Everyone Is An Evangelist
I met my first technology evangelist back in 1998 when I was working full-time while attending business school and pounding the pavement to raise funding for my software startup. I was attending an event as a member of the San Jose, California-based Software Development Forum (SDForum) and got into a conversation with a gentleman who had moved from a product marketing role into a full-time role as the company evangelist. At the time, I thought “This guy has my dream job.”
If you follow any of my career exploits, I went on to co-found a couple companies, and eventually landed a Chief Evangelist role for the good part of a decade. Honestly, much of what I did within that role is still applicable to the fractional-CMO services I now provide as an independent consultant. I really do believe that successful companies who embrace the idea of evangelism have a marketing advantage over those who do not.
While evangelism job descriptions vary widely, mostly dependent on the maturity of the organization — and the maturity of the community in which you do business, I thought I would share some of my experiences around what it takes to be successful in an evangelism role, no matter what your actual job title.
While there is no secret formula, per se, I do believe there are some “best practices” that I have followed or witnessed in others within my current community (Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft 365). In addition, there are definitely some healthy marketing and strategy “habits” that you can develop to help you find that right mix of product expertise, thought-leadership, and community involvement to fit your business needs:
- Love what you do. Passion is key. Find the most vocal and energetic people in the crowd, and you’ll generally find a few technical evangelists. There are some who quietly give back, but most are sharing their opinions out front, encouraging others to participate in the community dialog.
- Give your time. Point to any successful technical evangelist and you will see someone who spends a lot of after-hours and weekend time working with partners and customers to help answer questions, solve a technical problem, or to finds the right community connection. While my company may cover my travel to events around the world, I’m often giving up my weekends and working long hours so that I can participate in community activities in addition to my regular workload. We all have day jobs, some more community-focused than others. But one of the distinguishing characteristics of a good evangelist is going above and beyond.
- Be honest about what you know and don’t know. My background is building and running product and program management organizations. While I’ve been in technology my entire career, I am not an engineer. But what I am good at is translating the technical for the business user, and vice versa. There’s no shame in redirecting questions from the community to your engineering team. Know your limits, and focus on your strengths.
- Create great content. Let’s face it — content is king. Some evangelists live inside the technical forums, answering multiple questions on a daily basis. Others write profusely through their blogs, and some are more comfortable through video or tool development. The point is — share your knowledge. Volunteer to present at local user groups, submit abstracts to regional and international conferences — just keep generating content, and sharing your story.
- Become an advocate for your local community. Depending on your technology platform, your city may not have a relevant user group. If not, help start one. If one already exists, attend it on a regular basis. Offer to present, to organize, to clean up afterward. Get to know the organizers, and the people within your community. In short, be involved locally as much as possible.
- Provide product and platform feedback. Be willing to share your feedback with the product teams you represent. For me, this means regular feedback to my own company product teams, as well as feedback to Microsoft regarding the Office 365 platform and related technologies. They want to hear your specific use cases, your industry or customer experiences. Get to know them personally. It is easy to criticize a product or platform for what may be lacking, but you should always focus on helping these teams understand the missing use cases and features so that they can work to improve.
- Keep competition in check. In my travels, I am constantly working side-by-side with competitors. In fact, I consider some of them my closest friends within the community. People can get competitive, especially if you work for an independent software vendor (ISV), or a strategic integrator (SI, or consulting company). Nothing wrong with a little competition. The pie is huge, and there’s plenty for everyone. Try to remain diplomatic in your dealings with competitors, even if they are less than friendly.
- Get creative. One of my favorite business and marketing books is Purple Cow by Seth Godin, in which he talks about standing out from the crowd in an authentic way. Its easy to throw together a marketing campaign to get attention, but its much more difficult to develop and orchestrate and marketing strategy that builds loyalty and converts people into customers. It’s never enough to look at what your competitors do and then simply replicate — you need to go beyond the obvious. In an article for LinkedIn, I referred to this as “baseline marketing” activities, suggesting that organizations need to practice “above the line marketing” to stand out from the crowd. I view this as the primary role of the technical evangelist — to participate in “above the line” strategy and marketing activities.
- Recognize others. I am a big believer in paying it forward. Recognize others for their contributions to the community. Point out success when you see it, learn from others, and emulate good behaviors.
- Constantly expand your knowledge. Regardless of the technology platform, change will be constant, requiring you to keep up to date on trends and competition and how the community is responding to it all. But the tools at your disposal for public relations, marketing automation, social media and related tools for getting the word out are also constantly evolving. As I hear about new tools and technologies, I am constantly trialing software or services, downloading whitepapers, or following the examples of other leaders in the space. Some of them stick, others get replaced quickly with more tools and content. Constantly add tools to your tool belt.
By no means do I believe I do everything right — when you write and talk as much as I do, you tend to put your foot in your mouth A LOT. I do believe that the best technology evangelists show some degree of humility, and constantly look for ways to improve upon what they do.
I hope you agree that these practices, regardless of your title or professional goals, will benefit you personally and professionally — and help your own community to grow. So get started!