Thoughts on marketing the ‘Improv’ board

At the end of last month KDE announced a new Open Hardware project to create a Raspberry Pi-like computer called “Improv“, produced by “Make Play Live” of Coherent Theory LLC. This is an important development that I’m delighted to see, and I plan to pre-order and get mine in March.

Marketing Free Software and Open Hardware based products, and specifically marketing to Free Software communities, is a fascinating and complex challenge. Let’s see if we can learn something from observing the journey of Make Play Live’s new product.

Improv board
The Improv computer Sam Tuke CC BY-SA

Good examples

  • In the days preceding launch, teaser shots of the board were posted on Twitter, including a tantalising heavily-blurred image showing dimensions but no detail
  • The Make Play Live homepage is very clear about it’s focus on Open Hardware and the Improv board, with clear links to buy.
  • Two interesting, well edited videos were released for the product announcement and published on YouTube. One a personal introduction by Project Lead Aaron Seigo, connecting viewers to the team and expertise, the other a 30 second product expo style hardware closeup. The two juxtapose well and introduce viewers to both the human and corporate sides of the project. Familiarity with both is important for inspiring trust in buyers.
  • KDE’s piece on the its own history with Open Hardware is valuable in it’s own right, and puts the Improv board in context, connecting it firmly with KDE itself and its values.
  • Make Play Live hosts it’s own forum for community members, running on the excellent Discourse forum app. The forum remains active months after the latest company announcement, providing a place for questions and ideas, equating to good value community marketing.
Make Play Live logo
Make Play Live logo Sam Tuke CC BY-SA

Ideas for improvement

  • The official Twitter account (@makeplaylive) posted it’s first ever tweet only 10 days before product launch, and has only tweeted 19 times total to date. Building up followers before launch, and keeping the account alive with occasional posts and rewteets afterwards could have resulted in much greater impact then and for future news.
  • @makeplaylive tweeted only announcements. Tweeting messages to users with lots of followers and getting their attention would have been a great way to engage receptive community members.
  • Just one shared hashtag was used in tweets: #merweek. That was a good tag to use, but a fraction as popular as tags like #OpenHardware, #KDE, or #RaspberryPi
  • The first news about Improv appeared on kde.org two months after the original announcement. Improv is made by KDE people using KDE software and KDE design principles. This seems like a missed opportunity to get the most potentially receptive community on board with the project early, and enrolling amplifiers (thought leaders, twitterati, etc.) and early adopters.
  • When news about Improv finally did hit kde.org late last month, the links were buried in a long retrospective piece about open hardware in general. While excellently written, the piece included no pictures of the board and no links to buy, instead linking to the historical blog announcement, and a donate form on an unfamiliar 3rd party website. A simpler path to getting the board would be more encouraging.
  • Visitors to Make Play Live wishing to purchase a board are navigated to vaultechnology.com. Consumer trust in the ethics and community behind Open Hardware products is critical, and the relationship between Vault and Make Play Live could be clearer.
  • To purchase, visitors must traverse three pages (“Purchase an Improv” -> “Buy an Improv” -> “add to cart” -> “Checkout”). Taking buyers direct to the checkout page after their very first click (“Purchase an Improv”) would provide a better experience and likely elevated conversion rates.
  • Vault / Make Play Live are hoping to raise $125.000 in donations to get Improv off the ground. Considering they have such an interesting and desirable product, this looks like an ideal opportunity for crowdfunding. Using a platform like Kickstarter or Goteo could have provided many added benefits for marketing, and public and community relations.

By looking at projects like Improv we can develop an understanding of promoting ethical software products. Considering how few specialists there are in this field, and considering how central marketing is to the viability and growth of Free Software and Open Hardware, these are important skills to highlight.