November 05, 2013

Enthusiasts & Evangelists: Pushing Product, Begging for Features

There's a fine line separating an enthusiastic user from that of an evangelist, even if the two terms are often thrown out there as equals. For as excited as a user may be about consuming your product or your ideas, it takes an extra level of effort - working as a partner, testing early versions of products, and seeing where a product is headed to be truly considered an evangelist. An enthusiast is typically on the receiving end, a consumer of the benefits, while the evangelist not only takes in the benefit of your work, but can help accelerate it.

Evangelists are often early adopters of your product, who have been converted to your story and ideas, and are willing to advocate on your behalf. Some of the top consumer-facing companies have turned to evangelists in house, and their fingerprints are all over the successful growth of their customer base, and regularity by which their products are seen in the press, while others rely on end-user evanglists to bring the story to new communities.

Enthusiasts, while excited about your product, are likely to be found breathlessly awaiting morsels of information, be they rumor or news. They may have their fingers on the buy button and refresh your product pages as they get ready to buy, and make cash available. They debate your benefits and beg for feature enhancements, but if their demands aren't met, they'll just as soon as wait for the next one, debate amongst their peers where you went wrong, and suggest why it just might be high time to switch to a competitor. Enthusiasts are never employees of the company, though they may be close to the teams, be courted in user groups and given early access to items to provide beta stage feedback.

Some of the Best Evangelists I Know

The most well known evangelist in Silicon Valley lore is very likely +Guy Kawasaki, who while at Apple in the early Mac days, fought to bring the Macintosh story to developers, schools and customers everywhere. Guy's moved on to promote other products, including +Motorola Mobility, but his Apple legacy remains intact. More recently, the work done by Shak Khan for Spotify and +Thomas Meyer of Sonos put both those products on the map for me. In both cases, Shak and Thomas delivered a 1:1 relationship with me as an early adopter, providing access to products, trading feedback on improvements, and finding ways to get their services in the hands of new users.

The ideal scenario is one telling many who tell more.

The best evangelists can help to convert enthusiasts into evangelists. As discussed in depth as the first stage of early adopter behavior, the enthusiast can graduate from being a consumer of your work, and instead works as an unpaid advocate for your story and your ideas - accelerating the network effect. As the 1:1 relationship at the initial touchpoint cannot scale past several dozen or even hundreds of top-tier influencers, one must hope that they evangelize on your behalf why your product is better, why you can be trusted to keep coming up with exciting new innovations, or, if you're behind in a certain area, why you can be counted on to bridge those gaps.

Seeing Potential Instead of Problems

An evangelist can believe strongly in a direction for a product and buy in early - in the same way as an investor can see potential a company and buy its stock. In 2010, my move to Android from iPhone was done at a time when the case could pretty easily be made that iOS' user experience was better and the list of applications available was longer. The debate as to which installed base was larger was also up for question. But I could see the trajectory, and, as I was later proven correct, the applications caught up, the user growth accelerated, and in the minds of many, the user experience is equal, or at least arguable. Even from a point of perceived weakness, I believed strongly that their choices as a platform were right.

The same could be said for Spotify's early trial back in 2009. While iTunes was the big fish in the pond, Spotify changed the game for me almost overnight - and every online music service has followed their model, even if the product hadn't yet officially shipped in the US, and there were occ

Crossing the chasm from enthusiast to evangelist is a lot like moving from a hobby to a religion. It's one thing to dabble, and quite another to commit. It's no surprise then, that evangelists are most commonly associated with religious institutions and converting people to the one true way.

Like a good religious person, one publicly glosses over the challenging parts, promising only purity and bliss. For example, in a 2007 post I wrote for +GigaOM, I highlighted "five lesser-known tips for being an Apple fanboy". The number one rule? "Never admit fault with Apple around non-Mac people." Giving the perceived opposition a weapon to use against you was never a good idea. It was better to suffer in silence, or quietly find a peer to help you with your issue than to growse publicly. The same goes for the converted evangelist. It is better to report product issues back to the company or their rep, or a fellow user than to complain publicly. Obviously enthusiasts have no such shackles - as they're all too eager to break apart your product and tell the world where you've done wrong.

My father raised me to believe that bad news travels much more quickly than good news. A person with a bad experience will tell seven people, and a person with a good experience will tell three. That requires a higher percentage of positive interactions, and to make this success repeatable. But while an enthusiast will share the good news and the bad news at equal volume, an evangelist will simply amplify the good news, and constantly work in the background to solve the bad stories. It's not blindness, but discretion.

Especially in the fickle world of consumer marketing and outreach, you need to find evangelists, who will find you enthusiasts. If your product can't convert people to share your story, your story probably isn't that good. Your service has to be that much better that an early adopter or evangelist will take that bet and invest their time and effort to tell your story - like I did with FriendFeed and Google Reader years ago, later Spotify and Sonos, and now with great stories like ChromeOS - which I strongly believe presents the platform of the future. People like Shak and Guy and Thomas are rarities, but they can be the accelerant that moves your flame to an inferno.

Usual Disclosures: I work at Google. Google is the proud owner of Android and ChromeOS, of course. We also make Google Play Music All Access, an assumed competitor to Spotify. Any bias is my own and I'm not speaking on behalf of Google at the moment.

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