Taking an open source approach

Tim Holman

Born of the world of tech as a force for good, the open source movement has now become a business norm. What can organisations learn from the open source approach?



Open Source Software is an approach that underpinned the original Internet and though we might not realise, it is one that we all still interact with when we use technology today. Generally speaking, it’s most related to professionals and enthusiasts joining communities like GitHub to collaborate and contribute code to projects for free. Two heads are better than one, as the saying goes. Over the years the values, approaches and ideas of open source have permeated beyond software.

The open source model is grounded in knowledge sharing and co-creation. Collaborators give their time for free to projects to seek to improve the viability of a piece of software for the sake of innovation over the development of a commodity. It’s related to agile working in the sense that constant iteration, embracing failure, user research and testing are central to its approach.

Open source isn’t small fry either, GitHub has a network of over 31 million developers that contribute to open source projects. It was purchased by Microsoft for $7.5 billion and has a million active projects at any one time.

Mozilla is another well-known example of an opensource company and the two organisations even collaborate with one another; in 2016 Mozilla Firefox sought open suggestions on GitHub for rebranding their logo. 

One of the main benefits of contributing to these kinds of projects is that it helps teams to hone their skills and gain valuable feedback from a global network of peers.

Globally, the values of open source are being adopted and adapted across organisations in areas ranging from service design to research. We’re unwrapping what those values are with real-world examples – and even how we’ve embraced it in our own work too.

Open source values

  1. Human centred design. Thinking about and including end users from the outset
  1. Inclusive. Seeking out diverse opinions and feedback to strengthen the work
  1. Collaborative without reinventing the wheel. Build on others’ experience and existing expertise, making use of multiple perspectives
  1. Empathetic. Considering services, designs and outputs for as many end users as possible
  1. Continuous, focused and deliberate improvement. Weaving feedback, research and iteration into all processes
  1. Ethical. The impact of all work is considered
  1. Educational. Sharing knowledge for free for the greater common good
  1. Respectful. Crediting collaborators, acknowledging inspiration and citation are essential

Using open source design



Some of the most iconic examples of applying open source principles in day-to-day life have been in the design of material products. It often means designing a solution for a common problem and giving that design away for free or below market cost so that anyone can use it, meaning that the offering is as accessible as possible.

One of the most famous examples of this type of innovation predates the language ‘open source’. Volvo’s invention of the three-point seatbelt, designed in 1959 by Nils Bohlin, was left unpatented when the manufacturer recognised it’s potential to save millions of lives.

In another example, Mexican brewer Corona put their heads together to try and eliminate the need for plastic in the packaging of canned beverages. They designed ‘stackable’ cans that could be screwed together, with no patent on the design. This means any can company can utilise this innovation to save costs on packaging and drastically improve their environmental impact.

Another approach is to embed open source practices into an organisation as a tool for marketing. It can be a good way to open conversations with a user base and learn more about them. Brewdog (yes, another beer brand!) did this by publishing their recipes in full to encourage their community to have a go at trying to create their own versions, craftily educating them along the way about the differences between craft and mass-produced beer.

This tactic wasn’t deployed to gain expertise from the public to research and develop Brewdog’s beers. Instead, it was used to ignite conversations about the brand and learn more about their customer base.

Open source intelligence

Around since the 1980s, OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) reached a defining moment during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2009. In Tehran in Iran, platforms like Twitter were outperforming CNN for news coverage as citizen journalists on the spot were capturing, posting and streaming real-time image and video.

The success of OSINT is based on the sheer volume of public-facing content, unwittingly disclosed through the likes of a selfie. Analysts will study imagery for factors such as backgrounds, time of day, buildings and streets, along with a host of metadata buried behind the image itself. Alongside the collection of this data done by humans are the numerous platforms that scan, scrape and archive websites and social media platforms.

One of the leading names in the field is Bellingcat, an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists who use open source online and social media platforms to probe a variety of subjects – from the criminal underworld, crimes against humanity in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, to tracking the use of chemical weapons and conflicts worldwide.

Open source marketing



As an organisation, people will always tell you what they think about your product or services – and as almost every company will know, it’s not all going to be good. Unlike the social media mantra ‘don’t feed the troll’, when you invite public collaboration, you open yourself up to engaging with people’s criticisms of what you’re doing. But don’t let the critics stop you from engaging! As we said… two heads (or a few thousand) are better than one.

As for working with others in the sector, The Open Source Marketing Project is a place where marketing professionals and those interested in marketing and comms can go to share tools, techniques and approaches to democratise knowledge, making the work about ideas and not about gatekeeping skills. This can also be a great resource for those wishing to develop a marketing plan to see where they need to ask for more assistance.

Contemporary success can be defined by a continuous generation of ideas (and not being afraid of failure); some of these ideas may be great, others may not make the grade. In the past, success may have been marked by coveting, patenting and protecting a “secret recipe” or method in order to extract endless value from it. These days, these tactics can speak to an inflexibility and an unwillingness to innovate, collaborate, move forward, or to ‘kill your darlings’.

“The ‘open source way’ means expressing a willingness to share, collaborate with others in ways that are transparent (so that others can watch and join too), embracing failure as a means of improving, and expecting — even encouraging — everyone else to do the same.”


us marketing & open source



In a recent article about whole systems thinking, we spoke about the need for multiagency and multidisciplinary approaches to solving problems. One of our favourite client projects has been the Resident Voice Index™, a thought leadership project that leverages our client, MRI Software’s BI capabilities to engage social housing residents across the UK to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

As experts in B2C communications, community management and stakeholder engagement, we assisted in designing the project’s unique ‘residents first’ approach. It ensures that these stakeholders in the project are engaged from the outset to help define themes, design survey questions, be spokespeople for the project and are given access to results first.

To that point, the data and results from the Resident Voice Index™ are given away for free and have been developed collaboratively by the partners on a not-for-profit basis.

We live in the world where brands are punished if they don’t deliver consistent content. Finding the best revenue model whilst giving away work for free is one of the biggest challenges for every organisation looking to make an impact online.

Publishing content and information for free is an effective growth strategy, tying in with the aim of demonstrating your expertise and building trust in your work. When this is done in collaboration with respected partners in your field and with your end users, a community builds around your brand.

Our approach as an agency embraces the ‘open source way’, where deep community understanding and solid research help to deliver paradigm shifting narratives. We collaborate as a part of our clients’ teams to deliver their message and share in what they do.

- Stephanie Morphew


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