Friday, January 27, 2006

Spreading the Word - Corporate evangelists recruit customers who love to create buzz about a product - priceless...

Corporate evangelists recruit customers who love to create buzz about a product
By James Pethokoukis

When Google hired Vint "Father of the Internet" Cerf last September, it gave him the ecclesiastical-sounding title of "Chief Internet Evangelist." His job, as Cerf himself has explained, is "helping people understand--both inside and outside of Google--what Google's potential is." Now to nontechnophiles or those residing outside Silicon Valley, the move might have seemed like another New Agey gesture by the search-engine superpower. This is, after all, a company with the it's-hard-to-keep-from-rolling-your-eyes corporate mantra of "Don't Be Evil." So, is chief Internet evangelist just an effort to apply a quasi-spiritual gloss on some glorified marketing position?

Don't be cynical. Google is only one of many companies, mostly in the technology sector, designating certain employees as "evangelists." Microsoft has technology evangelists reaching out to developers and consumers through company-sponsored Internet forums such as Channel 9 and The Hive. Some companies, such as Sun Microsystems, have even created the overarching position of "chief evangelist" who focuses more on trumpeting core values and vision. The word "evangelist" comes from the Greek word eu-angelos, meaning "bringer of good news." But the job of a corporate evangelist is about way more than preaching the wonders of a company to customers and clients. "Evangelism is about selling your dream so that other people believe in it as much as you do," says Guy Kawasaki, former chief evangelist for Apple Computer and one of the key people responsible for marketing the Macintosh in 1984. "Those people then, in turn, get even more people to believe. Just like Jesus was an evangelist who recruited 12 more evangelists."

Bypassing ads. With corporate evangelism, the goal is to find and identify those customers who are already crazy about your product or service--who are actively talking it up in blogs or Web forums, for instance--and turning them with loads of personal attention into "customer evangelists" who then spread the word to others, who then--well, you get the idea. A more secular term for these superfans is "influentials," the people the rest of us seek out and trust for advice about what cars, computers, and clothing to buy. So evangelism is a way of actively creating word-of-mouth advertising or marketing, turning your passionate, influential customers into a volunteer sales force. "If word of mouth is the skeleton, then customer evangelism is the soul," says consultant Ben McConnell. He's coauthor, along with Jackie Huba, his wife, of Creating Customer Evangelists, a book documenting how companies like Southwest Airlines and Build-A-Bear Workshop have used evangelism to increase sales. Many CEOs see evangelism as a way of getting their corporate message through to an authenticity-craving public that seems ever more immune to traditional mass advertising, especially with the advent of commercial-skipping technology like TiVo. And companies ignore influentials at their own peril, especially the bloggers. "These people can either be evangelists for you or vigilantes against you," says Huba.

The importance of influentials as customer evangelists is why on this October morning Simon Phipps, chief evangelist at Sun Microsystems, is speaking at a downtown Chicago hotel to a small conference of technologists about Sun's corporate philosophy. Is it really worth it for Phipps to fly in from the Netherlands to speak to a few dozen conference attendees? It sure is, he says. "These are people who work on software that powers huge websites that millions of people around the world depend on," Phipps says. "There may not be many people in the room, but the effect they have on society is huge." Phipps doesn't really talk much about Sun products during his presentation. Instead, he talks about the company's long-term vision. "I'm the weaver of a coherent story to help our customers see how it fits together and to see that Sun is a company they can trust," he says.

Stephen Rene

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