Watching the TiVolution

What is this product? It’s, um, a little black box.

What does it do? It sits between your television and antenna.

And then what? Well, it finds programs that may interest you and records them. It archives your recordings, has an electronic viewing guide, and can simultaneously record a show while you’re watching something already recorded. Oh yeah, it also lets you pause and rewind live television.

Huh? It’s complicated, yes. But users swear by their TiVos. They claim they can’t live without them.

Imagine that conversation going on in electronic stores across the country. Now, imagine you’re the marketer. How do you create a marketing communications program — including a Web site — that explains that quirky little black box so you don’t have to rely on the part-time electronics-store salesperson to close the deal?

It’s a marketing challenge that only the brave dare attempt. And to date, TiVo hasn’t done a bad job. In fact, the communications mix has certainly developed a strong brand identity for the company. It ran some amazing, attention-grabbing television spots. (These were the guys who pitched a television executive out the window and aired the Joe Montana/Ronnie Lott conversation about “masculine itching.”) And, of course, there’s the congenial name and the cute little “TiVo man” logo. With so much going for it, all it needs is a content-rich Web site to provide current and prospective TiVo owners with the details that are noticeably lacking in its print and broadcast advertising.

So, how is TiVo doing? Overall, not bad, considering the marketing challenges. The opening flash dance is completely unnecessary. We know the “TiVo man” is cute, but we don’t have to see him flicker all over the screen. However, once the production number ends, the site gets down to business. Here are the site’s best elements:

What Is TiVo?

Right upfront, TiVo addresses the BIG question of DirectTV. It bypasses the content-lacking schtick of the television commercials and gives the full story fairly straight-up (although there’s a little bit of “everyone loves TiVo” hype). The FAQ is also quite good at answering those “What exactly do I get?” questions.

Demo TiVo

TiVo takes you through all the product’s functions with a simple tour. It’s straightforward and avoids any big production numbers.

TiVo Fun

There’s some interesting content here. My favorite is “Tips and Tricks,” which teaches super-TiVo users how to make their machines jump through virtual hoops. Naming a “Customer of the Month” is also an interesting move since TiVo has attracted a lot of valuable “early adopter” followers who love their machines. Giving these satisfied customers a bigger spotlight (even in its new television spots) makes good marketing sense. Kudos, too, to TiVo for providing a link to AVS Forum, which usually has plenty of positive feedback on the company, but occasionally includes some “flame mail.”

A Loyalty Program

TiVo invites site visitors to “get involved,” which sounds more like recruiting for Habitat for Humanity than a fan club for a machine that gives you “better television.” In any event, there’s an offer for an online newsletter that looks somewhat appealing. The “apply here” to beta-test products may also lure more TiVo fans, although I’m not sure why it asks applicants to list their computer-programming skills.

Now, here are a few things TiVo’s site could improve upon:

Watch the Writing

Granted, we’re talking about television watching, not the Nobel Prize for literature. However, there are a lot of strange turns of phrase on this site. Maybe it’s me, but my skin crawls when I see “be amongst the elite” or “lest you think the season of award shows is over…”

Why Did We Buy This Anyway?

Nowhere on the site does TiVo talk about television’s content. Why not have a forum on the shows people are actually watching with their machines? It seems TiVo does everything to avoid the fact that no matter how many times it’s recorded, replayed, or stopped in mid-action, it’s still the same old television shows.

While you’re at it, take a look at Microsoft’s TiVo challenger, UltimateTV. The marketing here is nothing less than boring. No personality. No little “TiVo man.” No customers singing its praises. No real content. One does get the sense that it’s Microsoft, though, and for that fact alone, it just may come out of this competition the winner.

Yes, I’ve read that TiVo just slashed its staff and that the next strategy is to shift away from brand recognition and focus on boosting revenues from advertisers, as well as new and current subscribers. Sounds very risky, especially when the legions of “TiVolutionaries” are just beginning to reach critical mass. (Could there be seeds for a “counter-TiVolution”?) I’ll keep watching this Web site. Knowing TiVo, the content will just get more and more interesting.

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