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.”

Instead of capitalizing on its tens of thousands of customer evangelists to move the product into the mainstream, TiVo's word-of-mouth strategy focuses on celebrity endorsements and television show product placement. The problem: celebrity endorsements—even if they are unpaid in TiVo's case—are obscured by Hollywood's culture of fakery and PR puffery.

But celebrities are sexy, so for TiVo the glory of ego supersedes the function of id.

Companies like Apple, Southwest Airlines, eBay, Harley-Davidson and Krispy Kreme largely center their marketing efforts around customer evangelists. For them, evangelism isn't a function of marketing, it IS the marketing.

Those companies embrace regular-folk customer communities—no matter how wacky and fringe-like they may seem—and shower them with persistent attention and affection. For a company with tens of thousands of volunteer salespeople, many of whom actively testify about its life-changing product, TiVo largely ignores this remarkable gift.

Why is TiVo so uninterested in its “fringe” of 40,000 customer evangelists?

Our hypothesis is that the TiVo culture is rooted in sales, not evangelism. Evangelism is what's good for a customer; sales is what's good for a company. Managing a balance between the two is the challenge for any organization.

To understand this concept, look at a company's marketing, including your own. Does the company share lots of knowledge, strongly encourage a sense of community and present a warm embrace? Does it showcase real-life customers in all of its marketing facets? Is the company's highly public mission to make the world a better place for customers?

If so, chances are that the company's culture is rooted in evangelism.

If a company's marketing is focused primarily on itself like a preening dinner party guest, considers a good part of its customers as annoyances, bombards prospective buyers with annoying ads and gobs of direct mail and constant pleas for purchase, then that company is primarily rooted in sales. It frets constantly about its look, its positioning, its status.

It's vainglorious; somehow, it thinks that a company comprising customers with quirks and flaws and beliefs not shared by company executives is undignified. It's egocentric.

Take Oracle, for instance. Its day-to-day market positioning is obviously built around the substantial ego of Larry Ellison. On the other hand, eBay demonstrates that it's a community of customers. TiVo demonstrates that it's a community of celebrities. Is that who you trust?

Let's relate this to your company. Take this simple test for an indication of whether your company is rooted in sales or evangelism:

  1. 1. What is your company primarily concerned about?
    A. Meeting sales numbers
    B. Delighting customers

  2. On what is your marketing department measured?
    A. Increased brand awareness
    B. Improved customer retention rates

  3. What's your PR strategy?
    A. To get quoted in the Wall Street Journal
    B. Win the hearts of dozens of bloggers or online communities

  4. Where is more money spent?
    A. Advertising
    B. Facilitating customer communities

  5. Whose opinion holds more sway in the company?
    A. Wall Street analysts
    B. Customer advisory boards

If you answered “A” to most or all of the questions, your company is probably exhibits egomaniac tendencies. We recommend hearty doses of Dr. Phil or a year of therapy with an organizational psychologist!

For you, personally, it presents an opportunity to be an evangelist for change in your company. Make it your mission to help the company become more customer-centric.

If you answered “B” to most or all of the questions, your company tends to focus intently on customers. Your company recognizes that customers drive your business, and you probably welcome their input and volunteer sales efforts. Continue to focus on learning and trying new things to embrace your best customers.

Next month, we'll discuss what TiVo could be doing and how those ideas could apply to your organization.

Are you a TiVo customer? What do you think? Click on the Feedback button below and let us know.

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