software.” However, even then, the narrative was largely limited to Linux, the upstart free operating system, and the suite of programming tools associated with Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation.
I realized that there was a far wider community of free software projects, and in particular, that the Internet, rather than Linux, should be the heart of the narrative. In 1998, the impact of Linux was only beginning, but the open source software that powered the internet had already changed the world. Tim Berners-Lee had put the protocols and languages of the web into the public domain, Apache was the dominant web server, the Internet’s Domain Name System was almost entirely dependent on BIND, the Berkeley Internet Name Daemon, Sendmail routed most of the Internet’s mail, most web programming was done in open source languages Perl and Python, and, yes, Linux was increasingly being used as the operating system for web servers and MySql as the database.
When I put the leaders of all these software projects up on stage together in front of reporters from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, the San Jose Mercury News, and other major news outlets, and said “These guys wrote and maintain the software that the Internet depends on”, people sat up and took notice. And when I said “Each of these guys has dominant market share in a new product category based on nothing but the strength of their ideas and a new development and distribution model,” suddenly, each of them was a hero. In six weeks, Linus Torvalds was on the cover of Forbes, with full page pictures of many of the other free software leaders (including Larry Wall, Guido van Rossum, Brian Behlendorf, and Richard Stallman) in the story inside. The software world was never the same.
Of course, O’Reilly published books about each of these software products. We’d begun publishing about Linux and Perl in 1991, about BIND in 1992, about Apache and Sendmail in 1993. And we’d launched our Perl Conference in 1997 (later expanded into the O’Reilly Open Source Convention in 1999.) But the PR we did focused on the technologies themselves and the people behind them rather than on our products. We remembered Brian Erwin’s lesson: “People don’t care about books. They care about the subject of the books.” Yet because we focused on telling a story that made heroes of people and technologies that had previously been unknown, sales of our books soared as the user and developer communities that we’d celebrated grew and flourished.
By the time the cover of Publishers Weekly featured a stack of our books with the caption “The Internet was built with O’Reilly books”, everyone understood that it was true.
We repeated the trick when we launched the Web 2.0 Summit in 2004. Our business had been decimated by the dotcom bust of 2001, and our corporate goal for 2003 was to reignite enthusiasm in the computer industry. Dale Dougherty, my long-time co-conspirator and partner at O’Reilly Media, came up with the idea for an event to celebrate what distinguished the companies that survived the dotcom bust from those that had gone under. We launched a conference, to be sure, but what we really launched was a movement that made heroes of a new crop of startups and technologies, and added fuel to a fire that we’d identified when it was still largely unrecognized.
I wrote a whitepaper the following year, “What is Web 2.0?“, that was downloaded for free more than a million times. Our Web 2.0 events generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue, but our marketing was not about our products – it was about the people and technologies and ideas that we celebrated as the pathfinders of a way out of the wasteland that the web had become in the years leading up to the bust.
We did it again with the Maker movement in 2005. Make: magazine and Maker Faire celebrated a new DIY movement (“Technology on your own time”), the resurgence of hardware hacking, and cutting edge technologies like sensors and 3D printing. “Smart stuff and dumb stuff made with smart tools.” But it was never just about technologies. It was about people. And about giving those people a shared identity that allowed them to evangelize and grow their own following.
Within months of the launch of the magazine, everyone was talking about “makers,” and people as diverse as roboticists and crafters were carrying a torch for “the maker movement.” I still remember the genius with which Dale crafted a big tent at that first MakerFaire in 2006. The Swap-o-rama-rama, a clothing swap started by a woman from Brooklyn, in which people alter the clothes on the spot with sewing machines, silk-screening, and more, then have a fashion show at the end of the day, was right next to the Alameda-Contra-Costa Computer Recycling Society, which was showing off its home-brew supercomputer made out of recycled PCs running Linux. And both of them proudly identified themselves as makers.
With the Maker movement, Dale helped launch the career of a new generation of entrepreneurs, who suddenly could get a hearing because we’d shouted to the world that there was a new technology wave coming. We helped to promote Bre Pettis of Makerbot, Massimo Banzi of Arduino, Limor Fried and Phil Torrone ofAdafruit Industries, and hundreds of other aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as the thousands of artists and garage-shop hackers whose projects we’ve featured in the pages of our magazine or at our new 21st century version of the old County Fair.
This notion is now at the heart of our business organization. We have grouped our products not by product type (books, conferences, apps, research and other services) but by what we call “practice areas.” Practice areas are focused on communities of users whom we bring together and serve. Our goal is to amplify their effectiveness and their success. Our products just happen to be the way we do it.
All of this is by way of saying that the right way to energize social media isn’t to try to find people to tout your products. It’s to find people who care about the same things you do, and to tell a story that amplifies their voice because it helps people who haven’t yet heard the word also come to know and care. In fact, the products you create should be by and for that community.
Your job, in short, is to uncover and activate latent social networks and interest groups by helping them to reach their own goals.
Dave Hickey, in his wonderful book Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, pointed out that the role of a gallery owner or museum is to bestow status on heretofore-unknown artists. If the gallery owner’s taste is sure, his own status is enhanced by the people he discovers and promotes. So too has it been with O’Reilly Media. The status we’ve built up in the computer industry is based on our ability to find people and technologies that are worth paying attention to, and to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with others, who then carry it even further.
Even in ephemeral social media like Twitter, I’m known principally for how often I retweet. I’m constantly looking for value from others that I can amplify. I have millions of followers on Twitter and Google+ not just because of what I say but because of the people I pay attention to.
In short, the secret of promotion in the age of social media isn’t to promote yourself. It’s to promote others. Success comes when your success depends on the success of your customers, your suppliers, your end-users, and when you spend more of your time thinking about them than about yourself. You can even promote your competitors. In the early 90s, we distributed to booksellers a bibliography of all the best books on Unix – our competitors’ as well as our own. Our theory was that if we helped booksellers to buy the best books, the sales of the entire category would grow.
There’s a wonderful section in Victor Hugo’s brilliant, humane novel Les Miserables about the good that Jean Valjean does as a businessman (operating under the pseudonym of Father Madeleine). Through his industry and vision, he makes an entire region prosperous, so that “there was no pocket so obscure that it had not a little money in it; no dwelling so lowly that there was not some little joy within it.”
And the key point: “Father Madeleine made his fortune; but a singular thing in a simple man of business, it did not seem as though that were his chief care. He appeared to be thinking much of others, and little of himself.”