Believe The Hype? Four Things Social TV Can Actually Do

A Lot of People Are Gathered Around The Digital Water Cooler Talking About TV Shows. Here's Why It Matters

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Within the broadcast and social-media-analytics worlds, as well as the broadcast-obsessed precincts of the agency and marketer universe, the term "social TV" is uttered and heard endlessly these days. But two recent conversations I had with high-level media executives -- one in the glossy print world, and one in a digital business not directly connected to broadcast -- reminded me that not everyone understands the term of art.

Both execs basically asked me, "What do you mean, exactly, when you say 'social TV'?" The short answer: Millions of people are now partaking of the "dual-screen" experience -- watching TV while using a smartphone (or tablet) to share (primarily on Twitter and Facebook) their thoughts about what they're viewing and to "check in" to shows (on services like GetGlue and Viggle). The result: a massive and rapidly expanding real-time focus group (and promotional force).

So a lot of people are gathered around the digital water cooler talking about TV shows. What's the big deal? Some of the hype is overblown, sure, but there are a bunch of very good reasons why social TV actually matters. For starters:

Social TV can increase ratings .
At the Social TV Summit in San Francisco a couple weeks back, Deirdre Bannon, VP-media analytics at Nielsen, shared the result of research the company has been conducting during the past year. (It began releasing research on the social-TV-to-ratings connection last October and continues to cross-reference live data.) The main takeaway: For key demos, social buzz surrounding shows can goose ratings -- a bit.

For instance, Nielsen says a 9% to 14% increase in buzz volume (depending on where a particular show is in its season) correlates to a 1% increase in ratings in the 18-to-34 demo. That's obviously not enough to make or break a show, but it's enough to matter. It's also worth noting that ratings seem to be most susceptible to social influence when it comes to season premieres and finales -- i.e., the pivot points that are heavily marketed in traditional, nonsocial media (especially network promos).

Social TV can make TV better.
Chris Stephenson is both a hard-charging new-media executive as president of Viggle -- the "loyalty program for TV" that launched in January -- and a pop-culture addict who takes naked delight in making what's fun TV even ... funner. "People talk a lot about 'social TV,'" Stephenson told me over coffee in San Francisco, "but we don't think that way at Viggle. We think more about 'better TV.' We want to add a layer of enjoyment to television-watching which enhances the experience and rewards people for their loyalty and engagement. While many of the social-TV apps rely on the basic principle of 'sharing my check-ins,' we think about deep engagement, polls, trivia, mood-o-meters, etc."

Truth is , he was preaching to the converted. I confessed to Stephenson that on Oscar night in February I happened to be stuck in a Boston hotel room (on the eve of yet another social-TV conference, Hill Holliday's excellent TV Next Summit) and I watched -- and enjoyed -- the whole damn show, thanks to Viggle.

After checking into the Oscars on Viggle's iPhone app, I was served a steady stream of trivia questions (in a Viggle Live engagement sponsored by Bing that actually got me to use Bing for the first time on my phone) and got to vote on who I thought would win what. I felt a stupid amount of pleasure when I guessed correctly and earned bonus points. (Viggle points can be redeemed for gift cards from the likes of Starbucks and Best Buy.) And I even felt oddly validated when I guessed wrong -- if Viggle's poll results told me that most other Vigglers got it wrong, too. I really can't imagine having watched the entire Oscar telecast if Viggle Live hadn't added an extra layer of entertainment value to keep me glued to the screen across the room and to the one in my hand.

Social TV can get consumers to engage with shows (and brands) far beyond the broadcast window.
"We provide custom metrics depending on what our sponsors are looking for," said USA Network senior VP-Digital Jesse Redniss, speaking of the various social-TV programs he and his team have devised over the past few years. "Nobody is really saying, 'We want to get clicks.' Nobody cares about the click anymore; the click is pretty much dead. Marketers really want engagement over time: 'People viewed our vehicle for X amount of time.' Or, 'We want people to experience all the cool attributes of what our brand represents.'"

In the case of its hit show "Burn Notice," for instance, USA Network produced two "seasons" of the "Burn Notice: A New Day" digital graphic novel (aka tablet comic book), sponsored by Hyundai, whose vehicles are featured in beautifully drawn, interactive storylines that have baked-in Twitter and Facebook connections. Fans of "Burn Notice" might watch every episode -- hardcore fans might even watch reruns, too, to catch nuances they missed on first viewing. But that 's about it. Through TV alone, USA and its sponsors have a hold on viewer attention for a finite set of hour-long chunks for its dramas. But done right, social-TV initiatives like the "Burn Notice" comic book can strengthen engagement by deepening the narrative pre- and post-broadcast.

Social TV can provide tons of new 'hooks' for marketers.
Earlier this month in his company's light-filled loft headquarters in SoMa (San Francisco's semi-sketchy/semi-hip South of Market neighborhood), Watchwith CEO and co-founder Zane Vella showed me the system his company has developed to provide what he calls a "time-based metadata" platform to power social-TV apps.

"We're creating a world where every frame of TV is rich in possibilities," he said, sounding every bit the on-pitch evangelist. But the proof is in the pop-ups -- the visual manifestation in Watchwith's back end (not visible to viewers) that creates second-by -second data bubbles that display what the database "knows" about every given scene. In an episode of social-TV (and ratings ) hit "The Big Bang Theory," for instance, a character walks into a room and the Watchwith database serves up information (which in turn feeds into social-TV apps) about exactly which model of Jansport backpack he's carrying.

Consider that Watchwith -- which just rebranded from its nerdy previous incarnation, Related Content Database -- has been working with major broadcast and cable networks, social-TV startups and e-commerce players including eBay.

Now consider what can happen when such product-smart metadata gets synced with the crowdsourced data that more and more TV viewers are producing themselves during every scene of all their favorite shows. You can begin to understand where the whole social-TV phenomenon, and media engagement in general, is going.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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