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The Worldwide Watercooler

Social media transforms TV
  • September 10 2012

This past spring, the season 2 premiere of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones had so many fans checking in and commenting on GetGlue that the entertainment social networking site temporarily crashed.

In July, the runaway success of a Facebook game called “The Hunt,” created by MTV for the second season of its drama Teen Wolf, helped get the show renewed for a third season.

And in August, the 25th edition of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week inspired more than 1.6 million tweets, twice as many as in 2011—spurred in part by the network’s on-screen posting of the feed.

TV watching is quickly becoming an “active” pastime, as viewers—particularly those who think of themselves as the biggest fans of a show—are engaging with each other over social media while they’re watching a show. They’re tweeting comments, chatting with friends on fan sites, answering polls, playing show-­related games or checking in to tell their friends what they’re watching. Social interaction has long been a part of the television experience, but today’s watercooler discussions are happening in real time as smartphones, tablets and laptops have become “second screens” with dedicated apps that encourage interaction.

“Social TV is about using social media to continue television’s great storytelling through multiplatform content and a dialogue with fans,” says Jesse Redniss, SVP of digital for USA Network. “It’s a way to enhance the stories we tell, and social allows fans to be storytellers too—by telling friends how passionate they are and spreading the word.”

In fact, commenting on social networking sites is becoming de rigueur for a growing number of viewers. Trendrr, an analytics company that aggregates social media commentary about TV shows, found that in June 2012, there were more than 81 million conversations about TV on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. That was triple the number it had recorded in June 2011, and 15 percent more than had occurred in May 2012.

A recent study of multiscreen consumers by comScore, conducted for the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, found that an average of 17 percent of TV viewers regularly use second screens to engage with TV content, and those multiscreen consumers tend to be the most loyal and engaged. Increasing smartphone and tablet penetration will likely boost this number.

This new form of viewing is changing the way networks and advertisers connect with consumers and analyze their engagement. While total viewership is still a key indicator of a show’s popularity, social media activity is becoming a metric for viewer engagement: More posts, tweets and conversations mean a show is getting the kind of buzz that advertisers crave. Media buyers are using this data to figure ways to integrate their clients’ TV and online strategies. There’s also the hope that more social engagement will mean less timeshifting and, with it, more ad-watching.

The new social TV landscape has quickly turned what has always been considered a mass medium into a more personalized, two-way, interactive one, says Deb Roy, co-founder and chairman of Bluefin, another company that measures and analyzes social TV comments and data. “Measuring the TV audience is no longer just about eyeballs or where the television is tuned,” he explains. “Instead, it is about where else engagement is happening—in terms of tweeting, posting and checking in.”

Bluefin’s analysis of social TV chatter has found that the greatest number of conversations occur around live, tent-pole broadcasts such as awards shows or major sporting events. For example, in the first half of 2012, the greatest number of social media comments were related to the Grammy Awards (13 million), the Super Bowl (12.2 million) and the BET Awards (8.1 million).

For traditional, weekly shows, the number of social comments is less, but it is growing. The late August finale of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars broke the record for most social TV episode, getting 1.6 million tweets and Facebook comments, according to Bluefin. Promotions for the episode featured an official hashtag, and other hashtags appeared onscreen during key moments, reminding viewers to go on social media.


Social TV Apps

Pretty Little Liars is hardly the only show to actively direct viewers to engage via social TV. Not only are shows regularly posting hashtags and looking to drive social chatter, but dozens of technology platforms and apps have flooded the landscape in areas such as social sharing, check-ins, rewards, guides and communities.

Just a few flashes of the dizzying array of upcoming and recent social TV options:

Anderson Cooper’s syndicated talk show will return in September with live episodes that incorporate Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr feedback directly into the show.

USA Network developed its own community portal called “Character Chatter” that allows fans of shows such as Burn Notice and Suits to find and join show-based conversations.

AMC developed its own iPhone and iPad app called Story Sync for its hit series Breaking Bad, which provides fans with supplementary content that streams at the same time as each episode airs.

WWE, with a loyal social following, launched its own app for iOS and Android devices that activates during broadcasts of its Monday Night Raw matches with live polls and content.

And last season, NBC’s The Voice allowed viewers to vote via a custom Facebook app that would then be automatically shared with friends.

There are a wide range of second-screen apps trying to get the attention of viewers, networks and advertisers. Check-in apps—such as GetGlue, Miso and IntoNow—use a foursquare model giving people virtual rewards for sharing what they’re watching while also providing a platform for discussion. Rewards apps—including Viggle—give viewers points for checking in and for watching in-app video ads, and those points can be redeemed for gift cards. Storytelling platforms—such as SocialSamba used by MTV and USA—create scripted social games that are designed to enhance and expand the viewing experience. Guide apps—such as Peel and Dijit—use viewing habits and a subscriber’s social graph to recommend shows both on broadcast and on-demand platforms such as Netflix.

While many of these apps are still seeking an audience, those that are more established are quickly building their user foundations. GetGlue, for example, now has three million users, one million of which joined since the start of 2012. Viggle, which launched in January, now has more than one million registered users.

The competition arising from the boom in social TV activity is healthy and normal, insists GetGlue CEO and founder Alex Iskold. “It’s a necessarily fragmented market with lots of players approaching it in different ways with different visions for the space,” he says.

But these second-screen apps aren’t just for viewers. They provide another way for networks to partner with advertisers, who can be integrated  into a show’s social flow.

“This is a rapidly emerging opportunity for advertisers, a way of extending the experience with television content, ads or substantive sponsorships,” says Pat McLean, VP of digital at Capital One. “We’ve been embracing it in a ‘test and learn’ way,” he says.

Capital One partnered with USA on a Viggle program for its Covert Affairs show. Viewers using Viggle are able to earn rewards points when they get information on certain plot points, participate in Q&As and take live polls while watching the show. With its “Double Rewards” brand promotion, Capital One complements Viggle’s points model—as viewers check in on Viggle, they get double Viggle points thanks to Capital One.
“We see emerging platforms such as Viggle as becoming an important way to participate as a brand,” says McLean.

Other brands are also tapping into second-screen opportunities. Ford had its products incorporated into a game related to USA’s White Collar show. This summer, Pepsi partnered with Viacom to create hashtag-based contests across its cable networks, including MTV, CMT, Comedy Central and VH1.


Social Analytics

Social media buzz can quickly turn into overwhelming noise for agencies, brands and networks who want to figure out whether their social TV spend is paying off. That’s where a variety of analytics companies such as Bluefin, Trendrr and Networked Insights have come in, tracking and measuring the number of conversations occurring around a show.

These reports are able to pinpoint how the social conversation is taking place. They gauge how many conversations are happening, who is having them, and what the general sentiment of the conversation is. They also can go a step further and mine connections between shows, social media and commercials—for example, the percentage of people commenting on a show that are also commenting on a given ad.

“As these analytics tools have gotten better in terms of seeing what social activity has been generated from TV shows, media buyers have a much better signal of what’s happening on a consistent basis,” says Sloan Broderick, managing director of MediaCom US. “There’s a lot of noise to filter out and we need steady, consistent, reliable data.”

By measuring points of attention across devices and services in a useful way, media has begun to be valued differently, says Trendrr CEO and founder Mark Ghuneim. “That’s not a bad thing,” he explains. “If a consumer jumps off into a second screen deeper into a TV show or commercial, that brings him or her that much closer to the purchase funnel. I think the second screen shows deeper engagement and is an important indicator.”

But while Bluefin co-founder and chairman Roy also calls knowing where TVs are tuned a “limited view” and social TV a “more rich, real-time, multifaceted signal,” agencies and brands remain cautious about buying into the social hype.

MediaCom’s Broderick insists that social TV is just “one of many signals we look at when considering what to buy in the TV marketplace.” Nielsen ratings, he emphasizes, are still the “core foundation and currency” of the industry. While no longer considered experimental, “social data is just another signal we add to the mix,” he says.  


The Next Evolution

Social TV remains an emerging technology, and new advances are hitting the market monthly. “We’re really seeing social TV 2.0 now, with a lot of interesting things happening in the space,” says GetGlue’s Iskold. “Networks are innovating in deeper and more niche experiences, and we’re fans of companies doing work in voice recognition technology and synchronized social TV experiences.”

But some believe the entire notion of social TV will ultimately disappear as it becomes more embedded into the entire fabric of media consumption. “I think the industry is redefining itself as things move along and social TV might not even be a term as it is now,” says USA Network’s Redniss. “We’ll just expect to develop content offerings for a multiplatform world; this will simply be the way shows are produced.”

Ultimately, it will be advertisers voting with their wallets that will take the social TV market to its greatest heights, says Iskold. “I don’t think we’ll see mass media-like budgets next year, but this is a big market—I think stepping up from a digital budget would a big vote of confidence for the social TV space.”