Newsgroups... that's probably where it first got started. Employees and enthusiasts giving advice and helping out new users. In the beginning, it was on their own time.
Next there were blogs. Again, informal at first. Truth be told, many were started against company wishes. One to one contact with customers was frowned upon unless you were blessed to carry the company line (i.e., you were in Marketing).
Then a funny thing happened. People liked it. They really responded well to it. It gave impersonal companies and products a human face. Sometimes a quirky face, an imperfect face. One that wasn't sanitized and sterilized. In other words, something they could relate to. And those same Marketing folks that scoffed at the idea became intruiged.
Now, it's gone to the next level, become more mainstream. What am I talking about? The modern-day software Evangelist.
The word evangelist comes from the Greek word meaning bringer of good news. From the Apostle Paul to the Reverend Billy Graham, evangelists seek converts to their religion. The first evangelists were the authors of the four Gospels (literally, "the good news"). Today, the term is coming into general use for non-religious purposes. Like promoting software, for example.
If you go to the popular job listing site monster.com and search for "evangelist" you'll find 154 entries. Some evangelists you might have heard of include Wayne Beaton, Evangelist for the Eclipse Foundation, and Roumen Strobl, Evangelist for Sun NetBeans. JetBrains is hiring its own Evangelist soon. So are Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and a flood of other tech companies.
What do companies hope to get out of all this evangelism? "Make demos and write articles and technological blog" says one entry. "Generate grass-roots attention and support," says another. "Build a community approach to driving developer excitement" says a third.
This sounds like a golden opportunity for all you keyboard jockeys and bloggers out there, right? Well, yes and no. I applied for one of these types of positions once and learned that most of them require travel, and lots of it. One company notes that they want an Evangelist who will "gain industry recognition and credibility as a regular attendee, panelist and keynote speaker at technology conferences, trade shows and press events". In other words, you still need to get out and press the flesh, at least for the time being. You'll need great verbal communication skills, not just written.
After all you'll have to be pretty pursuasive to, say, convert someone from using one IDE to another. Unless of course, you're preaching to the choir.