3 slightly crazy ideas for Twitter to monetize television

By Cory Bergman 

There’s no debate that Twitter is the most popular second-screen experience on the planet. A Nielsen report released earlier this week found that as many as one-third of Twitter’s active users tweet about television. “Twitter has become the second screen experience for television,” concludes Deirdre Bannon, VP of social media at Nielsen.

However, the connection between Twitter and TV ratings remains murky and indirect, which makes monetization a challenge. But what if Twitter closed that loop while opening up a new world of advertising? What if it became a true, connected “interactive layer” across television?

Just for fun, let’s explore a few possibilities. (For the record, I have no inside knowledge.)

1. Twitter as remote control

What if Twitter integrated remote control functionality into its app — not as a replacement for your remote, but as an extension? For example, if you see a tweet from a friend that references a TV show — and that show is currently on the air where you live — the tweet could display a “watch now” option that physically changes the channel. Similarly, by matching hashtags and account handles with TV shows, Twitter could display “TV trends” that tie to shows currently on the air in your time zone. Again, tap to watch.

As users tune to them straight from the app, the action is then tracked across organic tweets, promoted tweets and promoted “TV trends,” gathering real data to justify the ROI of both Twitter buzz and its ad products. But on a larger scale, the app would know what you’re watching, enabling Twitter to work with TV partners to offer synchronized advertising across both screens. Those second-screen ads would also track audience interaction, opening up the promise of interactive advertising at scale.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, there are a few challenges here. Twitter would have to cut deals with cable, satellite and IPTV companies (MVPDs) to ensure that the app can communicate seamlessly with set-top boxes (since iOS devices currently do not have IR outputs.) This is already happening with a handful of MVPDs with a few second-screen startups, but the trick would be doing these deals at scale. There’s also the challenge of scaling that behavior across Twitter apps.

2. “Twitter TV Connect”

So what if something we’ll call “Twitter TV Connect” became the “Intel Inside” for set-top boxes and entertainment consoles? Or the social version of TV Everywhere? Imagine for a moment that a partner MVPD promotes “Twitter TV Connect” as part of the core subscriber experience, asking viewers to connect their Twitter accounts to unlock new social features in the program guide and within the MVPDs phone and tablet apps, as well. Viewers could also configure their Twitter apps with a zip code and their TV service to tie the two together. Twitter provides content streams while providing partners with unprecedented social TV data. Twitter gets remote control access as well as the ability to collect data on the partner’s Twitter experiences in context of the show users are watching at the time.

As many in the TV business know, a deal of this nature carries a fair amount of complexity, especially when you bring advertising into the picture. MVPDs understand the tremendous economic potential of the second screen, and they’re already cutting their own deals and ramping up product development. If they’re enabling Twitter to deliver synchronized ads at scale, it’s a good guess that they’ll want a cut of the action.

3. Tag your TV show with Twitter

There’s also another approach that has fewer dependencies and seems to be a better match with Twitter’s product strategy: automatic content recognition (ACR). While watching TV with your Twitter app, you could tap a button that listens to your TV set’s audio, identifies the TV show and automatically filters the Twitter experience to correspond with the show on the air. Twitter has already been curating big TV events through special hashtag pages on Twitter.com, and you could imagine an automated version that applies to the long-tail of on-air television — think “Discovery” tab in context of the show you’re watching.

This requires no complex deals, no authentication and many users have aleady become accustomed to “tagging” or “checking in” to what they’re watching on TV via apps like Shazam, GetGlue and IntoNow. While not as direct as a data source as a remote control, Twitter would know what you’re watching — and at what point in the show. This opens up the world of synchronized interactive ads tied (or counter-programmed!) to the show on the air. It could also surface those “TV trends,” too.

The trick, as always, is getting the behavior to scale. Like GetGlue and Viggle, it could offer social validation and digital rewards. Or similar to Shazam, Twitter could work with TV shows to offer exclusive content inside these show-specific Tweet streams. Shows would urge viewers to “tag” the show from Twitter — think of it as a natural evolution of the on-air hashtag — to access the curated experience with exclusive content. In exchange, the shows are granted access to second-screen data around the broadcast. In larger deals that leverage that data, networks could extend on-air ad campaigns onto Twitter’s second screen, creating a true interactive ad experience with a social-savvy audience.

This wouldn’t work well for on-demand and DVR’d playback, but Twitter’s sweet spot has always been live viewing and shared experiences (which attract a disproportionate level of advertising interest these days.) It also leverages Twitter’s current relationships with the broadcast and cable networks.

Sure, all three of these ideas have their challenges. But if all this seems far-fetched, then I invite you to examine Twitter’s recent talent acquisitions from the TV space, most recently the former president of News Corp, Peter Chernin. Clearly, monetizing this social layer over TV is a top strategic priority, and the most effective method is to connect the dots between tweets and viewing.

Thoughts about all this? Have ideas of your own? Share ’em in comments.

(By the way, Lost Remote is throwing a social TV show in NYC in April. Details here.)