E. Stephen Mack, TiVo’s Director of TiVoCast Operations, has a great entry in his personal blog about corporations and their interaction with the blogosphere, and more. I’m in violent agreement with everything he said. Blogging has really changed how corporations interact with the community at large. In the ‘old days’ corporations had a lot more control over the dissemination of information. Now, once anything gets outside the corporate walls, it tends to be picked up by one or more blogs or online communities, and then repeated. Increasingly we’re seeing blogs cited and quoted in the mainstream press (including this community). Think about CES and the recent posts from the show – if you go back 4-5 years, you just don’t see the kind of details and information in press reports. And that’s to be expected, blogs and communities have a much narrower focus so we obsess more about specific areas. Consider the advertising one-sheets I posted the other day. I picked those up at the show, and I haven’t seen anyone else report on them at all. It is something too specific for the conventional press to bother with, but I’m a geek with a focus. I know I tend to get a lot more information out of blogs like Gizmodo, Engadget, ZatzNotFunny, PVRWire, The Gadgetress, etc, than I do even from specialized press outlets like CNet.
Now, don’t get me wrong, both of them serve valuable roles. Blogs tend to be narrow but deep, but you still want to get some broad coverage for context and just general awareness. Personally I also read CNet, The Register, and other sources to get general tech, and other, news.
At the same time, blogs and communities, because they, by nature, tend to be written by, and for, a dedicated audience, don’t reflect the general market. How many times have you seen rants in user communities about TiVo, or any vendor, not implementing something enthusiasts want, or calling them stupid for implementing things that the hardcore users don’t see a need for? Any company that tried to cater to the whims of blogs and user communities would run themselves into the ground and neglect the larger audience. So they need to listen, to be sure, but it needs to be just one input into their creative process.
The other thing Stephen stresses is that companies need to listen to their customer service groups. A proper customer service organization is a wealth of information for a company. If you track the information properly, you knew just what issues people have with your products, and those area areas you need to focus on. You also often have a good deal of feedback on what people are looking for that the product doesn’t currently do. And it is a much broader pool of users, often from the other end of the spectrum from the blogs and communities. Blogs and online communities are often full of people with technical ability and the skill to solve their own problems through research, and relying on other members. The people who call support are often the less technically adept users. I’ve noticed a real difference between companies that charge for support, and those that offer free support. If support is a revenue center, and not a cost center, there isn’t the motivation to reduce support calls by improving the product.
So both sources are important for the product development process.
I’ve been active in online communities relating to my job since my first job out of college, in 1994. I worked for a company that sold networking hardware, so I joined email lists and read newsgroups such as comp.dcom.servers. As the net has evolved, and I’ve changed jobs, I’ve participated in different communities – mailing lists, newsgroups, web forums, etc. I’ve encouraged my employers to be active online, and even run our own lists or forums for users. I think it is good for the company and the user community, alike.
That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about TiVo, they have people who are active in the user base. Early on there was Richard Bullwinkle, aka TiVolutionary, and TiVoBill. Now there are Bob Poniatowski (TiVoPony), E. Stephen Mack (TiVoStephen), Jerry (TiVoJerry), Shanan Carney (TiVoShanan), and others. (Sorry if I didn’t mention you by name, I’m terrible remembering names.) There are some TiVo folks who read this community, but I don’t want to ‘out’ anyone. TiVo does more than most companies when it comes to interacting with their user base.