Developer evangelism tasks: pre-emptive writing

Saturday, July 21st, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Looking around I am amazed how big the whole “developer evangelism” thing has become since we started it and I wrote the developer evangelism handbook (now updated with a new section on pre-emptive writing). I am also humbled by how many people cite it and mention it to me as a source of inspiration.

I find, however, that there is still a lot of confusion as to what developer evangelists do, and I also find lately that a lot of very obvious marketing and PR messages get sold as developer evangelism.

What we do as developer evangelists

Developer evangelism for me started out of the necessity to have an unbiased, sane voice for developers out there. We don’t sell products, we explain them and let developers make their own decisions about using them. Our main goal is word of mouth and people using the materials we provide. This means first and foremost one thing: being honest and real about what a product does and how it is useful for developers.

We also need to be the spokespeople for developers in our companies. We should know what people use out there and what they want, what excites them and how our products match those needs.

And this is where a skill comes in that can rub people with traditional marketing and PR tasks and skills the wrong way which I call pre-emptive writing.

What is pre-emptive writing?

What I mean by pre-emptive writing is that when you for example blog about a product you do not only praise its usefulness and show what it does for people but you also slip out of your role as a salesperson. Instead think of how you as a developer would read this were you a fan of a competing technology or other products.

Then you include and answer the arguments that you would write as comments to your own post playing that devil’s advocate. Instead of taking the traditional route of not mentioning flaws that might go undetected or obvious similarities to other products you mention them with the arguments that make them interesting for you. For example:

  • If your product has a flaw that needs ironing out you mention what can happen and how to recover or fix the issue. You also list the obvious feedback channels people can use should that problem happen to them. As developers we know that stuff breaks – it is ridiculous to claim otherwise and let people find out the hard way
  • If your product is very close to a competitor’s you explain that this is the case as the other product is a very useful thing and it wouldn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel if it runs smoothly. You point out the differences and benefits your product has – for example that it ties into a larger set of products or that it is available open source or performs better in a head-to-head comparison. People make these comparisons in any case – if you anticipate and do them in their stead they see that you are one of them and that you are not blinded by your own advertising. If the similarities are very obvious it would make you look like a very uninformed person or not very skilful liar not mentioning them

Why is this important?

Three words: de-trolling your feedback. Right now our jobs can be incredibly frustrating as the feedback we get (and marketing and PR also looks at) is largely polarised. You either have fans praising what you do over the moon or fans of your competitors pointing out that they already did the same and you are catching up.

Of course you also have comments full of vitriol by people who just hate what your company does and want to repeatedly tell you that, but that is a thing you can happily ignore.

By pointing out the obvious pros and cons of your product to people you prevent a lot of obvious hateful or overly excited comments. Yes, this will cut down on the number of comments you will get but it will also start a more interesting conversation.

Another effect of pre-emptive writing is that you don’t have to prepare a counter-statement – you already did that. In a traditional marketing world this is what you do. You don’t say what’s wrong but you prepare a statement for the press when things go wrong. In most cases you prepare this statement after things went wrong with a lot of stress, phone calls and “we need to deal with this now, people are re-tweeting and re-posting the bad messages all over the place”. This is stress we can avoid.

Getting pre-emptive writing out can be tricky as it is against a lot of basic beliefs of sales and marketing. But you are a developer evangelist – this is your job. Pre-emptive writing and constantly questioning your own products makes you one of your audience and keeps you their spokesman – a developer evangelist.

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