The rise (and role) of the technology evangelist and advocate

Marketing has changed and the evangelist advocate is now part of the mix.
3 October 2018

What is the role of an evangelist advocate? Source: Shutterstock

There was a time, not long before the turn of the millennium, when IT companies used product specialists and line of business implementation gurus to explain their technology proposition and marketing positioning.

That time has now passed. Product managers do still exist, obviously, but there is a now a new breed of spokesperson populating this headspace.

The technology evangelist does what it says on the label. He, she (and possibly it) evangelizes openly to explain the use of a particular technology platform, set of software tools, type of application, or a combination of all three.

While some regard the evangelist as nothing more than a glorified marketing and public relations spin doctor, many of these roles are staffed by genuine ex-coders and database operations workers turned managers, turned implementation gurus, turned roadmap visionaries.

Evangelist or advocate?

As regular as this role has now become, this is still a thorny area — and a new breed of evangelist is emerging.

“Evangelists are great, but essentially they want people to believe. Advocates, on the other hand, want to ‘explain’ what any given piece of technology actually does, how it works in terms of real-world data flows and where it might be going next in terms of development,” said Andi Mann, Chief Technology Advocate at real-time operational intelligence company Splunk.

Mann’s comments were made at the firm’s annual .conf event held in Orlando this year where, paradoxically, he explained how the company is using machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to predict service degradation and allow IT teams to reinforce system uptime.

Why say paradoxically? Because it still takes a human (advocate or evangelist) to explain how AI is being engineered into our enterprise IT systems.

How to be evangelical

So what does a technology evangelist do?

SAP’s global innovation evangelist Timo Elliot explains that he presents at around forty conferences each year, publishes more than a hundred blog posts and sends out thousands of tweets and other social comments. He also does strategy sessions with customers and regular interviews and presentations with press and analysts.

“You have to be authentic: you must truly want to help people be successful, not just sell them something. You have to be a trusted advisor, which means being transparent and upfront about any possible biases that you may have. It means telling the whole truth: nothing you say or write should be any less true if you were working for a competitor,” said Elliot.

Jessica Rose is a developer relations professional, working as an open source-focused developer outreach consultant for several years. She is also a technical manager at digital education platform company FutureLearn.

Rose reminds us that many developer outreach professionals will joke about how developer evangelism and developer advocacy are the same roles, rebranded. But, she thinks the shift in titles reflects a larger change in terms of how we speak to and speak with developer audiences.

“While it’s tempting to shape advocacy efforts into a tech-tinted influencer marketing role, the increased access to communications technologies and infinitely multiplying potential for specialization in technology may lead us away from big names on big stages talking up the next big thing,” said Rose.

She suggests that advocates drawn from (and embedded within) authentic developer communities may lead us further from our history in evangelism and deeper into meaningful conversations with our future users.

The future for evangelistic advocacy

Whether a thoroughbred technology company (or indeed a company in any industry) creates a role for an evangelist or an advocate, it seems likely that this role is firmly cemented for the time being.

In the same space as evangelism and advocacy, some people in this position like to call themselves a ‘futurist’. The futurist is (arguably) playing a somewhat similar role, but will often say things like ‘my children will now live to be 200 thanks to quantum computing driven medical advances’, and so on.

To use evangelism advocacy at its most effective level, the spokesperson has to become a media star in their own right. But not everybody can become a Robert Scoble or Guy Kawasaki, so it’s important to set expectations at a realistic level.

Marketing has changed and the evangelist advocate is now part of the mix. Pray for your product’s success, or hire an evangelist to do it for you.