Will Social Media Be the New Nielsen for TV Ad Buyers?

Data on Most Engaging Shows -- and Who They Engage -- Help to Direct Marketer Dollars

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Match the entire universe of tweeting TV viewers against all the folks that follow brands on Twitter. What do you find? That 15% of followers of erectile-dysfunction-medication brand Cialis also follow "Dancing with the Stars," a larger share than any other brand. As for "American Idol," it isn't big-budget sponsors Ford, Coca-Cola or AT&T that share the most overlap with the show on Twitter, it's Disney, Blackberry and Verizon.

This is according to General Sentiment, a company that 's looking to read the tea leaves of social media to influence how media buyers spend their collective $60 billion in U.S. TV.

The company is just one of many, including Bluefin Labs and Trendrr, that have arrived on the scene. While they connect the dots between all the tweets, check-ins and Facebook posts about TV shows and actual live tune-in, we've yet to see this new calculus result in shifts in spending habits at any large scale.

That's not to say agency execs aren't paying attention to social data. During the cable upfronts this spring, where advertisers commit ad spending to TV networks, one media agency used Bluefin data to help make decisions between shows with similar audiences, said Tom Thai, VP-marketing and business development for Bluefin. He declined to name the agency.

"[Agencies] will always do their tent-pole buys," said Mr. Thai. "But then they have dozens of shows that are similar to each other in cost and audience composition. ... The natural thing to do is to choose the shows that are most engaged in social media."

That's the promise at least, but it's still very early days.

"[This data] is becoming a component of the discussion but, to date, it's more a reinforcement," said Greg Artzt, CEO of General Sentiment, which works with clients like Toyota, Research in Motion and AMC. "But it's going to start directing media buys instead of just providing a confirmation."

Omnicom Media Group's Annalect, for one, used social media to measure a reality-show sponsorship post-buy. For a tech brand, the analytics unit deemed a sponsorship of "Project Runway" successful since the brand was the most visible in social media among all the show's sponsors. "There's a huge investment in TV buys and we need to consider what the value of associated buzz could be," said Ilana Nolte, Annalect's global group director for client solutions. "Clients aren't just looking at ratings anymore."

But past performance isn't indicative of future results. There's no guarantee buying ads in a tweet-worthy show will turn into social-media brand gold. Viewers of the most-popular shows in social media don't necessarily post about the commercials, too.

"The truth is people don't really talk about ads in the context of shows," Mr. Artzt said, "unless it's something massive like the Super Bowl."

Proponents argue that social media can find more specific audiences beyond Nielsen's age and gender brackets.

"We're asking with this data: How can we buy and target more intelligently, and buy an adult 25-54 that 's more likely to be the consumer we're trying to reach?" said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national TV for Horizon Media, which is testing Bluefin's data.

But he cautions that he's not yet diving in headfirst. "Nielsen has worked for over 50 years. There's a history and stability to it. This is new and it'll take time to weed out parts that work best and those that don't."

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