On experts, influencers, and evangelists

Posted by gminks in community building | 12 Comments

I received lots of feedback on the post I wrote earlier in the week about controlling the message. Particularly for this section:

Can you teach experts how not to be douchbags? Or how not to fall victim to those who would want them to turn to that path? Or is that part of the cycle of propaganda?

I did not choose my words wisely, or explain the concept I wanted to discuss very well. I really do apologize y’all. Just to be super clear, I do not hate experts or evangelists. I don’t think any of the ones I know or follow are douchebags. I’m really sorry if you read those words and thought that is how I felt. It’s so opposite of what I think actually!

Here’s what I was trying to tease out:

Sometimes the power, attention, and perks of being an expert or an evangelist can go to one’s head. I’ve been on both sides of this. When you are the go-to person on a particular topic (i.e. “expert”) – by people you don’t know, who may be way above your pay grade – that can be very heady. The attention that you get is seductive; do you alter how or what you write to impress the powers that be so you continue getting the perks? Do you start to believe the hype people say about you? I found it hard to keep my perspective and to continuing to learn hone my expertise when I got all starry eyed and started becoming unbalanced.

On the other side, I’ve developed influencers with a goal of get them in front of my execs and top engineers. The reason: they tell you what you really think on technology issues, futures, and messaging. The best ones are the ones who don’t have a customer relationship with us. I think customers fell that if they are too ornery with execs there is a chance they will damage the relationship with their account execs. Independent influencers can ask the direct questions others won’t think to ask. Sometimes, these folks have come to expect certain perks – an evidence of the relationship becoming unbalanced.

It’s the lack of balance in the relationship of an expert|influencer|evangelist that has me worried.

I think the person who handles experts/influencers better than anyone in the industry is Stephen Foskett. His Tech Field Day events bring this influencer audience to the vendors, and he is very particular in who he allows to participate. I think this gives more experts the chance to influence vendors – which is awesome. (Full disclosure – in my role as a Product Marketer at Dell we’ve used this service, and hopefully will be able to do so again soon!).

I believe that we need to hear the voice of experts, especially now. Technology is changing so fast. I’m finding it hard to keep up with the changes. I depend on experts who chase down details to share their expertise. But just because tech is changing very rapidly doesn’t mean our ways of explaining it, messaging it, or selling it are. We’re in a place where remaining balanced is going to be difficult.

My question to marketers: what can we do to keep our experts balanced, so they aren’t seduced to just be a mouthpiece for our bidding, so they can benefit from the attention?  How do we empower them to speak up when the message is off, not just to broadcast the same old tired stuff?

My question to experts: how do you stay balanced? Do you feel you are able to talk honestly and openly about the changes in tech, especially if may not be in line with the business direction of your company?

My question to everyone: what do y’all think?


12 Responses to On experts, influencers, and evangelists

  1. Pingback: On experts, influencers, and evangelists

  2. I guess you wouldn’t be too surprised that I jump in here. I’ve thought a lot about this and written a lot about it in the last two years, being one of those people that grew from engineer into marketeer. I’m also one of those that makes the jump from independent to dark side and back from time to time. And next to that I’m probably someone with the loudest opinion (not necessarily right) so working with me must be tough 😀

    To your point of douchebag behaviour in our Industry: isn’t it sad? Why the hell do we need to break down each others work in the hopes that is going to bring us more customers? I call it insulting the customers intelligence.

    What for me has been and remains to be the hardest part is keeping people within the vendor side honest. Numbers, statements, choice of words, … a lot of it is not in touch with what the audience should see/hear. Phrases that give this away: the best / unique / only / world or marketleader / … And here are a few of my favorit reactions when I call that out: “this is what the analysts like to hear” – “we need to educate the audience” – and the best one of all: “I get your point but this is just how it’s done”

  3. Getting the balance right as an ‘expert’ is a learned and practiced skill, and I can sympathise with people who fall too far to the ‘douchbag’ side, and to those who lurch to the ‘sycophant’ side. True independence is impossible, just as objective journalism is impossible; we all have a bias. You can at least declare it, and try to be aware of it.

    The online and print ‘airwaves’ are dominated by vendors. They have the budget to spend on marketers to make podcasts, run events, and hold conferences, but what’s the big enterprise customer driven conference? Yeah.

    Couple that with the amount of information available, and how much it changes, and then the array of things you need to stay current with? That makes it an asymmetric environment in which to be an ‘expert’. It’s tough to really be, and stay, independent with the commercial pressures all around you.

    Personally, I’m temperamentally inclined towards the customer’s point-of-view; it’s just my nature. I have a lot of friends in vendor-land, and customer-land, too. They swap places through a revolving door that’s only rivalled by professional politics, so it’s smart not to burn bridges. And I like the tech.

    I’m a consultant for customer-land, so my living depends on being able to figure out what’s real, and to communicate it to customers so they can make the right decision for their business. If I do my job right, customers make more money, and vendors get to take a slice of it, commensurate with the value they provide.

    Sometimes I might sound a bit strong to more delicate sensibilities (I’m Australian, we don’t really do subtle, and the snark is strong in me), but customers are outgunned here, so sometimes a crowbar and a small thermonuclear device is what’s needed to get a vendor’s attention.

    • gminks says:

      Good thing I’m a Southern woman who never was good at the delicate sensibilities thing 🙂

      So would you consider Interop or the SNIA conferences customer conferences? (not sure if there are any others…)

  4. There’s a bit of showmanship in the douchebaggery — after all, saying something outrageous at least makes people tune in when attention is a scarce resource. One reason non-vendor influencers have an audience is that they can be real people and not have all personality drained out of them by the corporate editing process.

    This also gets more complicated when money comes into the mix — if you are hired to write a white paper, or even accept a free pass to a conference — are you now obligated to the vendor in some way?

    I think we need to look to our brethren in journalism and analysis for some guidelines on how to deal with this balance. Each group has solved the question somewhat differently.

    • gminks says:

      I like the “attention is a scarce resource” idea – I think maybe that goes with the idea that there is so much noise now it’s hard to have energy to sift through everything.

      I’m not sure I agree with looking to traditional journalism for guidelines. – I think everything we’ve ever known about communications needs to change. I read an article this morning (and of course now I can’t find it) about the death of social media – how now it is absorbed into comms just like email and search marketing. This terrifies me – I’ve always said social media is a tool but not a tool for mass broadcasts and controlling the message. We’ve been trying to hack it for good since the tools came out, I think we need to keep doing that.

  5. Greg Ferro says:

    Another part of the challenge here is for activist customers to find each other instead of having their discussions co-opted by sponsored/salaried influencers. These “commercial influencers” have resources that an independents cannot match, and indeed, it can be hard to get heard over the noise created by many commercial influencers. As John Troyer points out, this leads to showmanship.

    Vendors are often dominating the community discussion through sufficient funding and focus while activist customers/independent influencers lack forums where communal tasks and visions can be shared. This limits the ability of the independent group to develop a societal structure with experiences and wisdom as a shared experience. Not mention the rate of change in social media and technology undermines the process.

    Through TechFieldDay, the independent influencers in the Networking sphere have been able to build communication and relationships away from the public gaze and this has created a support group where wisdom & guidance can be shared. I would like to think that this has led to a better community contribution from activist customers.

    • gminks says:

      Hey Greg! Love this – and it’s alot like Justin’s comment. How do you create a non-vendor dominated community. Which sucks for me right now since I work for a vendor. I try to provide those spaces because I think your influence benefits us (as a vendor). But there are internal pressures on how to measure ROI for the resources we use…and lots of those pressures are because of how traditional marketers have been trained to measure ROI. Maybe that’s another pressure to make things like they always have been – easier to measure. I guess. :/

      • Greg Ferro says:

        Community Recipe

        * identify community
        * form a core group in meatspace that broadly representative of a community
        * hope that core group finds common ground and inspiration to sustain contact post-meatspace event
        * repeated meatspace interaction may drive
        * let group setup non-public group discussion for bonding and shared value determination. Do not interfere or drive dynamic according to schedule or it will fail.
        * community core will form around shared experience and trust

        Recipe works about 10% of time.

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