InfoPoint Guide

A quick guide to running an Infopoint stand

v0.01 · by Matthew Revell

Not yet for distribution.

The Infopoint concept

Each week, thousands of people visit computer fairs. InfoPoints are about introducing them to open source and free software.

Thanks to an arrangement with Northern Computer Markets, one of the UK’s main computer fair operators, we have access to one stall at each of their locations, once a month. These stalls have been provided free of charge, so long as they are not used for commercial gain.

Rather than set up an infrastructure for InfoPoints to directly run stalls, they’ll be available to relevant groups, local to each Northern Computer Markets fair. We have also set up similar deals with British Computer Fairs and hope to inspire others to set up similar relationships with other computer fair operators and events.

As Linux is the basis for most interest in open source software, the UK LUG (Linux User Group) network has been a convenient way to find willing people. However, InfoPoint stalls are open to groups who wish to promote other free and open source software systems.

Some simple rules

To make sure we all work well together and that we don’t annoy the computer fair operators by making money out of free stalls, we’ve set out a few simple rules. While we welcome different ideas, these are pretty much essential to running an InfoPoint stall with Northern Computer Markets. We think they also form a reasonable basis for anyone wishing to run a similar type of stall.

  1. InfoPoints are non-commercial: the stalls are not for commercial gain and should not be used to sell products or services, even boxed versions of free/open source software.
  2. InfoPoints are not about fund raising: you may have a very good project which needs funding. An InfoPoint stall is not the place to do it.
  3. InfoPoints are not your soap-box: the stalls are not to be used for the promotion of an individual project, company or political philosophy (other than the free and open source software philosophy).
  4. InfoPoints are not about zealotry: preaching puts people off. Listen to other people’s viewpoints, engage in reasonable debate, but don’t forget what makes us the ideal people to promote Linux – we use it and we love it.

Have a lot of fun

The SUSE Linux slogan “Have a lot of fun” is a cool way of thinking about InfoPoints. It shouldn’t be a burden or chore to run an Infopoint stand. Try to arrange it so that you enjoy what you’re doing. Hopefully, that’ll make you more relaxed and, so, better able to communicate the advantages of Linux and open source software.

Advocacy, marketing, promotion?

It’s difficult to know exactly what to call what we’re doing. “Advocacy” is a poor choice for many reasons: it casts Linux as a poor soul, in desperate need of our charitable, kind words. “Marketing” is something with a reputation for truth bending and is also rarely in pursuit of anything other than financial gain.

To me, the only suitable word, that is in common usage, is “promotion”. A quick look at the dictionary.com entry for “promotion” gives:

Encouragement of the progress, growth, or acceptance of something; furtherance.

That describes exactly what we want to do, for Linux and open source software.

Why promote Linux?

To be able to promote Linux and open source, we need to know why we’re doing it. We won’t convince anyone, unless we can articulate why we were ourselves are convinced. We also need to be sure that what we’re doing is right; after all, many people would consider us mad for promoting software in which we have no financial interest!

We have set up the InfoPoint project because:

  • we believe Linux is the best operating system available for most situations
  • we believe open source is the best model for developing software
  • we value the freedom that open source and free software gives us
  • we believe that Microsoft’s monopoly is harmful to:
    • the continued evolution of software
    • the world economy
    • public services, who could better spend their money on actual service delivery
    • personal choice and freedom
  • we want to give back to the open source world by using our skills, which do not necessarily lie in code production
  • we want to help grow the open source community, so we can all benefit from better software.

Almost certainly, the most important of these is the first. After all, that is why many of us choose to run Linux, rather than OpenBSD or one of the other open source operating systems.

Open source solutions to common problems

Most people’s computer needs can be parcelled up into a few scenarios. It’s unlikely that anyone will approach an InfoPoint stand with a problem that hasn’t already been solved with open source software.

Before the fair

Without preparation, the actual day of the fair would most likely be a well meant, rather unprofessional, blip in the memories of the people attending. We need to employ some of the tactics of commercial marketers, yet what we’re hoping to do is far more difficult than selling washing powder.

In trying to convince someone to change their brand of detergent, the manufacturers spend millions on brand recognition and extolling the virtues of their particular product. In the usual course of business, they make no attempt to change anything about a person’s routine, other than the box they pick up at the supermarket. Even when they introduce a new method of delivering the detergent – such as liquid or tablets – there’s so little difference that it’s easily assimilated. In promoting Linux, we’re asking people to make a fundamental change to the way they use their computer.

We can learn from the techniques and effort employed by the major brand marketers. Pre-fair preparation may include:

  • Get to know your fair: try to visit the fair where you’ll be running the stall, before the day. Get to know the sorts of people who visit and the other people running stalls.

Tell the press: local newspapers are often desperate for news relating to something other than an old lady’s cat up a tree. Send out a press release, letting them know the most important facts about what you’re doing.

  • Burn CDs: prepare CDs of one or two distributions, preferably something like Morphix which can be run as a live CD but also easily installed. You may also like to cater for Windows users, by preparing copies of The Open CD (http://theopencd.sunsite.dk/), which contains open source applications catering for most common desktop computing needs.
  • Print handouts: prepare friendly, easy to understand printed materials that people can take away for later reading.

Real world example: prepare at least one machine running a nice GUI Linux installation, to let people have a play with it. Make sure there’s plenty of impressive software installed, covering most people’s requirements. Get your story straight: make sure you know why you’re promoting Linux/open source software and try to anticipate the questions and arguments you may encounter.

Dealing with the press

It’s quite likely that some online publications and, possibly, the local press will be interested in your Infopoint stall, the first time you run one. The best way to let them know about it is through a press release.

An example press release is available, separately, in the Infopoint materials. The Newsforge article “Getting good PR for your open source project” has some useful tips and can be found at http://trends.newsforge.com/trends/04/04/07/1549228.shtml. The Newsforge article also links to “The care and feeding of the press” at the Internet Press Guild http://www.netpress.org/careandfeeding.html, a rather patronising guide to dealing with the press.

Some useful tips, though:

Don’t be scared to contact the media: it’s surprisingly easy to speak to the relevant people in local media. Deal in positives and facts: tell the press what’s good about what you’re doing, not what’s bad about Microsoft. Use public facing people to speak to the media: some of us are better at coding, some of us are better at communicating. Don’t hassle the media: be confident but don’t be annoying.

It’s really important that any press contact you have is at the right time. If you’re running a weekend stall, then it’s probably best to contact the press on Thursday beforehand, giving them enough time to run any stories about it. Don’t approach them too early, you’ll only be asked to contact them nearer the time.

Suggested CDs to give away

  • Morphix/Knoppix: combines a great live CD demonstration of Linux, with the option to install and upgrade to a standard Debian system. The installer is not the friendliest available, though.
  • Ubuntu: Possibly the greatest distribution ever – exceptionally easy to install, nice to look at, easy to use, and has all the flexibility of debian. With the standard distribution (and the opportunity to order CDs for free from their site) and their live cd, this will suit the needs of many people.
  • Mandrake: heralded by many as a great, user friendly distro. Has some issues with bugs and takes three CDs. However, the install should be easier than the Morphix install, particularly for dual-booting with Windows.
  • The Open CD: offers open source solutions to many common computing needs. All software runs on Windows, giving a pain-free way into open source.

Handouts

The real danger with printed materials is that they end up screwed into a ball, in the nearest bin. A few tips to avoid this:

  • use one topic per handout and stick to it
  • stay brief
  • avoid jargon
  • use simple, clear design and language.
  • make sure that people have appropriate instructions for the cd they have taken away – they may not look at if for a long time after they take it away so make it easy for them to just pick it up and give it a go.

A machine or machines demonstrating Linux

What you can provide here will obviously depend on what you have. Laptops are ideal in many ways, but understandably, people may well be worried about some unscrupulous character running off with their pride and joy. Desktop machines encourage people to touch and play a lot more – something small like a shuttle, or perhaps an ltsp client running off of a laptop, with an LCD monitor may feel more familiar to your average ‘customer’ and so can draw them in. Some tips for demonstrations:

  • Make sure you have a wide range of software
  • If you have the resources, try something running windows so that you can demonstrate just how easy it is to install software from the OpenCD
  • Some of the kids games and educational software included on knoppix can help to draw people into the site – via their kids!
  • If possible, set up so that you can demonstrate how simple it is to boot from a live CD. People will be unsure about this, and worry about how it might affect their computer.

On the day

Attracting people to your stand

Most stalls at a computer fair look very similar: as much hardware crammed onto a table as possible, with a dayglo poster backdrop. Immediately, your Infopoint stand will look different to the others at the fair.

However, to make sure as many people visit your stall as possible, you may consider:

  • careful and restrained use of printed materials, ideally along a common theme and with the potential to attract people without needing to stop and read
  • eye catching animation or games, on one or two of your demonstration machines
  • freebies: depending on budget/sponsorship
  • create a buzz: the more people visiting your stall, the more attractive it will become
  • be proactive: go round the fair, perhaps with leaflets, letting people know about your stall.

Create a buzz

Give people a reason to be at your stall. You could consider:

  • A busy stall is an interesting stall: get your friends to visit your stall, during slow moments
  • Tease people with mystery
  • Time limited offer: no one likes to miss out; when you give out leaflets around the fair, tell people to be at the stall at a certain time, if they want to get something free
  • Be creative: the more ideas you try, the better you’ll know what works.

After the fair

The LUG network gives us the opportunity to offer support and advice to the people who visit the Infopoint stalls.