What Does a User Cost?
Seth Godin has some advice to marketeers and businesses that open source proejcts should take to heart as well. Godin writes today about embracing the "lifetime value" of a customer. Open source projects may not have customers, but it pays to think about the lifetime value of users as well.
Godin writes "Instead of comparing what you invest to the benefit you receive from the first bill, the first visit, the first transaction, it's important to not only recognize but embrace the true lifetime value of one more customer."
That's equally true of users of open source projects. Contributors to projects are valued and recognized. But all too often, users are ignored and seen as a sort of side-effect of producing software. Yes, they can have it too, but really, it's a contributors-only (and often developers-only) club. Many projects are starting to recognize the problem and are seeing that at least some of the users now are the next round of contributors.
That's a good reason to start. Every happy user is a walking, talking promotion for your project. Maybe they'll never become a committer or ambassador for your project, but they may tell a friend or two about it and those users may eventually become contributors. I know a few powerhouse advocates who do no more than spread the word about their favorite projects at every opportunity who have ultimately brought in several contributors.
But even the most passive users contribute value to the open source projects that they use. Mozilla Firefox is a "supported browser" for many sites today not because of the strength of its contributor community, but because of the sheer mass of its user community. The fact that Firefox has a healthy contributor community in the thousands doesn't mean diddly to large businesses. But the fact that it has millions of otherwise passive users means quite a bit -- because those businesses understand the principle that Godin is espousing: Think about the lifetime value of a customer (user) and what it means to lose one.
Open source projects like openSUSE, Fedora, GNOME, KDE, and the thousands of others, don't get any real revenue (discounting the occasional fan store sales) from users, of course, but the value of a user is inestimable.
Godin says that it shows a business embraces this concept when they see a customer walking out of the door as the potential lifetime spend of that customer being lost. I suggest open source projects embrace the idea, and see every user lost as a potential Linus Torvalds walking out of the project. Embrace that thought, and we should have very happy users indeed. The rest will follow.Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a longtime FOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat for a number of publications, including Linux Magazine, Linux Weekly News, Linux.com, UnixReview.com, IBM developerWorks, and many others.