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The TiVo Success Story

Not all companies make this mistake. In mid-1999 a new company called TiVo appeared. They make a product called TiVo, which is Personal Video Recorder, or PVR. A PVR is like a VCR that records on a hard drive instead of video tape. But even better, TiVo will record your favorite programs automatically, even preemptively. For anyone who's owned one (myself included), it can be quite a watershed experience. Suddenly, TV is interesting again.

David Bott followed the advent of PVRs with interest. Bott is the administrator of AVS Forum (avsforum.com), a discussion site full of discussions about home theater equipment. He started a section for discussions about PVRs. Soon, the TiVo discussions were growing too fast to control, so he gave TiVo their own forum. It grew like a weed.

About that time, Richard Bullwinkle, the webmaster for tivo.com, began taking part in the AVS Forums. As the discussions grew, Bullwinkle and his superiors at TiVo reached a crossroads. Bullwinkle and Bott decided to work together. They spun the TiVo forum out into its own site at tivocommunity.com. There, TiVo users gabbed about the product they loved, exchanged tips and tricks, and even formed something called the "TiVo Underground" where hackers exchanged advice on how to do things TiVo probably didn't want you to know. For example, if you wanted to find out how to add another hard drive to your TiVo to increase its recording time, or fix the remote so that the buttons skipped commercials, all the information was there to be found.

Figure 2-Inside the TiVo Underground – notice the official TiVo branding above some very non-official content.

TiVo fully embraced the community, even going so far as to sponsor the forums, giving them a source of revenue to pay for the servers. (AVS Forums is a labor of love for Bott.) And instead of worrying about copyright issues, they asked Bott specifically to change the colors of the site to more closely match the design of tivo.com and add the TiVo logo and branding to the site. TiVo even linked to the site from their own support page.

Does TiVo like everything that goes on at tivocommunity.com? Of course not. "Every now and then some executive says what is this?" says Bullwinkle. "My response is, what part of the Internet don't you understand?"

Bullwinkle talks about the importance of good rules and moderators, but says that, in the end, "not censoring is key."

"Customers won't go unless they can get their point across," he says.

The users know the rules, too. They're not to flame each other or TiVo's competitors. Criticism of TiVo is allowed—even encouraged, so long as it's constructive—but no discussion of how to steal the service is allowed. These rules are communicated on a rules pages, reiterated by the regular contributors, and enforced by Bott.

In the end, the fact that the board is not owned and maintained by TiVo has worked to its advantage. This way, when Bullwinkle posts, he can always be the good guy. And when someone has to step in to be the authority, it's not Bullwinkle. It's Bott, who is not a TiVo employee.

By encouraging the community, TiVo is showing its customers that it cares about them and avoiding a consumer backlash. Not to mention the fact that they can keep close tabs on the community. TiVo now has its finger on the pulse of its customers. They're first to know about the problems customers are having, the new features they're dreaming of, and even the hacks that have leaked out.

And by aligning themselves with the creators of the forum, they created a team that looks out for each other with mutual goodwill. Bott told me that representatives from TiVo have, at times, asked for certain threads to be removed. But in every case, they're threads that would have been removed anyway, because they were in violation of the posted rules.

Bott told me that most users play by the rules almost all the time. In the five years he's been running the AVS Forums (of which the TiVo forums are a part), he's only had to remove six people. Not bad for a site with about 18,000 active members.

And things worked out well for Bullwinkle, too. After the forums took off, his bosses asked him to attend a meeting with the top brass in the company. He was afraid he was going to lose his job, and, actually, he did. Bullwinkle is no longer the webmaster for tivo.com—he's now the Chief Evangelist for TiVo, or as his username is in the forums, "TiVolutionary."

Community members make great customers

If you're a company considering adding community features to your website, know this: People who participate in online communities spend more money online than those who do not. And that's not just my opinion. In a study published by community consulting company Participate.com in April 2001, they found that: "85 percent of e-Marketplace users that reported above-average transactions are community users, 51 percent of e-Marketplace participants use online community programs to source a product, and community users buy and sell five times more than non-users in terms of total transaction value" (source: http://www.participate.com/post/releases/986324417.html).

Of course, the company that produced this study is in the business of creating communities for companies, so it's safe to say that they are not without bias. Still, it's conceivable that people who participate in online communities are more likely to buy from the same site.

The benefits to TiVo are clear. They have a community full of passionate, devoted, and best of all, informed customers. These people feel a bond with TiVo that won't easily be replaced. And the benefits to the customers are clear, too. They get inside advice from the programmers themselves, access to news and information, and a community of likeminded enthusiasts to talk with. Clearly, everybody wins.

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