Make no mistake, Twitter is in the social TV business

By Cory Bergman 

While a growing crop of startups battle it out in the social TV space, there’s one that’s been around since 2006 that’s established a tremendous head start. Twitter, as we know, dominates conversations around TV — 95% of public conversation about TV happens on Twitter, the company says, and 25% of the U.S. audience tweets about TV.

While we all know Twitter’s role in real-time conversation around TV, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the company has greater social TV aspirations. Just listen to Fred Graver, Twitter’s new head of TV (who will be at Lost Remote’s first party next month). Graver outlined his new responsibilities (scroll down for the 19 minute video) at an Ad Age event this week.

“Three things that I’ve really learned are my job,” he said. “One, developing Twitter as the live TV companion. Two, developing Twitter as a kind of live TV guide. And three, beginning to think about the Twitter rating as a new kind of TV rating.”

With that statement, Graver positioned Twitter alongside second screen startups, TV discovery apps and social TV analytics companies. As a competitor? He’s careful not to position Twitter head-to-head, adding that “there’s a whole ecosystem” and praising Trendrr, Bluefin and SocialGuide as having “terrific, terrific ratings.” But Twitter’s increasingly stringent terms of service certainly raises questions about the competitive landscape.

Lets start with the second screen. Twitter thrives in live TV, and it already owns the second screen around live sports, news and entertainment events. (GetGlue, as we’ve reported before, performs well during scripted shows.) Graver said the “audience is there” on Twitter, and “a lot of this depends on the quality of the tweet.” In other words, as the volume of tweets grows, Twitter wants to improve the quality of the content experience — hence its recent curated event pages (Olympics, debates, etc.) and an improved Discover tab. These content improvements will all translate to an improved second screen experience.

Addressing the impact on ratings, Graver showed data from the Olympics under the title, “Anticipation turns to tune in.” This graph of worldwide tweets tracked conversation spikes when various athletes won medals both on live TV and then replayed in NBC primetime:

“It’s not a spoiler, it’s actually a companion,” Graver explains, explaining that a survey after the Olympics that found that 73% of people ages 18-34 said “social media made me more interested in watching the Games on regular television.”

With TV discovery, Graver cited the Nielsen stat that 50% of TV viewers don’t know what they want to watch when they turn it on. “The audience is using Twitter as a TV guide,” he said. “[They have] created a TV guide by themselves, online, in real time.” He showed this chart from this season’s premiere of How I Met Your Mother, illustrating the Twitter buzz leading up to air (producers had fueled conversation by releasing a clip prior to air, and Neil Patrick Harris live-tweeted during the show.)

Finally, he said Twitter is beginning to think about a new kind of TV rating. “Can we build another rating that is measured differently, measures something we’ve never seen before, and can be sold, and used by people in the business?” he explained.

While social TV data companies are measuring a wealth of data — even beyond Twitter — the one thing that Twitter has exclusive access (and rarely releases to the public) is impressions. Graver illustrated with some examples, not revealing the show names. One competition show, for example, attracted 416K tweets with 25 million airtime impressions and 166 million impressions through the rest of the week. One scripted series drove 725K tweets with 10 million airtime impressions and 57 million weekly impressions.

“Those are huge numbers,” he said. By bringing actual impressions to the table — with the capability of breaking them down by pre-show, show and post-show — Twitter has the richest data of all on how its users are engaging around television.

All this adds up to a great reminder for social TV startups that the biggest player in the business is more serious about social TV than ever.