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Marketing and the rise of the evangelist

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Have you ever had to explain your job to your parents ? That’s the ultimate acid test to see whether anyone understands what you do and I faced that last week when I announced to them my new role as Chief Evangelist of a leading enterprise software company.

But as I explained what the title meant it began to sink in just how important the role of an evangelist has grown within businesses and the marketing world today.

What’s in a name?

The title of ‘Chief Evangelist’ has been around for a few years now in Silicon Valley, and the term evangelist itself conjures images of some feverish person on their TV soapbox on the God Channel. The most notable examples in the tech industry are Vint Cerf of Google and Guy Kawasaki, who was perhaps the first to coin the term itself when he spent his career at Apple.

But to most, the role itself is a bit of a nebulous one that’s hard to define.

Kawasaki described his role in Apple as “to protect and preserve the Macintosh cult by doing whatever I had to do.” Guy galvanized the company image and its fans in a time when it was seriously flagging and one of his best achievements was the success of EvangeList, a mailing list that called all Apple fans to arms around the world. At that time it was unheard of in marketing and was a complete switch in how organizations handled PR and communication. Guy took the concepts of transparency and open information and gave it back to the fans who in turn became consumer evangelists themselves. And we all know how hard they defend the company when criticized.

Take Robert Scoble as another more recent example. Robert’s role at Rackspace (he calls himself their ‘Startup Liason Officer’) is to study innovative companies and shares his learnings both externally and internally. It’s his thought leadership and the association of that with Rackspace that accelerates the company to the front of client’s minds.  But this is also seen as an inspiration internally, again it’s the open sharing of that information which is the key.

But why should such a role still have importance in today’s digitally and content-driven marketing world ?

Why need an Evangelist?

The role marketing plays in an organization has significantly increased and with it the means to deliver the brand message effectively through social, mobile and web technology.  But that message and awareness has to appear inspirational both internally and externally in order to galvanize both employees and clients into action and it’s in the delivery and engagement of the message that’s critical, which is why an evangelist is needed more than ever.

The combination of efforts of both Kawasaki and Scoble highlight the importance from both an external and internal perspective. Kawasaki championed the masses andlistened to what the fans were saying, Scoble inspires and informs from the inside out so that Rackspace employees are an integral part of the overall picture.

Their relevance today is backed up by the results of a survey report published by Forrester in July which found that 97% of CMOs think marketing must do things that it hasn’t done ever before to be successful and that two-thirds find it very difficult to keep up with the changes. The role of an Evangelist extends to fill those gaps in marketing.

But will those same qualities described above keep the role fresh for tomorrow ?

Evangelism of tomorrow

As we’ve seen, an evangelist is someone who has the capacity to galvanize both the company internally across every department and its customers with their own passion and clear-cut, zero-BS messaging and to bring them all along on the journey, someone who is an influential industry catalyst and has the charisma to inspire.

Few people are qualified but as the Forrester results point out, for marketing and evangelism to be successful the qualities required have to be broader than ever before. Is tomorrow’s evangelist;

  • Marketing and brand awareness?
  • A technologist role?
  • Industry analysis?
  • Sales and consulting?
  • Client relations?
  • R&D?
  • A person who just blogs and speaks at conferences?!

Actually it’s all of the above and much more.

Perhaps there are three most important aspects to the evangelist’s job that relies on their ability to create innovative and passionate stories.

It’s about the story, stupid

Firstly, where corporate and product marketing is purely about one-way content, an evangelist will tell a story about why it matters and what problems it would solve without pushing the product itself. It’s the ability to connect with customers directly and one-on-one to draw out their own issues and successes and in turn create an evangelist out of them with the message that comes from the story itself. It’s not a one off conversation or a simple case study either but a lifelong relationship, because the stories change as they unfold over time.  They’re able to weave stories from a variety of perspectives, whether business or technological, about the trends in the industry and how they impact an organization however abstract or tenuous the link.

It’s humanizing that industrial message through creativity and osmosis, which in turn becomes more transparent and relevant to a lot more people through sharing it back.

Connecting the dots

Secondly, it’s about taking those stories and using them to connect the various departments internally within the organization itself. It’s because of that zero bull approach that allows, for example, marketing to connect better with pre-sales through the evangelist and deliver a more consistent and concise message.

The best example I can give is the ability to draw your company’s proposition on the back of a napkin. If you can’t do that there’s something wrong with your brand identity so imagine a client trying to understand your company and product if you can’t.

It’s not just internally either, networking and being visibly approachable is key to any evangelist role. How else can you relate the story if they can’t speak to you ?

Opinions matter

And lastly, because the market is constantly changing it means an evangelist can’t sit still either. The role needs the type of personality who can push the envelope and stay ahead of the trends and still remain an influential voice. It’s not about shouting with a megaphone when a new trend breaks, it’s about analyzing them and picking the right message to draw from its impact and retain that authenticity and respect at an industry level with it.

Opinion matters, even if it’s controversial, because it plays to the strength of the evangelist. Without an opinion there’s very little passion, both clients and employees will see right through this.

No more soapbox

Marketing roles are the current darling of the technology and software industry with analysts scrabbling to create new titles that bridge gaps between the CMO, CIO and COO but the truth is the most important role has been there for years as the Chief Evangelist. It just takes a broader set of skills now in order for the job to evolve for the future.

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