The Evolution of the Social Media Evangelist

August 23, 2009

Best Of

Do the EvolutionI’m currently going through my annual assessment, and in completing my self-assessment, I had some time to reflect on the last year and subsequently, over my six years at Booz Allen. As I combed through old emails and files, I thought back to 2006 when I first realized that social media was a game-changer in the government space. I remembered all the briefings I did, all the emails I sent, all the debates I had with people, and that’s when I realized the evolution that had taken place over the last three years. While I can say that being a social media evangelist has hasn’t always been easy or fun, it’s always moved forward – sometimes more slowly than other times, but always forward.

Since that first day back in 2006, when I realized the opportunities that social media presented me, my company, and my government, I have evolved from an opportunist to a leader (I hope!), and I can only hope that I’ll continue to evolve in the years ahead. Here are the seven evolutionary stages that I went through as a social media evangelist – I’m interested in hearing if you find yourself going through a similar evolution, or if you skipped a few steps and went straight from an amoeba to advanced human ūüôā

Phase One – The Opportunist

In the first phase, you are an Opportunist. In this initial phase, you’ve identified an opportunity – this can be for you, for your team, your division, or your organization. You start by doing exhaustive research to see if this opportunity is feasible and realistic. Your ambitions run wild as you focus on all of the raises, promotions, and accolades that are potentially available if you are able to take advantage of this opportunity. In my case, this is the stage where I first read books like the Cluetrain Manifesto and Wikinomics and when I first started using Intellipedia. I started talking with my mentors about social media and why it represented a huge opportunity for improving communication and collaboration internally and with our clients.¬† At this point, ideas of all kinds are running through your head, but they’re primarily driven by personal gain – I will be able to save time, work more efficiently, make more money, win an award, etc.

Phase Two – The Idealist

The next stage is the idealistic stage.¬† This is where you start adding outcomes to the ideas you’ve come up with. You start thinking things like, “If the intelligence community can collaborate on a wiki, then why isn’t every organization?¬† If only I could show them what we could do with a wiki, there’s no way they could turn that down!”¬† While in the Idealist stage, you don’t consider real-world issues like firewalls, policies, changes in administration, funding, or internal politics. You are going to change the world with this wonderful idea or product of yours and the masses will ask, “why didn’t I think of that?” You work almost solely in the land of potential and while this passion for social media starts flowing into all aspects of your work, you start to realize that passion and potential alone isn’t going to cut it.

Phase Three – The Pessimist

Quickly following the highs of the Idealist stage come the lows of the Pessimist stage. This is where you will most likely be brought back to earth by the policies, management, and politics of the real world.¬† You will be called naive. You will be told by people being paid much more than you that your idea can’t be done. Seemingly, everyone you talk with have a reason why your idea or dream can’t be accomplished. They will tell you things like, “we’ve never worked like that before” and “there’s no way that will work because of the policy.”¬† You will start to question if you made the right decision to pursue these ideas, if you’ve wasted your time going down some rabbit-hole that you’ll never be able to get out of.¬† You will get incredibly frustrated as you give what seems like the 100th briefing on what social media is, what it isn’t, and how it can help, and then see no tangible movement follow. You’re left wondering, “what’s wrong with everyone – this seems so obvious to me, and I just don’t get why they don’t recognize it too!!”

Phase Four – The Workaholic

In the Workaholic phase, you’re working 9-5 on your “real” job, and then 5-9 on your idea, your passion.¬† You’ve gained a critical mass of supporters and people have started to recognize you as the primary resource on social media. You’re fielding dozens of questions every day about what social media is and why it can be beneficial. If available, you’re one of the most active bloggers or wiki editors. If not officially yet, you’re functioning as the de facto community manager for the social media tool that you’ve inevitably already started. You’re trying to get others as excited as you are by being extra active – commenting on every blog, giving briefings to anyone who will listen, sending out emails to articles extolling the virtues of social media.¬† You’re suffering from both the Hatred of Losing Information (HOLI) and the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).¬† This is the stage that I found myself in for the longest period of time, and I think it’s because I was focused on bringing social media to a 22,000+ person organization.¬† For smaller orgs, I’m guessing this phase is much shorter.

Phase Five – The Egotist

The Egotist phase sometimes overlaps with the Workaholic stage. This is where you get an overinflated sense of ego and might start calling referring to yourself as a social media expert or guru. You’ve now got more supporters than detractors. You’ve probably won a few awards and might have even gotten a raise or a promotion, due largely to your social media evangelizing efforts. In the Egotist stage, you start feeling a strong sense of ownership over all things social media, and think you have more control and authority than you do. You may even start arguing with people, saying, “you’re not doing it right!” The Egotist can be a very nasty stage, one that ends up actually inhibiting your overall goals. When I reached this stage, I was lucky because I had surrounded myself with lots of very smart, honest people who called me on it, and explained that I couldn’t control everything related to social media in an organization as big as Booz Allen. I learned that I could no longer be involved with every single social media-related effort – I had to become a teacher.

Phase Six – The Teacher

The Teacher phase is one born out of necessity. At some point, the desire for social media knowledge and expertise within your organization is going to grow so large and so widespread that it will be impossible for you to manage it all. You will no longer be able to keep up with the entire community’s activities. You won’t be able to fulfill every request for a briefing. You’ll need to teach others the same philosophies and methods that you’ve learned. You’ll have to help them determine how to navigate the political and administrative barriers that you’ve had to negotiate to get where you are now. This is the most critical phase, the phase that will determine if your social media efforts blossom into a scalable, organizational-wide effort, or just looked at as a proof of concept with potential.

Phase Seven – The Leader

The final phase (at least thus far) is the Leader phase. At this stage, you’ve formed your team and you’ve learned what you need to get involved with and what you can entrust to others. You’re not only managing the work of others, but you’re leading them as well. All your work to this point has set you up to be a leader of social media, not just an evangelist.¬† People respect and seek out your opinion, not because they have to, but because they think you have something to add. You’ve taken the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach now and have totally reversed position on other social media leaders in the organization. You no longer feel threatened as you did in the Egotist phase. Rather, you now feel proud to see other people throughout the organization start to realize the value that social media can have. You officially transitioned from a grass-roots initiative to an accepted, respected, and valued service offering, capability, or culture.

So what’s the next phase?¬† I’m not real sure at this point. I think that I’m currently transitioning from the Teacher phase to the Leader phase, but I’m not entirely sure what’s next. My hope is that social media will just become so ingrained in people’s lives that it will be time for a new evolution to take place, an evolution that uses social media to help further an even greater cause.¬† Maybe that’s when you enter the “Mentor” phase…

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (

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