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How can free open source CMSes remain competitive with enterprise clients?

by Owen Lansbury /

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With Drupal now heavily used in the enterprise market by very large organisations, much of its direct competition is from well-funded proprietary products. From the perspective of my role on the Drupal Association board, I gave a talk at FOSDEM in February 2024 on the strategies and initiatives the Drupal community is starting to put in place to remain competitive in the enterprise market and how these approaches can be shared by other open source projects. 

The original of this video recording was first published on the FOSDEM website

Drupal has historically had no centralised product management or marketing, let alone ANY coordinated budget! For comparison, Adobe spends around USD$2.7bn annually on product development, sales and marketing for its Experience Cloud product suite. 

In the talk, I discuss Drupal's recent recognition as a Digital Public Good and the way that the Drupal community is highly motivated by providing world-class software for free to anyone who wants to use it, promoting values of freedom, inclusion, participation and empowerment. The Drupal Association recently released a manifesto that defines the Drupal project's commitment to the Open Web, but in order to fulfil this mission, Drupal needs to be successful as a product in the open market.

Since Drupal 8 was released in 2015, it has been specifically targeted at building "ambitious digital experiences." While this has resulted in an overall drop in Drupal installs as smaller sites move to SAAS platforms, the Drupal economy is robust, with an estimated USD$3 billion spent on Drupal-related projects each year.

Unlike other open source projects, Drupal doesn’t have a single company doing the majority of the code contribution. The Drupal Association has run on a budget of around $3.5m or 1/1000th of the revenue being spent on Drupal projects each year. 

This was brought into focus for the Drupal Association during COVID when the primary source of income - running DrupalCon events - required an abrupt rethink. We had to refocus on how Drupal would be both successful and sustainable in the future. This has led to us recently embarking on a new strategy, where the Drupal Association play a more direct role in both Drupal product innovation and marketing.

Enterprise customers are key to maintaining a healthy ecosystem for a CMS. Their investment flows through to the agencies building, maintaining, supporting, and hosting large-scale projects, providing consistent, repeat income that ultimately benefits our open source community in the form of stable jobs, community funding, and sponsored code contribution. 

Looking more closely at the challenges of succeeding in the enterprise market, how do you get access and awareness with key decision makers in large organisations like the CIO, CTO and, increasingly, the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer)? They are the people likely to read analyst reports from Gartner and Forrester. While Acquia features as a leader in these reports and relies heavily on Drupal for its platform, Drupal's name recognition is largely absent from these reports. 

Acquia has also had great success with their Engage events that target key decision makers, but it's been a challenge to attract a similar audience to the more community and developer-focused DrupalCon events. 

While the Drupal Association itself has historically had limited relationships with Drupal's large end users, partner agencies who rely on Drupal's open source software for their clients absolutely do have these relationships.

The Drupal Association is in a strong position to provide our agency partners with as much assistance as possible to either retain or win new enterprise clients through any playbook-style information we can provide. For example, do we have a pitch deck on hand to help an agency argue why Drupal is superior to Adobe or Sitecore? Are there pre-packaged product demos that can be consistently updated to highlight new features?

This is an area where we currently fall short in the Drupal community, with most agencies replicating efforts for every new client engagement. It's something we're starting to address with the Drupal Certified Partner program, however, if we can harness the strength of hundreds of agency salespeople pitching Drupal to their clients every day. New agencies joining a partner program need to see a clear pathway to building their teams' expertise and being able to sell Drupal to their clients to grow their businesses. The largest global digital agencies have tended to struggle with engaging with open source software communities, so bridging that gap is critical.

The other group of people we need to convince in any large organisation are the people who’ll be using our product - the developers, content editors and systems engineers. C-level decision-makers lean heavily on this group to evaluate and make recommendations about what platform they should be considering. To influence this group, our product needs to look and function like a modern piece of software, fulfil contemporary requirements or be quickly downloadable for a working demo of the software.

In terms of where we already clearly win, rapid innovation is the thing that we do very well in the open source world. Maintaining the speed of innovation, though, is an area that has been harder for Drupal as both the software and community have matured. A big philosophical hurdle we’ve faced is the notion of the Drupal Association directing budget to innovation projects when people often have an expectation that contribution is “free”. But contribution has never been free! An individual or company has always borne the cost in personal time or wages. Other big open source projects have absolutely no stigma about funding projects with actual money, such as the Linux Foundation's $160m annual funding towards projects.

The Drupal community dipped our toe into this model last year with the Pitchburgh contest, which saw $98,000 worth of projects get completed in a relatively short amount of time because they had the budget. We’re also in the process of hiring people at the Drupal Association who can facilitate innovation and remove roadblocks to contribution.

Now, all we need is the funding to scale this model up. Imagine if just 1% of the $3bn spent on Drupal-related projects each year went towards funding strategic innovation - that would be a $30m budget to work with!

Similarly, the idea that Drupal would be “marketed” as a product by the Drupal Association has never been a core competency. This is the legacy of being structured as a 501c3 not-for-profit in the USA where funds are for the “advancement of a charitable cause”. Our charitable cause is ensuring Drupal remains a Digital Public Good that supports the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. But if there isn't positive product awareness about Drupal in the broader market, then market share will slip and our ability to support the goals around being a Digital Public Good will suffer as a result. 

Whether we call it marketing or advocacy, we need to ensure Drupal as a product is commercially successful. We’ve had a Promote Drupal working group within the Drupal community for a number of years that has driven a range of broader marketing initiatives. The Drupal Association has now taken on an active role in this by commissioning a go-to-market strategy targeting the enterprise sector. This will be rolling out in 2024 as funding for specific marketing initiatives becomes available. 

At the cheaper end of the scale, this might include coordinating speakers at non-Drupal tech events or managing positive media coverage. At a higher budget scale, it might include Drupal-branded booths at major tech conferences, like the one we recently built for Web Summit in Lisbon, or running global campaigns to build Drupal product awareness. 

Our other huge advantage as an open source community is the strength and depth of our developer pool. We do encounter a perception issue when it comes to attracting younger developers to our platforms because there are so many shiny new things to play with. Building robust outreach, training, mentoring, certification and professional pathways is the key to maintaining a sustainable developer pool as those of us with 20+ years of experience head towards the other side of middle age.

So, where can you start to help with all of this? 

  1. If you're a professional services company that relies on Drupal for your business, get involved with the Drupal Certified Partner program. This is the fastest way to both contribute to Drupal's innovation as a product and play a direct role in driving adoption.

  2. If you rely on Drupal as your organization's CMS software, become a Supporting Partner and help fund Drupal's sustainability. 

  3. If you're passionate about maintaining the Open Web, the Drupal Association can accept your philanthropic donation

  4. Send your team members to DrupalCon or a regional DrupalCamp to connect with the community.

This level of engagement will help Drupal maintain its status as the platform of choice for large-scale projects.

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