Animated conversation

Red Hat uses a wealth of communication tactics including its employees' unfiltered voices to explain the company's value proposition in the most straightforward way.

Red Hat uses a wealth of communication tactics including its employees' unfiltered voices to explain the company's value proposition in the most straightforward way.

When Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik opened a keynote four years ago with a long-form video called "Truth Happens," little did he know that it would one day become a YouTube hit. The video features historical figures making false prophecies about everything from the potential of the automobile to the telephone, and compares that to how Microsoft first ignored, then ridiculed, and eventually fought Red Hat.

Today, "Truth Happens" has been viewed on YouTube more than 50,000 times. "That video captured people's imagination, but we also realized it was effective because of the medium," says Chris Grams, director of marketing communications. "Visit YouTube, Google Video, or Flickr, and that is why you'll see we try everything."

The Web has become the perfect platform for Red Hat to explain why its open-source model is a viable alternative to Microsoft. Open source means amateur and professional software developers contribute code to Red Hat's Linux operating system. Red Hat then sells the software as an annual support subscription.

But it can be confusing to understand why a business should be interested in Linux. And as the company has expanded its offerings beyond Linux with the purchase of smaller open-source companies, its communications "needed to explain how Red Hat can transform business customers with its open-source architecture," says Leigh Day, director of global corporate communications.

"For our customers - businesses, including [small and medium enterprises] - we want it to be more of a major architectural discussion and less about the Linux platform," Day notes.

To do that, Red Hat has internally produced dozens of videos housed on its Web site (which generates about a million page views per day) and video-watching destinations like YouTube. For the March launch of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, Red Hat internally created stick-animation shorts as a way to simplify jargon and show how its open-source technology can help businesses.

For example, one video simplifies "virtualization" by first showing an e-mail system under attack by, literally, a flying dagger. The video then explains that by loading "virtualized" copies of the e-mail server to systems that aren't doing much, system administrators can save themselves from buying more hardware.

"We didn't want to do the traditional feature lists and chart comparisons," Grams explains. "We wanted to take complex subjects and boil them down to essential business truths."

Red Hat also aims to simplify its messaging by releasing news in a more conversational - and thus, it hopes, more digestible - way. Videos feature Red Had staff addressing various questions directly to the camera, while blogs feature staff informing visitors - unfiltered - about their work.

"It is really important to us that we feel we are not trying to be just a cold, corporate entity," Day says. "We want people, when watching the videos, to feel an emotional connection. Red Hat staff featured in the videos get across major ideas and movements."

Off the corporate script

In fact, at redhat.com, it isn't Szulik who delivers the product pitch. It is the programmers behind the technology who do so - and Szulik believes that will better resonate with potential business clients.

"There are many hundreds of people that work with us who have blogs. They, in turn, have a following, so that when we produce product X or technology Y, that individual creator is likely to receive more response than from the corporate platform," he explains. "People have their own consciousness to hold accountable as opposed to following a corporate script."

Blogs, in fact, have become a key strategy in which Red Hat spreads information within the business community. A "Truth Happens" blog "has become a rallying cry for our company," says Grams. The blog features the latest articles and videos on open source, intellectual property, and transparency.

"If other people are out there writing stories that are saying things that in our minds are the truth, whether about something we believe in or about our competitors, then we want to show those examples." he adds.

Red Hat today releases far fewer news releases, inviting internal teams to expand on their developments via blogs. "It leads to battles within Red Hat because business leaders want to send press releases," says David Burney, VP of corporate communications. With blogging, he says, the company can quickly measure the community interest in Red Hat developments.

The other benefit: Media outlets pay attention when Red Hat does issue a press release. "If you are putting out press releases constantly, the media will realize you are treating them as a promotional arm," says Burney. Blogging has also helped Red Hat to communicate news globally - particularly important given 50% of its sales are generated from outside the US.

With so much of the communication generated from various voices within Red Hat, it is no wonder PR is handled almost entirely in-house. In North America, its only PR firm is McLean, VA-based SpeakerBox, which builds awareness of Red Hat in the niche government sector.

"Over time," says Szulik, "we have matured and become much more confident in leadership and, therefore, much more willing to bring PR in-house."

And what the in-house team has discovered is that the Web is the perfect medium to communicate its brand and simplify its software solutions. After all, blogs are often more trusted than the mainstream print media because any possible agenda is clear upfront. Similarly, online video "allows us to tell a story in a very transparent way," says Burney. "We look at the media as much as the message we are trying to convey."

A comms hat trick

Blogs

Red Hat taps into the business community with ongoing dialogue written by Red Hat employees talking passionately about their work. This way, potential clients aren't listening to what they perceive to be another talking head. The company also reaches media through the blogs' global reach.

Red Hat Magazine

The company's magazine is devoted to all things open source. A recent issue profiled a wheelchair manufacturer in the developing world that freely shares its design ideas. This way the media come to better understand the open-source model.

Online video

Red Hat deploys online video, believing business audiences view it without the natural skepticism that comes with slick broadcast ads. And unlike a broadcast ad, online video doesn't cost millions to create.

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