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Anyone who writes blogs – in fact, any writer – will know that once in a while you create something that really stands out – that shapes your thinking, that brings together your ideas in just the right way. Almost exactly three years ago I wrote one of those pieces. Before Akvo even had a website, I published an article on Re*Move, my research blog, about why Akvo could break many of the established rules of marketing and communication – it was titled “Why open source marketing changes everything”.

I felt lucky but apprehensive at the time. We were still months from securing significant funding, and Akvo was still mainly a vision on a drawing board in Delft. Yet we all understood we had an absolutely unique chance – because as an open source project focused on poverty reduction and international development, we had a clear mandate to challenge business as usual. Our goal was – and remains – to accelerate the rate at which water and sanitation projects happen in the poorest parts of the world, so there isn’t time to be cautious – we had to be bold. We had to recognise what gets in the way.

My conclusion then was that the marketing, communications and media establishment often get in the way. It remains so today – in fact it may now be more obvious than it was in early 2007. We’re planning some new ways to bring to life the work of all the amazing partners who are using our system, from field engineers to campaigners – what we call the doers and donors. I’ll be sharing more of this strategy in an upcoming blog post, but first I thought it worth revisiting that piece three years ago, to help explain the underlying assumptions we work to – and the assumptions we’ve set out to challenge.

So here goes – my view from 11 January 2007:

Why open source marketing changes everything

Traditional marketing and communications has worked upon the assumption that there are limited channels to market. Any organisation wishing to promote itself must compete to take up limited – or deliberately constrained – space such as advertisements in newspapers or magazines or profile in editorial articles in those same media. Similarly conferences and events are built around a limited number of speaker slots or a constraint on exhibition space.

In the media, a relatively small number of individuals have for many years controlled and influenced access to the space on their pages, itself restricted by the cost and constraints of the conventional printing process.

An entire industry – of journalists acting as gatekeepers, of advertising sales executives funding the operation through demand management, of public relations advisors deriving earnings from being well connected and able to package a story in the ‘right’ way has grown around the basic constraint that there is only so much space in which to report stories or advertise.

A major change is going on today driven by the rise of a much broader range of commentary and commentators, and a fragmentation of where people look for information and inspiration. This is driven by user participation online and the explosion in blogging and ‘pro-amateur’ journalism, research and collaboration.

Over time this will change, for example, the fundamental nature of public relations. For years, PR campaigns have managed the presentation of a story into ‘news’, presenting companies, products and services as something that is happening that day, when the reality is their period of relevance is much longer. Packaging a launch suddenly creates a constraint – the products are deemed new and therefore quickly become deemed old.

Of course, real news is different – Concorde crashing into a hotel in Paris was news, Kate Moss being arrested on drugs charges was news, the Asian tsunami devastating millions of lives was news. Each of these things happened and was reported on.

The mistake made by many today is thinking their product or service is a news story -or indeed thinking their product or service is the story at all. Essentially it’s not. The story is the context, how it is changing and how various products and services, including yours, fit into and help to shape this context.

Of course it can be made into news with enough marketing investment, or if you have the control and showmanship of Apple’s Steve Jobs. But that is hard to do – and isn’t usually unnecessary.

If viewed from this perspective, and rethought under open source principles, public relations can create an ongoing and expanding eco-system of supporters that would be charged with connecting your story to a wide range of contexts. A major part of the exercise would be to make people feel part of the venture and its aims, and to feel they can make individual and group contributions.

A project focused on development is a perfect place to pioneer open source marketing and public relations. Media cannot penalise the team for refusing to offer ‘exclusives’, one of the mainstays of story presentation today that wins over one supporter at the expense of many others.

Likewise, such a development project has the ability to attract a large number of pro-amateur supporters, who will consider their participation to be a valuable piece of work experience that helps to further their professional prospects. It allows them to work directly, without complex command and control NGO baggage, on development projects that would otherwise only be given to a small number of overworked staff and volunteers working in the press office of conventional charity marketing departments.

How such marketing will work

At a technical level, projects will follow the following open principles (adapted from the osaa):

    – IP licensing: publish at least some of its marketing intellectual property under a creative commons or other re-use license.

    – Collaborates openly with other marketing teams and individuals, leading to joint and/or derivative deliverables.

    – Is both a consumer and producer of content that is shared (i.e. genuinely participates in a two way manner), and has a culture of clear attribution.

    – Makes a substantial proportion of its output, including contacts and campaign details, available to all third parties.

    – Has clear mechanisms for gathering/inviting feedback from those that matter, i.e. professional and pro-amateur media, other development communications professionals, resource-rich and resource-poor partners and patrons / funders / sponsors.

    – Transparency of funding.

At a practical level, this will mean the following:

    – The vast majority of our organisation’s communications strategy, tactical plans and timelines will be published openly online and available to view by anyone within the community system (such as a wiki).

    – New content will be posted online as soon as it is available and will not be given in advance to marketing staff. Any participant in the marketing community can take that content and reuse it, provided they respect basic guidelines on reuse and reporting.

    – The community is open and welcoming to new community members and participants are actively encouraged to link to or reuse our content.

    – News updates and case study content will be presented via a community blog, which will also feature analysis on related partners. The team will work actively to encourage links to and from other members of the eco-system.

    – Particular efforts will be made to report on and provide input / context for articles written by blog writers (both professional and pro-amateur) covering information technology, paths to adoption, water and sanitation, local, regional and global development / aid issues, etc.

As I said 3 years back down the road, I’d love to know what people think of this – what resonates, what doesn’t. And what’s changed since then.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo and directs its communications. Photo: Myself, Thomas Bjelkeman and Peter van der Linde of Akvo. West Village, New York City. 17 May 2009. Original here.