Choosing the best social media network to pursue your open source community engagement goals

Which network should you use?

A friend hit me up asking whether I’d any experience running a Mastodon account. They are the community manager of an open source software project in the cloud native universe and were trying to figure out where to focus their social media engagement efforts.

The options as they saw them were:

  • Twitter / X: big user base and potential reach, but also noisy and a bit more wobbly and unpredictable than it used to be
  • Mastodon: smaller, more niche audience with the perception of a better signal to noise ratio
  • LinkedIn: would prefer not to use personal account to run engagement activities on behalf of the project

What are you using social media to achieve for your open source project?

I asked them what their goals for participating in social media were; they said:

  • interact with existing project participants (users, contributors)
  • reach new potential contributors
  • reach new potential users

I said “Sounds like you have an audience research project ahead of you!”

Who can actually answer the question “which is best”?

A person is unlikely to join a particular social network just to learn about your thing; they’re more likely to join a social network where the things they’re already interested in (people, news, topics, types of interactions) are already happening.

So the best people to answer the question “where should we focus our social media engagement efforts” are:

  • existing project participants
  • potential new users
  • potential new contributors

Finding out what existing project participants think should be pretty straightforward; you can ask them and / or look them up. “Potential” users and contributors however could be a bit harder: you don’t know who they are yet. Or do you?

Document your ideal user and ideal contributor personas

This is where the concept from marketing called the “ideal user persona” or “ideal contributor avatar” comes in handy.

There are quite a few examples of how to use this concept you can look up (I liked this one, this one, and this one), but it boils down to answering the question: “to what level of detail can you specify the attributes of someone who is likely to use (or contribute to) your open source software project”. You may find that your existing project participants can help you form a good baseline to start from.

Relevant attributes probably include, but are not limited to:

  • skills
  • certifications
  • experience
  • technology preferences
  • familiar with adjacent technologies to yours
  • likely job title
  • employer type and size
  • possible motivators to use or contribute to your project

Marketers will go as far as giving their personas names, pets, and pet peeves; the important thing is that you’ve got something that helps you spot a person who may find value in your project.

An important caveat is that you’ll miss out on “non-standard” users and contributors this way, which means as a community manager you’ll need to spend some time thinking about how to reaching them as well. That is outside the scope of this post.

Good news is if you’ve been interacting with your community regularly, you’ve probably got the beginnings of a composite description in your head.

Use your personas to find real people and ask them questions

Now you need to put that composite picture based on a list of attributes to work. How? By spotting people who have at least a few of the attributes, and asking them which social media they prefer to use, and why?

You can do that at meetups, conferences, customer visits. You can do it in forums and mailing lists. You can do it in conversations with friends and strangers. Every interaction you have with your community and people who have the attributes of potential community members is an opportunity to add more data to your personas.

How many people should you ask?

How much data do you need to make a decision about where to focus your social media engagement efforts? Well, the Pragmatic Marketing Framework (where I learned at least some of this stuff) suggests that marketers should be conducting at least four customer interviews per month. If you give yourself a quarter to make a decision, that’d mean at least you’d ask at least 12 people.

When you combine that with some structured outreach to your existing project participants (i.e. survey, ask on mailing list, ask at regular project meetings), I bet you could base your decision on data from more than 30 people by the end of a quarter

That way you can be more confident that you’ll be pursuing your social media goals (interact with existing community members, reach new users, reach new contributors) in places where you’re more likely to reach them (the goals and the audiences).

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