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Know and use the (social) web

The web is your biggest weapon as a developer evangelist. It is a world-wide, 24-7 information and communication channel and allows you to get your message out.

By understanding and using the social web you will also find that other people become relays for your great stories and that people will even translate and publish in their own markets for you.

Social media is an amazingly strong buzz word these days and a lot of money is being made by giving “social media consulting” or even “Twitter workshops”. While the tricks told in most of these will give you instant success, this success will also fizz out faster than you can say “hype”.

A lot of the “social media experts” sound a lot like the “search engine optimizers” of the recent past and use the same dirty tricks (for a humourous look at the subject check the complete social media douchebag).

Be aware of that – your job is to use the web as a communication and distribution channel – not to make a mint in a week selling snake oil. This would kill your reputation and as stated before your reputation, integrity and honesty is what makes you a developer evangelist. Losing these will make it almost impossible for you to get listened to in the future which renders you useless for your company and gives the general idea of developer evangelism a bad name.

Find great web content

As the web is where you want to publish, you also need to be interested in it and find great things to tell people about. As explained in the Brand and Competition chapter of this handbook you cannot exclusively talk about your products.

The most time-efficient way to find content is to collect yourself some good RSS feeds in an RSS reader. Personally I use Google Reader and here are my subscriptions in OPML format.

Other great resources are (as people tag and describe technical content really well), topical mailing lists and forums. Don't just find things – make sure that what you find was ratified by a human or humans you trust. Then you can safely re-distribute it.

Redistribute web content

Once you found great content, re-distribute it. The reason is that you have a different network than other people have and you should never assume that people already know about the things you find.

Example: The other day I found out about YouTube's TV interface and realised just how much more useful this is to elderly people or people with visual or motor impairments. I put it on Twitter and had an avalanche of re-tweets from the accessibility community and other developers. Mashable had covered this much earlier (and thus most likely TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb, too) but there were still a lot of people who didn't know it – people that can show this interface to the people that really benefit from using it.

You can re-distribute web content in several ways:

  • You can blog about it.
  • You can add it to social bookmarking sites and add a good description and tags.
  • You can use it in a presentation.
  • You can quote it in a mailing list or forum to add more relevance to your post or mail.
  • You can Twitter about it.

In any case, the most important thing is that you attribute the content to the originator by name and resource. The reason is simple: Clever web users track what people do with their content, so if you blog about a subject, your blog will show up on their radar. The same works for re-tweeting. In other words, you get known to them which could be the start of an interesting two-way communication.

Be known on the web

If your job is to bring interesting news and explanations about web products to the web then it should be pretty obvious that you should not be a stranger on the web.

Sign up to mailing lists, post on forums, use Twitter, poke around IRC channels, leave comments on interesting news articles of tech magazines and online magazines - simply don't be shy to give your point of view or real advice whenever you can.

Be aware of new and upcoming networks and social apps and sign up for them as soon as you get the chance (more on this in the next section).

Being visible is especially important when you work for a large company. Tech news portals love to bring news about big companies - especially bad news. It is also stunning how many times these news items contain distorted if not outright wrong information.

As the marketing and PR departments of your company are most likely not aware of these tech publications and hardly ever would step in to rectify the mistakes in their reasoning this is a good chance for you to act. Stick to technical, real information and show proof of your points. Of course some commenters will side with the misinformation as it is just cool to stick it to the man and fight large organisations but the lesser vocal majority will at least get the real story straight from the horses' mouth. Be very sure about your facts if you do that though!

Fact: When you work for a large company people will automatically try to disagree with you and try to “out” you as a corporate drone. This always annoyed me to no end. If what we call best practices and standards are not used by large companies they'll never spread across the whole market - so fighting the big players is actually hurting the cause. I call this prison tactics: a new inmate will make sure to beat up the largest and toughest guy to make sure the others leave him in peace. Maybe successful there but annoying and pointless in the IT business.

Social media experts and entrepreneurs will tell you that it is terribly important to use your real name and have a domain with your real name and make it all very personal indeed.

I am living proof that that does not necessarily apply if your driver is to educate and help people rather than building a personal brand and make a living by giving the same workshop over and over again.

Sometimes a handle that is more technical or geeky actually gives you more credibility and makes people listen more – especially when you used it for years in other circles like old mailing lists, usenet or IRC.

Use powerful social web sites and products

The social web is evolving almost monthly and especially right now there are a lot of companies being shut down or others emerging in weekly cycles. This is OK – it is an evolution after all. For you as an evangelist this can be very interesting:

  • Write about new social media products – have a play with them, note your first impression.
  • Be on the lookout of new products – if you sign up quickly you normally get invite codes (a very common practice in launches) - and having those as one of the first and saying so on Twitter is way cool.

In addition to the new kids on the block of the media space, it is very important for you to be aware of great resources that are already established, have a network of specialists and allow you to easily store and access content:

  • Flickr is a photo sharing web site that allows you to store photos and screenshots. A lot of tools can talk to it via its API and it comes with a bulk uploader. Flickr is also a great resource for Creative Commons licensed photos for your presentation. Users can leave comments, tag your photos (add keywords to ease finding) and leave notes on the photo itself. Flickr also stores short videos (long photos as they call it). It is a massive community and a great way to interact with people.
  • YouTube is the #1 video sharing web site in the world, run by Google. It is very easy to store video on YouTube and embed the videos back into your blog or web sites. Users can comment and tag. YouTube also has a great API to use the video and create your own custom players if you want to. The support for annotations and captions makes it very accessible and allows you to easily add extra information to video content.
  • Vimeo is another video sharing site, which does the same as YouTube but has higher quality content and much better usability. It does take a while to convert video though.
  • is the Internet Archive which allows you to easily store videos, audio and pictures that you want to release to the public.
  • Dopplr is a social travel site. You can store there which trips you make and find and notify people thus when you are in their area. You can also find out when people are in your city and for example invite them to the office for a talk or interview.
  • is a social bookmarking site - users can add notes and tags to your bookmarks and share them across networks.
  • GitHub is a social code sharing network. Git is a version control system and GitHub allows you to store code there, have a Wiki to explain the information and make it easy for other developers to fork and watch your code. GitHub also comes with a nice code displayer and automatically creates archives of your code for people to download so you don't need to zip it up after each change.
  • Google Code is another way to store your code for people to download. Google App Engine even allows you to store and execute your apps on Google's servers.
  • SlideShare and SlideSix allow you to store presentations and offer them as Flash embeds to the world. Both allow for tagging and commenting and SlideShare even allows to add a sound file to the slides to turn them into a slidecast.
  • Google Reader is not only a great RSS reader but it also allows for sharing with networks, adding notes to each other's subscriptions and tag content.
  • LinkedIn is a professional network where you can find other evangelists and key people in companies you want to reach.
  • Facebook I am sure I don't have to explain. Good for event organisation and contacting people quickly, less useful for photo storage because of their terms and conditions.
  • Upcoming and Meetup both are social networks revolving around real-life meetings and events.
  • Twitter has taken over the online world by storm. It is still re-inventing itself daily trying to define what it is, but one thing is for sure: it is an amazingly easy way to spread short information very far and very fast and a good way to stay in contact with people when you are on the go.

These are only a few of the sites that make a lot of sense to use as a developer evangelist. I will keep collecting them on delicious.

Tip: I found that every successful social network does not have the network as its main core idea but revolves around a thing people get emotionally attached to - pictures, videos, travel, music and so on. Pure networks hardly ever keep my attention for long.

As with anything, these resources are as useful as you make them. Good title writing, describing, annotating and tagging will make them more useful to the world and easier for you to find what you've put up there weeks ago.

Use the web for storage, distribution and cross-promotion

The web is a network of products, documents, data and sites and to use it to its full advantage make sure to spread your content around it. Having a product in one place is great, but people have to find it. If you put parts of the product in different places which were designed to host a certain content you give web surfers a lot more opportunities to find your content.

Tip: don't forget that social networks can be very insular - not everybody has the time and dedication to be active on lots of them. Therefore having information useful to the nature of a certain network pointing to a full product elsewhere makes you a part of the network but also gets people interested in following your link and checking out what you're talking about.

Spreading your content across different platforms has a lot of benefits:

  • Multiple points of storage – even if a very successful blog post would kick your server off the grid (slashdot or digg effect), the information on the other platforms is still available.
  • Multiple feedback channels – people can comment or enquire where they are happy to hang out – may it be YouTube, Flickr or Slideshare. All of these web sites spend a lot of time building close-knit communities which means more expert feedback for you.
  • Automatic conversion and hosting – Flickr specialises in hosting and converting photos and short videos, YouTube does the same for longer videos and other specialised sites know how to tweak their servers how to convert and send their specialist data over the wire the fastest – something you don't need to think about.

Example: Say you have a new code solution. You can write a blog post explaining it, put screenshots on Flickr, a screencast of how to use the interface (or install the solution) on YouTube, have a presentation about the solution on SlideShare and host the code on GitHub. This quintuples the potential audience just by using all these systems in the way they were meant to be used.

Spreading the content is one part of the solution that will make this a success for you. What you need to make sure is to link all of these bits of information back to the main product. Write great descriptions for videos and screenshots, use informative tags (one of which can be the product name) and track the feedback on all the channels to be able to answer people's questions immediately. There is not much point in a multimedia resource on the web when nobody knows what it belongs to.

Hint, tease and preview

Social media is a lot about exploration and showing off just how much better you are in finding new information and learning about new products than anybody else.

Fact: This is a general thing about the web – people have gigabytes of information already downloaded but rather than consuming this information we spend most of our nights hunting for more and adding to the big pile of what we already have. It is a human thing and deep in our psyche – ever since we started hogging food for the long, cold winter months that we had to stay in the cave.

You can use this to your advantage by previewing, hinting and teasing about upcoming releases. I do this a lot – not consciously to manipulate, but because I am too excited about things and prone to release information before it can be publicly available. Instead of releasing too early – which is disastrous – I started doing some of the following:

  • Upload screenshots of upcoming products to Flickr – this results in pretty cool comments and people tagging the photo with keywords you may not have thought of adding as content to the product docs.
  • Upload screencasts to video sharing sites – same reason, but bigger impact. However, remember that watching a screencast expects more buy-in from the consumer than just looking at a screenshot.
  • Hint about cool stuff coming up on Twitter – this will result in a lot of your followers directly messaging you asking for more details - and you can give out previews and insights for them to be the first to talk about it.
  • Flat out ask for beta testers – people love poking at things before they are public. Feedback I got this way helped me on several occasions to spot sources of confusion I wasn't aware of and allowed me to fix them before release.

Once the product is out, don't forget to add the real URL to the previews you already spread on the web – that way all the late-comers will know where to go.

Track your impact

There is not much point in putting your content out on the web without knowing what your impact is. You can track the effects of your publications in several ways:

  • Add a page counter – the thing to read there is not really the amount of hits and get high on that but to look through the referrers. I found a lot of cool blogs in my stats. I am using StatCounter and Urchin, which comes with my MediaTemple server.
  • Search the web and social media for keywordsTwitter search, Bloglines and Google Blog search are great for that. Personally I have some Yahoo Pipes and a few YQL scripts that aggregate several sources and publish them as an RSS feed for my reader.
  • Subscribe to comment feeds of posts you've written or commented on.

None of this is rocket science, but it can be very powerful and teach you how successful different styles of publication are.

Build a network

As the web is much more social these days than it used to be, it is easy for you to connect to other people. It is very easy to get up-to-date information from people on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and you can give information to the right people with the right networks almost instantly.

You achieve this by contacting people, re-tweeting cool things they talk about, report problems you found with systems on Twitter and other, similar tricks that really are not rocket science.

Example: Sometimes being at the right time in the right mindset is everything. For example when Microsoft released their Bing API, I played with it and complained on Twitter about how hard it is to read the docs (MSDN-style frame monster until you find the "low bandwidth" version). A few seconds later I got a Twitter message from the API lead of Bing who told me what I can do to work around that issue. Since then we had a view short conversations of what I liked and disliked directly with the people that can make a change.

People who really grasp the social web are happy to answer to you once you've proven that you have interesting things to say and that you find and re-tweet, bookmark or blog about great content. All of this is to make our research time shorter and our lives easier. Other evangelists are by definition social people, so don't be afraid of talking to people and pointing them to things that get you excited.

Once you've successfully done that you'll find that you get good information earlier and earlier and before you know it you are the one with the invite codes to private betas and know and talk about cool new stuff that is in the making.