Open Source Marketing: Don’t Believe the Hype

Cross-posted from my personal blog.
I’ve written about ChangeThis on several occasions. I’ve described it as a manual to being a better human, and have found their manifestos to be thoughtful and original statements of philosophy on a wide variety of subjects. Sadly, James Cherkoff’s What is Open Source Marketing? is neither.

I expect a manifesto not only to be (to borrow from the dictionary) “a public written declaration of principles”, but also to be full of innovative thinking. If we look at famous manifestos in history, this is generally the case. Looking at other examples on the ChangeThis site (most notably The One Minute Website), I’ve come to expect originality. You’re better off reading a handful of documents which he liberally borrows from to reach his conclusions: [more]

As far as I can tell, there’s not a single original notion in this essay. Now, there’s nothing wrong with repeating or synthesizing what others have said (assuming you acknowledge your sources), but those articles shouldn’t become ChangeThis manifestos. The site’s editors ought to hold their material to a higher standard.

My other worry concerns Cherkoff’s misuse of the term “open source marketing”. I’m not opposed to the broadening of the term “open source” to apply to other fields than software development–its adoption speaks to the power of the concept. However, Cherkoff refers to scenarios which bear little relation to the spirit or definition of “open source”. For example, Cherkoff writes:

Last year, General Electric ran an online advertising campaign called “Pen”, which allowed people to create a drawing online and send it to a friend. Effectively, the campaign direction and content was handed over to an Open Source community. This incredibly simple idea was a multi-award winner and resulted in users from 140 countries e-mailing 6 million sketches to 1.5 million recipients.

That’s not open source marketing–that’s a website gimmick. They’re as old as Geocities. Here’s another instance that Cherkoff cites:

Redbull’s Art of the Can campaign challenges consumers to turn the product packaging into inspiring works of art, all to be judged by Tracy Emin. They have set a few rules and then asked their customers to come up with the ideas.

Back in the day, we called that a ‘contest’. He also makes references to advertisements being parroted or satired by consumers. That’s flattering to the company, but only open source in the most shallow and accidental sense. Most of the examples that Cherkoff cites are trivial notions of customer interactivity, not representative of an earth-shattering shifts in the consumer-company relationship. Yes, consumers are more informed, yes, they’re capable of talking back, but that doesn’t, by default, make marketing open source.

Cherkoff misses the best example of open source marketing that I’ve seen: buzz marketing. Here, a marketing agency farms out the work of promoting a product (undoubtedly the ‘development’ of marketing) to thousands of volunteers. These volunteers work individually to sell the product (often using creative methods) to their friends, family and acquaintances. It’s odd, certainly, and not entirely open source, but it’s in the ballpark.

What is Open Source Marketing? doesn’t cut it. It’s central theses is flawed and under-argued, and it’s free of original thought. I expect better from ChangeThis.

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