Marketing GNOME Part Two: Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning

John Williams takes you through some of his own thoughts on marketing in general and how that applies to GNOME as a product that will compete effectively in a very cut-throat market. This is the second installment of a series on marketing.


This is the second article in a series about marketing GNOME. The first article focussed on issues of branding and the need for market research. In this article I will examine some ideas about market segmentation. Almost none of these ideas are original to me. They evolved from conversations held on IRC, on mailing lists, and captured on website. I hope to suggest some ideas for discussion and debate, and suggest a way to proceed on these issues. I do not claim to have any answers, only a framework for working toward them.

First, a bit of marketing theory:

In the marketing world there exists a triple STP: “Segmentation, Targeting, Positioning”. The reason why they are a triple is that they should almost never be analysed or discussed in isolation.

Market segmentation is about the recognition of diversity within a market, i.e. that not all customers in a given market have the same needs. Furthermore, these differing needs may be so different that separate marketing strategies or tactics are necessary for particular sub-markets or “segments”. If that is so, the segments need to be explicitly defined, and separate marketing actions need to be planned with respect to each segment.

This is, of course, predicated on the understanding that we know who “the market” is. This is often a very tricky question. One way to approach a solution is to ask “Who or what else is the customer choosing between?” when we want them to choose us. In other words, what are the substitutes for GNOME? If not GNOME, then what?

Target marketing is about selecting those segments that the organisation is willing and able to service. Any given segment may be attractive in some way, but not able to be serviced due to the particular mix of capabilities within the organisation.

Positioning is about differentiating the organisation’s offering(s) from that of the competition in the minds of the customers in the chosen segment.

One of the biggest and most often repeated mistakes that people make when segmenting a market is to split the market on the basis of easily observable characteristics of customers (for example age, sex, education, income). This is silly. The correct way is to segment the market on the basis of the differing desires (needs, wants) of the market.

Now, the application in our context to GNOME:

Who are the “customers” of GNOME, and what do they want from GNOME and its substitutes? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I can make some guesses. At the very least GNOME and KDE define a market, in some sense. (Are there any Linux distributions that don’t use one of these DEs?) We are reduced to the question: “What do people want from a Linux/Unix Desktop Environment?”. From there we can ask “In what major ways will the wants of customers differ from one another?”. Again, I have no definitive answers to this, but I can make some guesses.

  • Distributions want a desktop environment that is easly branded, i.e. adaptable for their uses, with easy ways to change strings in messages, artwork, and default URIs etc. Also desirable are fast change cycles (ideally synched to the release cycles of the distribution) are also desirable.
  • System administrators want a desktop environment that is easily configured for thousands or tens of thousands of users. They also want stability and long change-cycles. Fast bug-fixes (especially security fixes) that are easily deployable are also needed. The ability to lock down configurable aspects of the environment is also necessary. Help and support is vital, and paying for it is no problem.
  • Corporate users want simplicity, usability, stability and long change-cycles.
  • Home users and hobbyists want the latest, greatest and coolest features, simplicity (note: simplicity and power/flexibility) and security. Note that these needs are similar even though the technical knowledge of these people ranges from almost zero to as much as it is possible to have. What they use the computer foris similar (with the exception of development, almost by definition) but the way they use it is different. Tellingly, they are often—- but not always, of course—- willing to sacrifice performance and stability for “bling”.

People who have followed similar discussions may be surprised that I have not included ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) in the above analysis. It is frequently mentioned that GNOME lacks good developer documentation and that this hinders ISVs from contributing to GNOME. This is arguably true, but in this article I want to concentrate on the desktop environment aspect of GNOME as opposed to the developement platform aspect.

Note how the desires of groups (1) and (4) are in direct contrast to those of groups (2) and (3). These are obviously broad generalisations, but I believe that they are sufficiently close to the “truth” that we can learn something: GNOME needs separate marketing strategies for distributions and home users, as opposed to system administrators and corporate users. Furthermore, perhaps we need to decide whether we are willing and able to serve all four markets. Can we? And if so, should we?

The “should we?” question is about target marketing. We want to choose the market segments that are attractive to us, and that we can compete effectively in (if we are in fact in a competitive situation). I am, of course, thinking about KDE here. It seems fairly obvious to me that KDE has a particular “feel” about it that contrasts with GNOME. It is also obvious to me that each desktop environment can play to its strengths and acheive its goals without encroaching on the other’s space. This freedom can be enhanced by interoperability. This seems paradoxical (I seem to be saying make it easy to switch, or—- horrors—- “defect”) until one considers how customers react to the perception that they are being “locked in” to a product choice. is our friend here. We must never forget that GNOME and KDE share the common goal of liberating our fellows from the opression of proprietary software. It’s all about that most boring and repetitive of questions: “Is Linux ready for the desktop?”. When do we want to be able to answer, confidently and truthfully, “yes”? I am fairly certain we can’t do that yet, for the unsupported home user. But how long are we willing to wait before we can say “yes”? A year? Two? Five? Ten?

It is often remarked these days that “in the battle for the desktop, free is not good enough.” Many, many people use software that they haven’t paid for, in the sense that their parent, school, employer or government paid for it. (And many people don’t realise that they are paying for Windows when they buy a new PC). Additionally, and sadly, many people don’t care about software freedom. To woo these people away from their invisible chains, we must be at least as good as, and probably much better than, their current option, along dimensions that matter to them. In this article I have made some guesses about the things that matter, but empirical research is needed to assess how good these guesses are.


So, have we made any progress here? Is there anything here that we don’t know already? For some people who are involved with distributions, or the governance of GNOME and KDE, all of this may be old hat (or wrong!), but it is for the people who don’t hang out on the mailing lists, IRC channels and wikis that I am writing this article. So, where do we go from here?

Firstly, the GNOME community must decide where to concentrate its efforts when considering the improvements that can and should be make to GNOME. My money is on system administrators and distributions, simply because they are capable of big victories. One system administrator can make descisions that affects thousands or tens of thousands of users. They are the “low hanging fruit”. Similarly with distributions, although, as noted, these two groups need a separate strategy. But they share a similar technological thread: the behind-the-scenes managability and configurability of GNOME, as opposed to user-visible features and aesthetics. (At this point I should note that I would much rather help develop a desktop environment that was for the home user that emphasised personal power and freedom. So I am not advocating a course that I have an emotional committment to. But that’s another story).

Secondly, distributions and system administrators like documentation, plans and schedules. The current roadmap for GNOME, such as it is, is more like a community scratchpad than a plan (Maybe the “real” planning is behind closed doors? I doubt it, but these sentiments have been raised and probably need to be addressed)? I think that we can serve our customers better by creating a more detailed plan. This brings me to my third and final point.

We need to get distributions and sysadmins more involved with the GNOME planning and the entire development process. In short we should “market with” rather than “market to” them (This is my academic hobby horse coming to the fore). Rather than GNOME “creating value” which we can then “deliver to the market,” we need to co-create value for GNOME and its consumers with those consumers. I could go on about this, but I am trying to restrain myself 🙂


What can we do right now? Form separate (but integrated!) groups to manage the aspects of GNOME that are relevant for distributions on the one hand, and system administrators on the other.

That is all, until next time.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.

Posted on February 16, 2006, in February 2006. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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