How do you promote and market a product that didn’t exist before?

How do you convince people they should solve a problem they don’t even know they have?

That’s the dilemma that innovators and category designers face every day.

And the answer lies in the history of religion.

You see, what is today one of the three largest religions in the world, was once a Jewish sect in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. And its doctrine flew in the face of the accepted beliefs of the time.

In his impressive book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Bart D. Ehrman says:

“Constantine’s decision to worship only the god of the Christians may have been a major turning point in the history of the West, but it pales in comparison with a conversion that occurred nearly three centuries earlier. Had the apostle Paul not “seen the light” and become a worshiper of Jesus, the religion of Christianity, open to all people, both Jew and gentile, may never have developed into a worldwide phenomenon of any description whatsoever. It may well have instead remained a sect of Judaism fated to have the historical importance of, say, the Sadducees or the Essenes: highly significant for historians of Jewish antiquity but scarcely the stuff of world-shaping proportions.”

The apostle Paul walked and sailed through Asia and Europe preaching the “good news” of the Christian gospel and establishing churches all over the empire.

In fact, Christianity was the first religion to spread through evangelism and missionaries. No other religion in the ancient world did that. Paul was convinced that he had to save the world because only faith in Jesus would save people from the judgement of God.

This was not a problem people thought they had. The ancients were not looking for salvation in a monotheistic religion. They were fine with their sacrifices and rituals to their numerous gods (they could actually choose their favorite god to worship).

Nonetheless, Christianity went from a couple of dozen illiterate believers to the official religion of Rome, converting thirty million people in four centuries. Today, approximately 2.38 billion people practice some form of Christianity around the world.

Category Evangelism

The concept of evangelism in marketing is not new. Apple had a chief evangelist back in the 1980s and today many companies have people spousing the title of Chief Evangelist, Tech Evangelist, Brand Evangelist, or simply Evangelist.

I’ve interviewed quite a few of these evangelists in the past few weeks, and here are some of the things that I’ve learned:

  • The purpose of evangelism is not selling a product, but preaching a problem and what’s needed to solve it.
  • Evangelism is hard to measure with traditional sales and marketing metrics.
  • Evangelists must be good public speakers
  • Evangelists should have a book that teaches their “gospel”
  • Companies with evangelists have a cause or a mission beyond profits

Dan Steinman is the Chief Evangelist at Gainsight, and one of the experts I interviewed. Gainsight is a technology company selling customer success software among other things.

But when Dan speaks at conferences or gives interviews, he evangelizes customer success, not the company.

“I never stood up and said, here’s what Gainsight could do for you,” Dan says. “I would say, ‘Here’s the customer success world. Here’s why, here’s how it’s scaling and here’s how technology is required for you to scale. But I was never pushing our product, which is why we got invited to do a lot of those conversations because everybody knew we were never pushing our product. We were just trying to help people be better at customer success. And our approach was this long term view that if we got people to buy into the concept of customer success, and we got them to start doing it better, they would eventually have to buy technology if they scaled it all. And they would at least remember who we were and probably give us a chance at their business. That doesn’t mean we guaranteed it by any means, but we always got a swing at it, because we had helped them in their careers.”

He also co-authored a book on customer success, which has opened many doors for him and has served as a great marketing vehicle for his company.

A Framework for Category Evangelism

Missionaries (a.k.a. evangelists) create new things. As the Category Pirates say:

“Category Creators are missionaries who impatiently see the way the world could be. They are creating the future. And their pursuit has more to do with this presence of a positive than the absence of a negative (competition).”

For Dan Steinman, evangelism is critical for companies creating a new category. “We didn’t invent customer success,” he says, “but we made it into a category. And one of the ways we did that was by spending a lot of time and money evangelizing customer success.”

So how do you start an evangelism program at your company? Or how do you become an evangelist for your new category or innovative product?

There’s no one way to become an evangelist. Each of the evangelists I talked to had their own journey, but they had three things in common:

  • They decided what cause or vision to evangelize
  • They found the person to become the evangelist (oftentimes one of the founders or the CEO, but not necessarily)
  • They developed the messaging and found the channels to amplify that message

Sounds simple, but there’s a lot more to it.

There is a framework, though, in the modus operandi of the first evangelist ever, the apostle Paul. First, Paul had zeal, conviction and expertise, which are three of the top characteristics of an evangelist.

  • Zeal — he was passionate about his vision and put all of his energy into it.
  • Conviction — he was totally sold on his beliefs and committed to the cause.
  • Expertise — he knew the religious texts and could talk about his domain (category) like no other.

Second, he had the seven elements of category evangelism.

The 7 Elements of Category Evangelism

1. A founder story

Paul had a great “conversion story” which he used often when evangelizing. He would tell how he went from being a strict Jewish Pharisee to a believer of Jesus. His story served as an emotional hook for his audience to listen to the rest of his message and as proof of his conviction for this new religion.

Category evangelists must have the ability to hone a compelling story of transformation and telling it to their audience.

You’ll need both your origin story (your “hero’s journey”) and, later, the story of your customers. People should be able to hear or read your story, how you overcame the odds against you, and be able to relate to you. That’s how they’ll relate to you and align with your message and point of view.

If you want to learn how to build your founder story, check out chapter 6 of The Solo Thought Leader for a step-by-step breakdown.

2. A framework

A framework is a system or series of steps a person must take to solve a problem or accomplish something.

In Paul’s case, he had a complex theology based on the Jewish scriptures and how all the prophecies of the Old Testament showed that Jesus was the Messiah. His conclusion? That salvation and right standing with God came not by following the Commandments (the Law of Moses), but through faith in Jesus. That was his message, the gospel.

And although it was complex, he was able to summarize it in a few words that uneducated people could understand.

In the same way, category evangelists must be able to explain what their category is in simple words and have a clear framework.

Read this article to learn how to build your framework.

3. An outward focus

Paul didn’t stay put. He would leave his home-base in the city of Antioch (sent by the church leaders there) and travel from one place to another planting churches (groups of new converts who met regularly at someone’s home). Paul stayed at each town for a year or two, training leaders and missionaries. That’s how he was able to spread his influence in every corner of the Roman Empire.

Successful evangelists remove themselves from the day to day operations of the company and go out to evangelize the category. The leadership and the board must trust this person enough to give her that freedom and should not bind them to quarterly ROI metrics. Evangelism is a long term play.

That is the case of Ethan Beute, Chief Evangelist at BombBomb. The CEO asked him to be the evangelist, so he handed off his internal responsibilities as the VP of Marketing and concentrated on book writing, public speaking and evangelizing the category on social networks.

“I have the implicit trust of the CMO and the two cofounders,” he says. “No one’s wondering how is Ethan spending his time. Are we getting our money’s worth with that guy? Is he making good judgments? Is he representing us well? Because I had been doing it for seven years, and they knew who I was. They knew my work ethic. They knew my passion. They knew my editorial judgment, all these things. And so I had it all going for me to operate in this kind of messy, ambiguous, amorphous situation of evangelism.”

4. Growing communities

The early Christian church multiplied through word-of-mouth amplified by local communities. Paul was strategic about the cities where he planted new churches — not small towns but large cities with dense populations.

Although he would sometimes preach in public spaces, his main strategy was to set up shop in the new city (Paul was a tent maker) and try to convert his clients through casual conversation. He just needed a few converts that then would bring their families and friends to listen to him.

Category evangelists create communities of super consumers and speak to them directly, hanging out where they hang out and building relationships. But the important thing here is not just to hang out with them, but to provide value and express your unique point of view, tell your founder story and explain your framework. That’s what the first evangelist did a couple of millennia ago — and it still works today.

5. Languaging

For the first few years, believers of this new gospel called themselves, The Way. Until some people started calling them Christians (because they preached about the Christ, which meant Messiah or chosen one). And so, they adopted that name and placed themselves in a new category.

That was a great use of languaging, the strategic use of language to change thinking. But they went beyond naming the category and named their members.

Ehrman writes that “rather than being a place, the church was a community. A tightly knit community. A community as tightly knit as the nuclear family. In fact, Christians were often encouraged to replace their families with the members of their new community. The founder or leader of the church was a “father”; fellow believers were “brothers” and “sisters” in one big family.”

In the same way, evangelists use languaging to create identity and a sense of community. Apple did this when rallying its fans with the Think Different campaign, calling them: “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently.”

One good example in the B2B world is the tech company, Dooly, which calls both its employees and its super users, Dooligans.

6. Two-Way Content

Most of what we know about Paul comes from his epistles (letters) in the New Testament. After planting a church and moving on to a new city, he would sent letters to the churches he left behind, addressing community problems, teaching, and encouraging them to remain faithful. There seemed to be back and forth communication between Paul and the different churches. He showed genuine interest in them and used every opportunity he had to keep teaching his theology (the framework).

This is different from modern content marketing, which creates one-sided pieces aimed to rank on Google. Paul was not doing corporate communications or SEO, he was interacting at a personal level with his audience. Sort of like releasing content on social media and engaging in the comments, or creating events where people can ask questions.

That is the strategy implemented by Chris Walker of Refine Labs. For the past couple of years, he has been doing weekly live events where he talks about a topic and then opens up the mic for questions, creating a community of loyal followers.

7. Turning Followers into Evangelists

The surprising amplification of early Christianity was its multiplication effect when new believers became evangelists themselves, “sharing their new faith” with zeal to everyone around them.

One evangelist can only do so much. That’s why Paul trained new converts and gave them the message to preach to their communities.

Randy Frisch, Chief Evangelist for Content Experience and Co-Founder at Uberflip, says that the first thing you need to do to turn your clients into evangelists is give them a voice.

“One of the things that I’ve done over the last couple of years and doubled down on since taking on this role [of Chief Evangelist] is interviewing our customers,” Randy says. “Once we get them to tell their story in a consistent way, they become your advocates and you can tap them on a regular basis.”

Randy and the team at Uberflip created a framework that they teach their clients and allows them to tell a consistent story.

“We have a three step framework that talks not just about what we do, but about what our software does in relation to two other buckets of software that most of our customers are using. So, they can go tell that story on behalf of us. And then they can go and tell that exact same story on behalf of two other vendors that they work with, and we’re still gonna be in that story.”

There are other practical elements to becoming a category evangelist, but the seven elements above are what distinguish evangelism from traditional sales and marketing.

Similar to thought leadership, category evangelism cares more about the future than the revenue at the end of the quarter.

“An evangelist is someone who has a passion for the topic,” says thought leadership strategist Bill Sherman, “and thinks deeply, not only about how am I going to sell, but what does this mean? How are we creating impact? Where’s the world going for our customers and how do I help them prepare for it? They’re peering around the corner into the future, if you will, and bringing insights back to today to their buying audience.”

If you are designing a new category, you need more than a marketing plan. You need an evangelism strategy.