Whatever Happened to the Twitter-TV Growth Story?

Tweets About TV Aren't Growing As Fast As You Might Expect

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A big part of Twitter's pitch to advertisers is the audience of people who tweet while they watch TV, the so-called "second screen." But there's some evidence that Twitter's audience isn't growing as quickly as Twitter might like, especially during big TV events that advertisers like to buy.

As shown in the chart below, the growth of the social-TV phenomenon is actually looking patchy; it's certainly not the hockey stick growth chart you'd expect. Looking at five recent TV events compared to a year ago, there are instances of growth, and non-growth, as well as one instance where tweets barely kept up with ratings.

Twitter chatter from the Super Bowl was down slightly (3%) year over year, according to Nielsen SocialGuide, while conversation during January's Golden Globes was up considerably (39%). Tweets posted during Sunday's NBA All-Star Game were down 21% over last year. Other events like the Grammys and the mid-season premiere of "The Walking Dead" show growth that's in line with increased ratings, raising questions about whether or not the tweeting-about-TV phenomenon spreads from the vocal few to the mass market.

Flat Tweets
In the case of the year's most-watched TV event, Nielsen SocialGuide reported that 25.3 million tweets were published about the Super Bowl this year, a modest dip from 26.1 million in 2013. The raw number of people actually tweeting about the Super Bowl increased incrementally from 5.3 million to 5.6 million.

Like all comparisons of TV events, there are mitigating factors. This year's game, between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, was a blowout almost from the opening whistle, whereas last year's game was competitive and had a Beyonce performance as well as an unexpected, and tweetable, event in the prolonged power outage at the Superdome. Last year's game was also longer because of that blackout.

The most-tweeted moment in this year's game -- Percy Harvin's 87-yard kick return to open the second half -- generated 381,605 tweets, compared to the 231,500 tweets published the minute after the 2013 blackout, according to Twitter data. That suggests that at points when the game was interesting, Twitters users were engaged -- to a greater extend this year than last, at least for that moment.

But while ratings were up for the Super Bowl -- with the audience increasing from 108.4 million in 2013 to 112.2 million this year -- tweets weren't.

Nielsen SocialGuide counts tweets in the U.S. only.

For the Grammys, Nielsen SocialGuide reported 13.8 million tweets around this month's telecast, up 9% from last year's 12.7 million. The TV audience for the awards show was effectively flat, growing to 28.5 million from 28.4 million from the year prior.

The NBA All-Star Game, however, was the subject of a plummet in Twitter conversation. Tweets were down 21% to 2.3 million from 2.9 million in 2013. TV ratings went in the opposite direction, with TNT drawing 8 million viewers, a 13% increase from last year.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of Twitter growth on TV. In the recent mid-season premiere of "The Walking Dead," for example, tweets were up 26%, according to Nielsen SocialGuide, but the TV audience also grew steeply from 12.3 million to 15.8 million, a 28% increase. That means the TV audience grew more than the Twitter chatter.

Growth at the Globes
The Golden Globes showed actual hypergrowth in the social-TV conversation, with the number of tweets up 39%, to 2.4 million from 1.7 million. Meanwhile, the Golden Globes' TV audience grew only incrementally, to 20.9 million from 19.7 million.

The fact that the tweet-counts for big TV events aren't uniformly growing is inextricably linked to Twitter's overarching user growth problem. Twitter's response to the latter has been twofold: make the platform more engaging to current users and more welcoming to the newly initiated, but also show that Twitter users can and do happily consume content but don't necessarily create it.

But if Twitter can't demonstrate that tweets are keeping pace with ratings during the most-watched TV events, it's going to have a harder time selling marketers on its Amplify and TV ad targeting packages.

"Certainly the idea that this is an area that's thriving is a key part of their pitch," said Ming Linsley, director of social media at WPP unit MEC. "But by comparison, there isn't really another outlet that fills the [real-time marketing] niche."

Twitter's move toward precise reporting of tweets during tentpole TV events, as well as the size of the Twitter audience exposed to them, signals that it wants to show metrics-driven marketers what they're getting for their ad buys. It partnered with Nielsen to develop the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings, unveiled last fall and powered through Nielsen's November 2012 acquisition of SocialGuide.

But what if accurate measurement means Twitter's TV growth story -- not to mention the "social TV category" -- isn't hypergrowth at all but rather incremental growth, like TV ratings?

Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser observed that even if social TV chatter isn't growing fast, it's not going to deter brands intent on experimenting with Twitter, since notions of how best to use the platform for marketing change quickly.

"It's pretty clear that there are going to be many use cases where an integrated Twitter presence paired with a TV presence helps satisfy a brand's goals," he said. "Tactically what that means is still evolving, and it's not going to work for everyone."

Program Date Network Tweets
The 55th Annual Grammy Awards 2/10/2013 CBS 12,732,800
The 56th Annual Grammy Awards 1/26/2014 CBS 13,778,900
The 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards 1/13/2013 NBC 1,698,000
The 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards 1/12/2014 NBC 2,359,200
Super Bowl XLVII 2/3/2013 CBS 26,131,300
Super Bowl XLVIII 2/2/2014 FOX 25,328,300
2013 NBA All-Star Game 2/17/2013 TNT 2,864,500
2014 NBA All-Star Game 2/16/2014 TNT 2,263,600
The Walking Dead 2/10/2013 AMC 982,800
The Walking Dead 2/9/2014 AMC 1,240,100
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