Social TV is Ready for Primetime

Nov 14, 2013

Last month, Nielsen released the "Nielsen Twitter TV Rating" which promises to provide a standard measure for TV show performance in social media. The rating system uses real-time data from Twitter, in tandem with the robust classification system from SocialGuide to measure the actual reach of the TV-related conversations happening during the airing of shows. The system does have some challenges before it. At present it is not yet able to accurately track Spanish-language networks. However, the company is currently working on rolling this out before the end of the year. What may prove to be the most challenging is that it only considers Twitter activity.

According to comScore, as of September 2013, there were only about 38.3 million U.S. internet users on Twitter. This sounds like a large number until one considers that, as of the same date, there were 139.9 million Internet users on Facebook. Facebook has over three times the reach of Twitter. Moreover, according to Facebook's Q2 2013 earnings release transcript, 88-100 million people in the U.S. use Facebook during primetime TV hours. That number alone is over twice the total U.S. Twitter user base.

Why would a mass medium like TV find its inaugural social media partner in a niche medium like Twitter? Why would it not turn instead to Facebook, which is not only the top social networking site in the U.S., but the top social networking site in the world?

The answer to these questions is twofold. The first is related to the important difference between the Twitter feed and the Facebook news feed. Twitter users' feeds are populated by Tweets from other users they follow who are Tweeting at the time they are logged into Twitter either via desktop or mobile device. This means that the content of the Twitter feed is "linear" - the content is synchronous with what the users and their followers are doing in real-life. In this way Twitter can easily function as a chat room during a TV show. The Facebook news feed, on the other hand, is populated according to an algorithm which selects content based on popularity and past user behaviors. This makes it more difficult for the platform to serve as a vehicle for users engaged in synchronous conversations related to TV shows since there's no guarantee that two users posting at the same time about the same TV show will actually see each other's posts.

The second reason is related to the privacy. Twitter is a completely open platform. Twitter users, with very few exceptions, make all their Tweets available to the entire world. This makes it very easy, using hashtags or keywords, for TV networks and their technology partners to identify users who are watching their shows while they're on air. Most users on Facebook, on the other hand, have their profiles set to private.

However, Facebook has been implementing changes to address these challenges. In June, the company introduced hashtags to enable users to easily identify others in their networks engaged in conversations that interest them. Thus far, hashtags have not proven nearly as successful as they are on Twitter but it's really too soon to label them a failure as many bloggers have already done. One could easily see this situation turnaround very quickly once major TV networks start promoting Facebook hashtags via on-screen Facebook integrations during live programming.

More recently Facebook introduced its Keyword Insights API, which provides visibility into anonymous data about any and all users engaged in conversations about specific keywords. TV networks and other third parties can now tally the number of users conversing about specific topics on Facebook during specific time-frames by age, gender and geography. Ultimately the Keyword Insights API could be deployed to create an alternative to the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating that uses Facebook data instead of Twitter data. Facebook would still need to develop a way to calculate reach, however, which is something it does not currently provide through the new API. Moreover, as the API was only launched in August, it still remains to be seen whether there really is a sufficient amount of synchronous social TV activity to make such an alternative viable despite Twitter's head start in this arena.

The important point in all these developments is that advertisers and TV networks are finally seeking ways to measure the potential marketing communications opportunities generated by social TV behaviors. Social TV is now being taken seriously as an investment opportunity. It's ready for primetime.