Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A marketing tale

Marketing is a tricky thing. One lesson that I have begun to learn over time is that simplicity and consistency always seem to triumph over a more comprehensive, but more complex story. Take the case of Tivo in the UK. A couple of my friends bought Tivo when it first appeared in Britain and started to have that kind of scary, glazed expression normally associated with religious fanatics or users of interesting pharmaceutical products. I then saw a cinema ad for Tivo and it seemed great: it would find TV programs for you without you having to know when they were scheduled - how cool was that?! It would learn what programs that you liked and record them speculatively for you; you then ranked how much you liked or disliked them and it would get better and better at finding things you enjoyed. You could turn the whole TV experience from being a passive broadcast experience into one where you effectively had your own TV channel, just with all your favorite programs. Oh, and it looked like you could skip past adverts, though of course the Tivo commercial politely glossed over that.

Well, I bought one and I was like a kid in some kind of store. I soon acquired the same crazed look in my eyes as my fellow Tivo owners, and waited smug in the knowledge that I was at the crest of a wave that would revolutionize broadcasting. My friend at the BBC confirmed that every single engineer there was a Tivo fanatic. And then: nothing happened. Those BBC engineers, myself and a few others constituted the entire UK Tivo market - just 30,000 boxes were sold in the UK. Eventually Tivo gave up and, although Tivo is still (just about) supported in the UK, you can't even buy Tivo 2, or even a new Tivo 1 except on eBay.

What happened? The message was too complex. Years later Sky caught on to the DVR concept and brought out the vastly functionally inferior Sky+. How did they advertise it? They just showed a few exciting clips with the viewer freezing and then replaying: "you can replay live TV" was all that was said. This was a fairly minor option on a Tivo that the Tivo commercial barely mentioned, yet it was simple to understand. Sky+ sales took off, and myself and some BBC sound engineers are left with our beloved Tivos, praying that they don't go wrong. It is another Betamax v VHS story, but this time the issue was a marketing one. Tivo still limps on in the US, still growing slowly in subscriber numbers through sheer product brilliance (helped by being boosted on "Sex in the City"), but has clearly not fulfilled its potential.

What this little parable should teach us is that a key to successful marketing is simplicity, stripping everything down to the core thing that represents value to the customer, and then shutting up. With a simple message people can describe the product to their friends or colleagues, and so spread the word. With a complex, multi-part message they get bogged down and so cannot clearly articulate what the product does at its heart. It is so tempting to describe the many things that your product does well, but it is probably a mistake to do so. Find the one core thing that matters to customers, explain this as simply as possible, and repeat as often and as loudly as you can.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what tivo fanatics forget is this. Tivo failed in the UK because it didn't give people the functionality to record one digital channel and watch another. It was an analog (tuner) product that arrived at the beginning of the digital (tuner) age. And Sky+ wasn't. Simple as that.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Andy Hayler said...

While the Tivo story was intended as an example, I would observe that at the time there was no equivalent competition whatever, so they had an empty playing field but still did not convince the broad mass of consumers as to the benefit of the technology. On the specific point you raise, of course this one limitation ix fixed in Tivo 2 (not available in the UK), while most regular Tivo 1 users rarely watch anything in real time anyway, so will tend to watch something else Tivo has recorded already while it records something new, so this is only a minor annoyance in practice.

6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other thing that put people off was the monthly subscription for Tivo (and Sky+ for that matter). I personally went for the Pace Twin - when it was launched in ~2000 it was the first Freeview PVR with twin receivers.

The great thing about the Twin, and PVRs in general, is that it removes all the crud you have to do to operate a VCR. Where in the "Video Recording Requirements Spec" did it ever say, "to be able to record a programme you must have to spend 10 minutes finding a spare tape, 5 minutes fast forwarding to the right place, and then the system may (optionally, depending on how important the programme is) have insufficient space to complete the recording"?!

I accept that the whole intelligent programme selection is where you might like to get to, but there are many other incremental improvements on the way too. Perhaps Tivo was just too much to take in one go?

Besides we'll all be watching Google IP TV soon...

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm. i don't know about your 'minor annoyance' claim. what about when watching live events, or sports?

and weren't sky+ and tivo available simultaneously?

of course, the real problem is that sky have been allowed to get away with operating a closed system, meaning tivo could never operate in that field.

of course, now that freeview is running a good service, the time is ripe for a second coming of tivo! seeing as the freeview pvrs have very poor software, generally..

3:34 PM  
Blogger Andy Hayler said...

With Tivo you could also buy a lifetime subsciption instead of a monthly one; however, as you say, perhaps it was just too much to absorb in one go. However, it is hard to believe that time-shifting TV watching will not eventually take off. I was talking last night with a friend whose colleague recently moved from Sweden to the UK. This person's two children had got used to a time-shifting PVR and when presented with a regular British TV said "Daddy, the TV is broken" when they realised they could not watch cartoons when they wanted rather than when the broadcasters decided to air them. I think this is telling comment about what the next generation of consumers will come to expect.

2:02 AM  

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