Brands. They are everywhere. Cars, electronics, sportswear… Even food. In every-day life, wherever a product is publicly visible, the manufacturers take care their brand is visible, too. When we drive our car, we showcase their brand. When we carry a newly bought computer home, we showcase their brand on the package. Heck, where I live, even the supermarket plastic bag is showcasing the supermarket’s brand. In our every-day “off-line” life, we don’t really expect a product – any product – to come unbranded.1 What about our on-line life?
Importance And Context Of Branding
Why is visible branding so important for the product originator? In short, it’s Marketing and PR. That is, things like
- Increased visibility: People get interested in your brand, and may want to try/buy your product.
- Identification: People get used to your brand. When you see the BMW sign often enough in your neighborhood, you are likely to be motivated to buy a BMW yourself.
With desktop software, things are (or used to be) a bit different – at least in part. Most desktop applications come along unbranded, or branded in a very undemonstrative way – “hidden” behind an “About dialog”. More prominent branding would be of little use here, because desktop software is commonly used by the buyer (and perhaps his family) exclusively.
On the web, however, using software ultimately implies showcasing it. Hence, prominent branding makes perfect sense with web applications. Manufacturer’s showcase their brand, and get links to their website at that.
For a long time, the prevalent type of web product seemed to be website themes. And like car manufacturers who place their brand on the grille, website theme designers place their “Powered by” links in their theme footers.
A couple of years ago though, a new type of product started to penetrate the market: Website plugins. Contrast to theme designers though, plugin developers seem to not have grasped the importance of branding, and seem to leave most their plugins unbranded.
Branding, Credits, And Revenue
In a way, branding on-line products is even more important than branding off-line products. Where open source is the rule rather than the exception (and that’s the case on the web), branding, and the credits it implies, is the only way for web developers and designers to get something in return for their hard work.
I mean, let’s face it: For most people, the donation model does not work. People just don’t pay “after the fact”.
Selling free and open source software does not really work out either. The most widely spread license on the web, the GPL, makes it virtually impossible to sell GPL’ed web software, or combine products under a more restrictive license with a GPL’ed web platform like WordPress.2
The only revenue option left (selling services set aside) is ads. And ad income rises and falls with visitors. That is – with visibility.
My Own Branding Move
Not long ago, I started “branding” two of my free WordPress plugins: Sliding Notes and SEO Table Of Contents. I introduced a kind of signature – a “Powered by” brand similar to that found in themes. This move of mine provoked a lot of controversy.3
I need to say that branding my free WordPress plugins was not a frivolous move. I spent a lot of thought on it, especially because I felt very uncomfortable with the perspective of loosing users. But in the end, I concluded that the users I would lose are the users I don’t need4. So I did it. And I don’t regret it.
Branding free web software is a naturally controversial topic – especially from the viewpoint of the users of that software, and especially after much of it has been “traditionally” unbranded on the web. But if the software is valuable enough to use it, it should be worth some credits in return. Perhaps it’s time for a change, and time for publicly branded free web software to become the rule rather then the exception.
Of course, the last word has not bees spoken yet on this topic. Personally, I am still working on ways to improve my approach, and smoothen the controversy if possible. Let’s see what I come up with next… 🙂
- There are exceptions, of course. The branding needs to be adequate. Nobody would buy an Armani smoking with a fat shiny Armani sign on the back, even if Armani may like the idea of a dinner banquet full of Armani logos. [↩]
- I have a different view on combining GPL and non-GPL software, but most people seem to believe combining them is taboo. [↩]
- Some of my users even made some enraged threats that they will “drop me”. [↩]
- the type of folks who are not willing to give the slightest bit back [↩]