Developer Advocacy: Why Brands Must Go Deeper Than Developer Evangelism

Mike Stowe

This is the third post in a developer relations and advocacy series. In my previous posts, I touched on the concept of developer advocacy—AKA turning developers into brand advocates. In this post, I’ll cover how developer advocates are different from developer evangelists, and where growing a community of advocates (and shifting the mindset of your paid evangelists) is paramount for having a successful developer relations strategy.

Developer evangelism vs. developer advocacy: what’s the difference?

When I joined Constant Contact as their first developer evangelist, one of the first things I did was change my title from “evangelist” to “advocate.” While not every evangelist needs to do this, for me it was about moving away from the traditional thinking of an “evangelist.”

Historically, developer evangelists go out and share their company’s technologies—essentially evangelizing their company to the developer community at large.

While there is now an inherent expectation that evangelists will bring developer feedback to their company, most evangelists’ number one objectives are still awareness and acquisition.

This was why I changed my title. I wanted to make it clear that as much as I was advocating for the company in developer communities, I would also be advocating for the developer communities the company interacted with. And that could mean sharing some unpopular feedback and opinions with my company in order to protect the community. My role wasn’t just marketing my company’s products to customers; it was also listening to customers’ opinions on my company’s shortcomings and bringing that information back to my organization.

Here’s why changing the evangelism mindset becomes valuable. When the developer community starts to see the impact of their feedback (on product releases, marketing/education programs, events, etc.) they see your company as a true partner in their success. And, as the community’s respect and admiration grows, two things happen:

  • Product adoption increases
  • The community recommends and champions your products among the broader developer community—essentially becoming an army of vocal brand advocates

When you become an advocate for the community, they will become advocates for you. I call this concept symbiotic developer advocacy. The ultimate goal of any developer relations program and/or evangelism strategy should always be turning the wider developer community (whether they’re users or not) into vocal brand advocates.

This where a number of developer relations programs fall short. They often invest in developer evangelism, but fail to invest in the potential of their developer community—who could be inspired to be unofficial, unpaid evangelists.

Community building at the grassroots level should be such a huge part of your developer relations program. The reason is simple: it scales!

Tom Peters“Community organizing is all about building grassroots support. It’s about identifying the people around you with whom you can create a common, passionate cause. And it’s about ignoring the conventional wisdom of company politics and instead playing the game by very different rules.”

Tom Peters, Author of In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies

Evangelists vs. scaling community-based advocates

Every enterprise talks about scale. But the reality is, evangelists—while critical to developer relations—do not scale.  

I remember chatting recently with a company who had roughly five full time evangelists that had put together an impressive collection of content over the year. Together, these five evangelists had created nearly 300 blog posts (roughly four per month each), 15 tutorials, and around 20 videos.

Anyone leading a developer relations program should be incredibly proud of these numbers – especially given the many other responsibilities their evangelists may have on their plate.

But let’s also break down the numbers.  If we assume the total cost of a developer evangelist is $200,000 (salary + taxes + equipment + office space, etc.) per year—those 300 blog posts, 15 tutorials, and 20 videos (while incredible) still cost the company $1,000,000 to generate—or just over $1,834 per asset.

On the flip side, during my last year at MuleSoft, our community Champions Program with its 6,000 engaged, community-based advocates contributed over 2,000+ blog posts, hundreds of tutorials, 300+ videos, several full-length books, slide decks, and much, much more (I have to take a second to brag about that community). All at less than the cost of one developer evangelist (and well under the $2,000,000+ estimated cost to outsource).

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Perhaps even greater, I received one of the highest compliments I ever had – when a friend and fellow evangelist asked how large our team was now. He thought it had to be at least eight because we were “everywhere.”

The reality is, our developer relations team consisted of myself and a community manager. But by utilizing the community, and empowering our community-based advocates, we were quickly able to grow and scale the program without having to grow our team or budget (which, at times—as I’m sure we’ve all experienced—can be next to impossible).

But let’s put scale aside for a moment and talk about the quality of the content created by our advocates. While it may not all have the same production value as the content developer evangelists create, it has one clear advantage: it is authentic. And people trust what their peers say over anything else.

Building a community of trust

Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact

“We trust complete strangers more than we do companies…”

Gail Goodman, Founder & Former CEO of Constant Contact



I remember when Gail Goodman first shared this tidbit with us at Constant Contact. She went on to highlight the perfect example: “if you see a coupon for a new restaurant, what’s one of the first things you do? You Yelp it to see if the food is any good…but you’ve never met any of the reviewers, you don’t know what their tastes are. But, just the same, if you see good reviews you are likely to go eat at the restaurant. And if you see bad reviews—regardless of what the restaurant says—you’re probably going to go eat somewhere else.”

The developer community is very much the same way. Developers lean on each other for technical expertise, and are often influential in technical purchasing decisions of their company. Whatever they hear about your brand, they will look outside to their network of peers to validate—which is outside of your company, your marketing, and (sorry!) your evangelists.

At the end of the day, an evangelist is still a paid employee. A huge group of unpaid, community-based advocates sharing and creating content has more sway amongst the developer community at large because they appear unbiased.

At my previous companies, I cannot tell you the number of deals that closed because we were told: “You have such an active community!”

Active communities are a major selling feature because it means:

  1. It’ll be easier for companies to hire to developers who have experience using your solution if they choose to adopt it
  1. Other developers are doing innovative work with your solution—which positions your brand as a category leader
  1. There will be greater support resources for the solution—beyond the traditional routes

But developer advocate communities do more than improve your brand image or increase lead generation. They also save you cash!

How community advocates create cost savings

The first cost a community of advocates can help your company offset is the need for a large team of evangelists (which we covered above in our “scale” example).

The other big cost savings is support.

Regardless of whether you offer a free or paid support model, your community advocates can not only provide numerous pieces of content (tutorials, how tos, videos, etc.), but they can also act as enablers and de facto community managers across your forums, messaging systems (IRC, Slack, etc.). They can even help on third-party sites you don’t own like StackOverflow by answering questions.

Every question a member of your community answers does two things:

  1. It reduces your support costs (because you don’t have to pay someone to answer that question)
  2. It eases the onboarding process, making it easier for developers to get started with your product, and, therefore, more likely for them to continue using your tools and services

Even for paid models, such as MuleSoft’s, our community allows our amazing support team to focus on critical, high-touch support questions, instead of having to answer basic onboarding questions again and again.

Likewise, our paying customers appreciated that they could get quick answers from the community, but also turn to our Enterprise Support team for more advanced or proprietary questions. They knew that for basic questions they didn’t have to rely on our support team because of our community could find an answer within minutes. This allowed them to continue their work without delays and freed up our support team to focus on more challenging use cases—which also reduced the time to response.

I’m sure this all sounds great. But you’re probably wonder: how do I create this community of advocates?

How your community becomes a reflection of your company

When you inspire your advocate community to create content, answer questions, etc.—their passion becomes a reflection of your company to the world—just as your developer evangelists are a reflection of your company to the community.

Evangelism alone isn’t enough of a strategy anymore for modern buyers and communities. And as you build out your strategy, remember, the biggest difference between your best community advocates, and your best developer evangelists (despite BOTH being vital) is that one group is more trustworthy, impactful, and scalable.

In my next post, I’ll dig into exactly how to create a developer relations strategy that includes an advocate community-building focus.

However, I will leave you with this advice: You never want to try to take advantage of your developer community, or do anything that doesn’t put them first.

While developers can be some of the most loyal advocates your company will ever have, they can also be some of the most volatile. Treat them right and they will thank you. Treat them poorly, or try to take advantage of them, and they will punish you.

“Without a sense of caring there can be no sense of community.” – Anthony J. D’Angelo

For instance, don’t make your goals solely focused what advocates can deliver to you. Your developer community advocacy metrics should be centered around engagement and usability, as much as they are focused on how much awareness advocates can help raise around your solutions.

If you want to learn more about finding this balance with developers, here are two great resources from Influitive:

  1. Learn about the developer advocate persona in this eBook
  2. Read how MongoDB engaged their advocate community to drive content creation

Stayed tuned for future posts on how to measure success, high impact tactics, and more.

You can also get a sneak peak (and access to some awesome freebies) by joining my first Developer Relations Webinar on July 27th, 2017.

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