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We're big TiVo fans, and have been for three years.

There's tens of thousands of us who evangelize the company's precedent-setting digital video recorder and how it has changed our lives. Online, 40,000 of TiVo's customers have self-organized the TiVo Community forum, which we joined a year ago. The group is Beyond Thunderdome-loyal.

Browse the forums and you will find spirited discussions on topics as varied as these:

  • Why TiVo customers often take over for a hapless retail store salesperson

  • How-to guides on the best ways to convince a loved one to buy and keep a TiVo

  • The May 2004 conference in Las Vegas for TiVo enthusiasts that forum members are organizing

For most companies, a self-organized community of 40,000 passionate fans is unfathomable—a Holy Grail and marketing nirvana that many wish for but few attain. How does TiVo embrace this community of highly affiliated volunteer salespeople?

It doesn't.

TiVo monitors the group with a few staff members. But they're not active, cheerleading participants helping whip the group into a sustained frenzy with over-the-top support and community-building activities. They're more like hall monitors. In many ways, TiVo considers this deep bench of volunteer salespeople as “the lunatic fringe” to be monitored, not engaged.

As we obviously pick on publicly held TiVo in this analysis, it's because we're exhibiting a common customer evangelist trait: unsolicited advice. It's not because TiVo is a bad company—but because, like the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting, it cannot seem to reach anything near its unlimited potential.

We're not alone in this assessment. Adi Kishore, a media and entertainment analyst for the Yankee Group in Boston, says of TiVo: “I can't think of any product that has had the satisfaction levels it has had but has been as sluggish in terms of the growth of the market. It's certainly unusual for a product to have this kind of enthusiasm from the community that's using it without being able to tip over and really become a mass-market phenomenon.”

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Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force.