Social TV Is Getting Down to Business

Advertisers Seem Less Interested In Check-Ins Than Affecting Purchasing

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Check-ins, likes, tweets and clicks? Those are so 2011. There's something new coming to the emerging field of so-called "social TV": business.

The Fox Now app
The Fox Now app

For months, dabblers in this new medium, which attempts to yoke good old-fashioned TV-watching to the brave new world of consumers communicating with each other via digital methods such as Twitter, has focused largely on convincing fans of select TV shows to talk about the programs. Now advertisers like American Express and Target are wading into these waters with an intriguing idea in mind. Generating chatter is nice, but not nearly as attractive as generating revenue, influencing purchase intent and selling product.

Forget about the clicks and check-ins so commonly associated with what many marketers call the "second screen" experience, which typically involves use of a tablet or smartphone while the user watches anything from "The Voice" to "Hoarders." Marketers are starting to use the medium with more in mind than just sparking idle talk.

"This, to me, is the maturation of what the 'second screen' is about," said Tim Hanlon, CEO at Vetere Group, an emerging-media consultant.

One reason behind the more serious focus on this new-tech activity is its growing perch in the mainstream. According to a recent study from Nielsen, smartphones are now in 50% of the general U.S. market, while tablets are already in nearly 20% of U.S. TV homes. What's more, Nielsen said, nearly 40% of Americans now use tablets or smartphones while watching TV at least once a day; 62% do it multiple times each week; and 84% do it at least once a month.

"We're really thinking that this is a bigger cultural shift," said Lou Paskalis, VP-global media content development and mobile marketing at American Express, who said the company envisions consumers using mobile devices not only to chat and communicate, but also to look for product details and make purchases. And while TV viewers may not love intrusive ads being placed in the way of their comedies and dramas, he added, they may be less upset about marketing messages being placed properly on new screens when they accompany something that benefits the fan.

"No one wants to see a pop-up in the middle of their program they love saying 'Buy this!'" he said. "The primary screen is not the way to drive the commerce." Second-screen marketing represents "a way to augment the experience without impacting the experience."

American Express is dabbling in the space to see if it can associate itself with consumers making purchases based on what they see in their favorite TV programs, having signed deals in the last few weeks with both News Corp.'s Fox and Comcast's NBC Universal. It is a sponsor of a program letting viewers use the new Fox Now iPad app, for example, to shop in real time while watching "New Girl." Each week, "New Girl" will feature at least one item -- which could be a piece of jewelry or a household item like salt-and-pepper shakers -- made available for purchase. At NBC Universal, American Express is supporting a program enabling viewers to buy items curated from select programs on cable networks owned by the media company.

Verizon, meanwhile, has tried to get consumers to consider "in app" voting by aligning itself with Fox's app for "The X Factor." And Target subtly pushed viewers of ABC's "Revenge" to second-screen venues to look at additional content.

Fox expects more activity around second-screen ideas to bubble as the TV industry heads toward its next upfront market. Advertisers "are looking for more interaction" when they do deals that tie them to specific programs, said Jean Rossi, president of News Corp.'s Fox One cross-media sales unit and exec VP-sales for Fox Broadcasting Co. Marketing ideas that appear on tablets and smartphones while consumers watch their favorite shows "does not alienate the viewer or the consumer" by interrupting the boob-tube action and even add to the couch-potato experience by offering more information, deleted scenes or other elements related to the program being watched.

NBC Universal's partnership with American Express relies on Zeebox, the social-TV app in which NBC Universal and its parent, Comcast Corp., took a stake earlier this year. The effort "is meant to enhance and amplify the experience for the viewer while they're watching our content live," said Linda Yaccarino, president-ad sales for NBC Universal. "You're able to be interacting through Zeebox with our content during a commercial break with related content," she added. "That is a game changer."

The benefits of reaching out to TV fans through social networking aren't unknown to the big media companies that own TV outlets or the advertisers who support them. One major factor behind the successful launch of Fox's "Glee" was the network's use of Facebook to reach out to potential fans about a spring 2009 sneak preview of the pilot -- even though "Glee" didn't officially debut until the fall.

But marketers believe there's so much more than can be done with the medium. When Target and Neiman Marcus recently bought up all the ad inventory in ABC's "Revenge," the advertisers knew they could not ignore those fans of the soapy drama that enjoyed talking about it with social-network followers while the show was on. Vignettes featuring the drama's cast aired during commercial breaks, but viewers were told to look for additional content and information online at the same time. Of course, viewers would tweet and post such stuff -- but they would also be watching more video that burnished the idea of a new shopping experience.

"We absolutely see this consumer behavior in terms of viewing traditional television with other screens open," said Jeff Jones, Target 's chief marketing officer. "That is becoming common practice."

With that in mind, more advertisers are likely to test the waters, he suggested. "How brands will create content that isn't annoying and isn't disruptive and really is something worth watching and not skipping -- we are in the early days of figuring out that value for the consumer."

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