Open source in the era of digital marketing

When open source can be a competitive advantage

When Drupal creator Dries Buytaert addressed the inaugural DrupalCon Sydney conference earlier this year he said the open source project's community had to move beyond seeing it purely as a content-management system. Drupal can compete with the proprietary Web experience management solutions provided by companies like Adobe and Sitecore, Buytaert said.

“I think we have the opportunity to bring these tools to the masses just like we did with Web content management systems. And when we do so we’ll be open… we’ll be cheaper… and we’ll be faster.”

However, Drupal still faces a challenge not uncommon to many open source projects: Being on the radar of decision-makers as a credible, investment-worthy alternative to proprietary software. When it comes to the Web, that increasingly means worming its way into the consciousness of CMOs and the agencies that deliver enterprises' online presence.

Perth-based Doghouse Media is an example of a heavily Drupal-based Web development shop that has begun to evolve as the market has tilted away from purely technology-driven website creation agencies, to more holistic marketing businesses that can help deliver a multi-channel digital presence for organisations.

Doghouse has used its expertise in open source software, particularly Drupal, as a competitive advantage when pitching for work, according to director Simon Shackleton.

It began as a pure Web development shop, Shackleton says: "We basically built websites and that was pretty much the starting point of doghouse."

"From there we've actually changed our model slightly," he adds.

"Instead of being a technology provider we're more of solution provider. It's almost moving towards a full-service agency, where you are providing the ground-up strategy through to the actual development, deployment, testing, and then the ongoing support from a development perspective and also from a marketing perspective."

Five years ago the market was different, Shackleton says. "Someone would come in here, go 'Right, I want a website.' And you go, 'Fantastic, what do you want it to do?' 'We want it do this, this, that.' 'Great we'll build it for you, this is how much it costs.'

"That model works to a degree, but it's not scalable. Our whole thought process and the way in which we approach a job these days is not one of 'requirements'. It comes down to 'Okay, what's your business? What are you doing? What's your end objective? So this is what we're going to do for you.'"

"It's that approach where we're not singling out the technology – we're coming up with a ground-up solution where it starts at an initial strategy, understanding the requirements of the client, who they are, their presence in the market, their competition," Shackleton says.

It's a solution-driven, not tech-driven, "holistic" offering. "Your whole thought process changes," Shackleton says.

Doghouse Media has typically won clients from two broad categories. In the first category are organisations that are specifically interested in investing in an open source solution

An offering like Drupal means that a business can standardise on a single platform across multiple sites, or even multiple brands, without the pain of licensing fees. In addition, the platform can be heavily customised either with third-party modules, or with modules custom-built for a particular business. It also has a broad community around it, so unlike with some CMSes, businesses aren't at the mercy of a single vendor.

The second category of clients comprises those who are just attracted by the "aesthetics of what we do as opposed to the underlying technology," Shackleton says.

"We've in the past lost work because we've come from the approach of selling the technology," he says.

"I think we've failed in the past by just being tech-driven," but on the other hand "people want to understand what technology they're using – most people have been burnt before. They've actually been in a situation where they've been sold a platform that isn't scalable or portable, so they may or may not have heard of open source, but they're very much open to it."

Two of the agency's biggest clients are airline Virgin Australia and construction company the ABN Group.

"Virgin Australia are one of the biggest accounts in Australia and they came to little old Doghouse because we were known in the market as being one of the market leaders within open source, and more specifically Drupal CMS development.

"They were looking for a Drupal shop somebody who understood Drupal, who knew how to customise it and could deploy securely, and on the flipside also had some creative resources.

"So I guess we're known for making pretty websites but we're also known for our open source philosophy as well."

There's somewhat of a "fuzzy line" in the industry at the moment Shackleton says. A lot of 'above-the-line agencies' are trying to integrate digital into their services, but because they come from a more traditional marketing perspective it can be somewhat haphazard at times. This means that businesses, such as Doghouse, which had their origins as tech shops, can still find a niche.

"You can have all the creative edge you like, you can integrate as many social media channels as you feel fit, but without a tech backing or without a tech-based solution or having a deep understanding of that, it's actually hard to execute."

There's a "middle ground where it's very hard to piece the two puzzles together and come up with that full service strategy that encompasses things like radio, TV, print," Shackleton says.

"And those strategies need to relate back to a digital presence as well. How do you carry an offline campaign into an online environment? We haven't quite got there yet. There's no clear line drawn in the sand as to where digital starts and where digital stops."