TiVo’s Stealth Giveaway

The most celebrated newish gizmo of the past year is the “personal video recorder”–the souped-up, digital, kinda-like-a-VCR-but-better machines marketed by TiVo, ReplayTV, and others. The pressure is on these companies to get lots of their gizmos into American homes in the coming holiday season. Not that the units themselves are the end game–they’re really loss-leaders because the money is in the services that the machines enable. (The box costs about $200; TiVo service is $9.95 a month.) So it’s not all that surprising that TiVo would kick off a giveaway promotion: Since Sept. 8 and continuing through Oct. 31, the company has been giving away 10 machines a day. Actually “promotion” isn’t quite the right word because what’s a little surprising about the TiVo giveaway is that the company is barely promoting it at all. Not even so much as a press release.

I learned about this from a guy in Minneapolis named Jason Kottke, who wrote about it on his Web log–essentially an online diary that’s open to the public. To win a TiVo, you have to submit a short essay explaining why you “deserve” one of the devices, and the best entries (based on “(A) Originality/Creativity, (B) Use of Brand and TiVo Exclusive Features and (C) Humor”) get the prize, on condition of signing up for at least one month of service. (The Minneapolis Web logger was victorious.) As the contest winds down, press about it has been minimal: One article  in CNET shortly after the giveaway started, noting that practically everyone who entered seemed to be winning, and a short item  in

Why so hush-hush? After all, it’s not like TiVo doesn’t advertise. So just to make sure I wasn’t missing something, I called a TiVo spokeswoman, who explained the thinking behind what she described as the “completely unpublicized” contest. First, as the CNET story had noted, the models being given away have 14 hours of program storage space while the next generation of machines that’s coming out now holds at least 20 hours, so this was partly a creative way to “get rid of” the old units.

And actually the giveaway was publicized, sort of: Someone the spokeswoman referred to as “our evangelist” posted news of it on the TiVo forum  of a Web site where audio-visual hardware enthusiasts chatter. So this is an example of the much-discussed notion of using the Web to foment “viral” marketing–whisper the news to your most enthusiastic apostles and let them proselytize far and wide. ( described this process as ideally resulting in “a zombie army of sales people.”) At first, there were about 200 entries a day, followed by a spike to 700 or 800 when the rumors got out (which the TiVo spokeswoman confirmed) that the company started out giving away machines to more than just 10 people a day. As the number of entries rose, they got more strict.

Pretty good, right? Well, it makes sense as far as it goes. But what seems odd to me is that TiVo still didn’t put out a press release, bragging about TiVo fever and leveraging a small marketing gambit into a bona-fide publicity stunt. Instead, it’s not even plugged on the main page of TiVo’s site anymore. Even a tech analyst I checked with who covers personal video recorders was still unaware of the giveaway earlier this week. Apparently the company didn’t want to end up with more entries than it could handle, but there are times when that sort of problem isn’t such a bad thing. I don’t know if personal video recorders are going to take off or not (actually, I’m skeptical) but if they are, right now is a pretty crucial branding moment. Meanwhile the number of contest entries has apparently flattened out.

There’s no real down side for TiVo in this, of course: I’m sure the contest winners, who were already excited about the machines, will provide good testimonials to friends and family; and even nonwinners, who get $100 rebate e-mail coupons, have just provided TiVo with a free trove of information about why some people want the gizmos and how potential customers think about them. Maybe that’s enough. And maybe when the contest ends Oct. 31, TiVo can find a way to capitalize on what is, at the moment, some very narrowly contained online buzz. We’ll see. But for now, just add it to your marketing repertoire: The nonpromotional giveaway.