These Are the Biggest Hurdles Facing Social TV

2013 could be the breakthrough year

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TV has a new love—that little blue Twitter bird. And like any new infatuation, the promise of what’s to come is almost too good to be true.

Most recently, the Grammys became #Grammys. Host LL Cool J (@llcoolj), when not busy doing bicep curls off stage, spent most of the evening hyping the “Hashtaggrammys.” At one point, Beverly Jackson (@bevjack), senior director of marketing/social media for the Grammys, tweeted that they were averaging more than 200,000 tweets per minute. The only thing CBS didn’t do in promoting its Twitter social connection was put a hashtag on Carrie Underwood’s dress. She’s @carrieunderwood, by the way.

On the heels of Nielsen and Twitter announcing a Twitter TV rating system and the social giant’s acquisition of TV social monitor Bluefin Labs, it is clear that 2013 will be the year social TV makes its first full-on run at becoming mainstream.

Exactly what that thing will be is still unclear. For social TV to be meaningful to advertisers and TV viewers alike, a few pieces of the puzzle have to be put into place. For one, we need to find a way to make tweeting work for live episodic TV as well as it does for event TV.

Massive watercooler moments like the Super Bowl, the Oscars or even the presidential elections are ideal for social TV. Recent Trendrr Social TV data found that eight of the 10 most popular cable shows were reality/sports content. For the Grammys, the E! Network’s pre-event red carpet show drew as many social TV mentions as The Simpsons, the longest running scripted show on network TV. Scale is a must for marketers, but it’s not there yet for social TV during the average drama or sitcom (with the exception maybe of The Walking Dead; the AMC show’s season premiere did 10 times the social media traffic of The Simpsons on Fox).

We also need to find a way to get hashtag TV out of its own echo chamber and apply some filtering to Twitter. During the Grammys telecast, LL Cool J joked about being backstage trying to keep up with all the tweets being posted. Since the volume of tweets (at 200,000 per minute) would be the equivalent of a full-length novel every hour, I’m guessing no one read every single comment made about the show. This challenge is not only for celebrity award show hosts but also all Twitter users.

This is a big, long-term problem for the social site. If you can’t keep up with the chatter, you have a skewed noise-to-sound ratio. Your network may or may not be made of valuable communicators on a given topic, but without real-time curation by Twitter or another source, you are left with a less than stellar experience. Twitter is reportedly working on this, but it remains to be seen how Twitter’s determination of relevancy impacts individual users. For the time being, it’s too easy to miss entire conversations or be exposed to tweets that fail to paint a complete picture.

The other big hurdle facing social TV is the “where does it happen” factor. The single biggest variable in determining just how real social TV will be in 2013 is the technology experience. GetGlue, Viggle and IntoNow, among others, want to be the de facto destinations for TV viewers who are using a second screen to enhance the first.

At the same time, Twitter is searching for ways to keep people on its own platform to own its combined experience. Other players, from TV manufacturers to console systems, will want in on this as well. The ad dollars flow through this end of the pipe, so there will be a battle to see who can put metrics and scale against the destination. Today, everyone is willing to go to multiple sources and buy inventory, and Twitter continues to increase price based on its clubhouse lead at the moment.

Not every TV show is appointment viewing, and it’s safe to assume that not every show will be hashtag TV. But, as deal flow and content production better align with the social opportunity, social TV is going to explode. Whether that happens in 2013 or beyond is difficult to forecast.

The resolutions to make social work for live TV, balancing noise and sound on Twitter, and owning the platform from which social TV originates will determine if this becomes “The Year of…” or if it simply lacks the clarity to make a breakthrough.

Chris Copeland (@C2Next) is CEO of GroupM Next, the digital innovations unit at GroupM.

Illustration: Sam Brewster