Promoting Open Source Software
Written by Janet Swift   
Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Open source projects are increasingly important. But when you don't sell your software you generally don't have an advertising budget so how can you let your potential users, and potential contributors, know about it? 

This is the question explored by Marco Tulio Valente and Hudson Borges and of the Department of Computer Science at UFMG (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Brazil. They set out to investigate the most common promotion channels used by the top 100 most popular GitHub projects. GitHub popularity is indicated by number of stars - which ranged from a high of  291,138 stars down to 23,322 stars. The most popular, Free Code Camp, had more than twice the next most popular whereas over half the projects were relatively close in number of stars to the least popular, GitHub Cheat Sheet. As shown in this histogram around a quarter of the projects had more than 50K stars, suggesting a large and enthusiastic following.ospop

The method used to discover the channels used to promote these projects and keep users up-to-date was a simple manual method - refer to each project's READ.ME. As a result the following promotion channels emerged:

  • Blogs
  • Events and Users Meetings
  • Twitter, Facebook, and Google+
  • Newsletter and RSS feeds

ospromote1As this histogram shows, Twitter is the most common channel being used by 56 projects. Users Meetings comes next (41 projects), followed by Blogs (38 projects), Events (33 projects), and RSS feeds (33 projects). The least common channels are Facebook and, the now defunct, Google+, which are used by 18 and 7 projects, respectively.

With regard to the number of promotion channels used, more than half of the projects (55 projects) use at least two promotion channels and 5 projects use seven. On the other hand 32 projects do not use any of these channels:


The researchers don't draw any conclusions about the difference between promoters and non-promoters in its study set of top 100 projects, but they did do an analysis of the top 100 and another hundred projects drawn at random and clearly showed a difference between the two groups:


Twitter and blogs are still the most important methods of promotion. Moreover, the paper also hints that blogs are particularly effecting by noting that Free Code Camp, by far the most starred project, has the largest number of blog posts - 1,300 an outlier in a distribution with a median value less than 20.

Another channel shown to have a big impact is Hacker News. Introducing this the paper states:

After publishing content on blogs, Twitter, etc., open source developers can also promote this content on social news aggregator sites. These sites aggregate contents from distinct sources for easing viewing by a large public. The most popular and important example is Hacker News which is dedicated to Computer Science and related technologies content.

To see the effect of inclusion in Hacker News a search was made for posts referencing the 100 projects included in the study. This revealed 3,019 posts referencing content from 96 of the studied projects (i.e. only four projects were never referenced on Hacker News). The results showed that while most Hacker News posts do not attract attention, a small number of posts attract a lot of attention such that 10 posts attracted at least 132 upvotes. To see the impact of a successful promotion on Hacker News, the researchers compared the number of stars gained before and after each successful post publication. On average (the median), the projects covered by successful posts gained 74 stars in the three days before their appearance on Hacker News compared to 138 starts in the first three days after the publication, indicating a statistically significant positive impact on a projects popularity. 



At the end of the paper Valiente and Burgos make practical recommendations which can be summarized as: 

  1. Promotion is an important aspect of open source project management, which should be emphasized by project leaders. 

  2. Open source project managers should consider the use of Twitter (47 projects among the top-100 most popular GitHub projects have active Twitter accounts), Users meetings (which are organized or supported by 41 projects), and blogs (which are used by 38 projects).

  3. Open source project managers should also consider promotion on social news aggregator sites.  

More Information

How do Developers Promote Open Source Projects? (pdf)

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 21 August 2019 )