Q&A: The (Real) State of Social TV Right Now

The Guy Who Wrote the Book on Social TV Explains

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Mike Proulx
Mike Proulx

In February of last year, Mike Proulx and his co-author Stacey Shepatin published the book "Social TV: How Marketers Can Reach and Engage Audiences by Connecting Television to the Web, Social Media, and Mobile." As senior VP and director of digital strategy at Hill Holliday, Mr. Proulx knows what he's talking about -- and, in just a few weeks, he and a few hundred other social-TV obsessives will talk even more about where the industry is headed. The third edition of Hill Holliday's annual TVnext Summit, an event Mr. Proulx created, is coming up on April 29 in Boston. As the event approaches, Ad Age's Media Guy Simon Dumenco spoke with Mr. Proulx as part of the ongoing Dumenco's Media People series of in-depth interviews. What follows is an edited version of a longer conversation.

Simon Dumenco: Talk to me about what's changed in the social-TV space since the publication of your book -- other than everything.

Mike Proulx: The biggest change we predicted was that consolidation was going to be the theme for 2013, and that certainly has come true. In Chapter 5 in the book, we talked a lot about the social-TV analytic space, and since the release of the book Nielsen bought SocialGuide, and Twitter bought Bluefin Labs, so that leaves an interesting landscape where you have Trendrr as really the only independent social-TV analytics company now.

Dumenco: I have to say that I was surprised how quickly Bluefin sort of disappeared into Twitter's maw. After the acquisition, Bluefin employees almost immediately got Twitter email addresses and now they're essentially just part of the marketing department of Twitter -- because the ex-Bluefinners' jobs now involve proving the efficacy of Twitter, basically.

Proulx: One aspect of it is that Bluefin has affinity-relationship algorithms and technology, where you're able, as a brand or as a TV network, to look at TV shows and then see all of the affinity-relationships based on individuals Twitter data -- like, what are some of most-tweeted-about brands of people that also tweet about those TV shows? [See Ad Age's initial coverage of Bluefin's affinity-mapping technology here.] That starts to reveal insights that can help in media planning and buying. But for Twitter, specifically, it seems as though it's going to help a lot in their ad-targeting.

Dumenco: As for Nielsen and SocialGuide, when they joined forces they said they'd be creating a 'Twitter TV Rating' for the fall 2013 TV season -- so the jury is still out on that. Meanwhile, I know Nielsen/SocialGuide has been studying the correlation between ratings and social buzz, but of course correlation does not equal causation. Like, I think back to the last MTV Video Music Awards. When it comes to social, MTV obviously kicks ass -- they got the world talking about the VMAs through social media and had really amazing numbers on Twitter in particular -- but then the ratings completely tanked. It almost seemed like there was a inverse correlation between buzz and ratings in that instance.

Proulx: Yeah, and we've seen it also work in the reverse where, when there is truly resonant content that's happening on TV, the Twitter back channel almost comes to a halt. The best example of that is what happened with the Grammys last year when Jennifer Hudson gave her tribute to Whitney Houston. We layered the minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings on top of Bluefin Labs data, and you could see that it was the second highest-rated point in the broadcast, but it was one of the least tweeted-about moments because people just sort of leaned back and took in what was happening across their television screens, and at that moment they did not want to be tweeting. [See Ad Age's coverage: "Jennifer Hudson's Whitney Houston Tribute So Moving People Stopped Tweeting."]

Dumenco: Regarding the correlation-causation issue, I talked to Jesse Redniss, digital chief at USA Network, recently. USA has had a lot of success with not only doing great social-TV stuff -- as you know, because of course you've worked with them -- but pretty convincingly demonstrating that, at least for them, there's a link between the second-screen campaigns they're doing and great ratings. Like with their show "Psych," for instance, which is a very mature show -- it's in its seventh season -- and which just came back with year-over-year gains. Jesse's theory about certain tent-pole broadcasts, like the VMAs, is that you can sort of experience them by proxy through Twitter if you want. You don't necessarily have to watch the show -- you can find out who's winning all the awards just by following your Twitter feed, you can find out if there's a Kanye West moment or some other absurd nonsense that you can check out on You Tube later. You can be taking in, and talking about, the VMAs in social media without necessarily watching them, whereas with scripted TV of the sort that USA does, you really need to watch the whole show. If you're really a fan of the characters and the narrative, you're not just going to be content with just finding out plot twists from tweets. In fact, it'll annoy you to find out plot twists from tweets -- so-called "social spoilers" -- before you've had a chance to watch.

Proulx: Yeah, that's exactly right. We tune into TV for the content first and foremost, we're drawn in by the characters, we're drawn in by the storylines. That's why we love television. But for certain genres of TV, you can, in effect, 'watch' it on Twitter.

Dumenco: Speaking of USA and "Pysch," I know Hill Holliday helped in bringing in Dunkin' Donuts as the sponsor for a big "Psych" social-TV activation, right?

Proulx: All of Hill Holiday's clients are constantly looking at ways to innovate around television. What we did with USA with Dunkin' Donuts and the 100th episode of "Psych," we were essentially taking a highly engaged and passionate audience among "Psych" fans and marrying them with Dunkin's equally passionate and engaged fan base to do something great. Dunkin' was embedded and integrated in a way that makes sense for the brand. You're taking a highly social brand and marrying it with a social TV show.

Dumenco: It strikes me too that Dunkin' is a very much a mobile brand, so to speak. People grab their coffee and donuts to go and you look at people in line at coffee shops and they're looking at their cell phones. Dunkin' has its own mobile app, and they know their customers are living on their phones already, so it makes sense for them to try to further activate that space.

Proulx: What was great about Dunkin'-"Psych" integration is that it happened across channels, so there were on-air components, online components, social components and mobile components. And that just speaks to not only how "Psych" audiences consume their favorite television show but also speaks to how Dunkin' is an 'everywhere brand.'

Dumenco: Let's talk about Twitter vs. Facebook in the social-TV space. It's weird to think of Facebook having to play catch-up, but in social TV, Twitter really is the 500-pound gorilla. What is Facebook doing wrong that Twitter is doing right?

Proulx: I actually don't think Facebook is doing anything wrong, and I think they get a bad rap because so much focus, when people talk about social TV, is on the during -- when people are watching TV -- but that's just one sliver of what social TV is. Social TV is much more than just the during. It's also between episodes and seasons, so Facebook is probably one of the best platforms to keep audiences engaged and keep shows top-of-mind when content isn't airing on television. There are great examples of that -- like what TNT did on Facebook with "Dallas." There was a 20-year gap between the original "Dallas" on CBS and the new "Dallas" that's broadcasting now on TNT. They used Facebook in a truly innovative way, like using Facebook timelines to literally create a timeline to fill in that 20-year gap. You can scroll through all the dates and see when characters got married or died or certain other big events happened. I thought that was brilliant.

Dumenco: You know, just to back up a bit and further obsess about the correlation-causation issue, I wish there was more research into social TV in regard to different genres of TV. Ad Age ran a weekly chart with GetGlue for about a year, a check-in chart, and I can't tell you how many times you would see "Nikita," the low-rated CW show, at the top of the chart. The teen-girl audience around that show, a lot of them obviously want to check in and they want to go on Twitter and blab about the show, but other shows up against "Nikita" in the same time slot on Friday nights would get millions more viewers and they wouldn't appear on the GetGlue chart, they wouldn't trend on Twitter. Different audiences for different genres of shows are just way more interested in certain social-TV activities.

Proulx: Exactly. The thing is, you take the Nielsen rating and it's measuring one thing: It's measuring if people are watching. You either like the content or you don't, you're either watching the content or you're not. But then when you talk about social-TV ratings, as we were just saying, an individual is more apt to tweet during certain moments, and during certain genres of television. At Hill Holliday we did an analysis of the top-rated shows and the most social shows of 2012. The shows that were both highly rated TV shows and had high social-TV ratings -- like "The Voice," "American Idol," "Sunday Night Football" -- those are the perfect storm of large audiences that want to be tweeting while the show is being broadcast because of the genre of the show.

Dumenco: I've actually written in the past about how reality competitions tend to have compelling sub-brands, so to speak -- and that's what makes them so powerful from a social-TV perspective. With reality competitions, you can talk about the competition itself, the smart judges, the lame judges, the individual contestants, the performances, etc. And it's the same with sports: You can talk about the game itself, the teams, the bad coach, the great coach, all the individual players, etc. In both cases, there is so much that you can latch onto and tweet about endlessly.

Proulx: There are also natural pauses and breaks where people can be tweeting. In sports it would be in between plays, on competition shows it's in between acts. Those are the times we're going to want to talk the most. Watching a drama, you're so leaning forward that you're not necessarily going to want to take yourself out of the escape that you're trying to be in, to be tweeting.

Dumenco: Hey, personal question -- what shows do you escape to?

Proulx: My favorite TV shows? I'm a huge "How I Met Your Mother" fan, I'm so happy that it's on for another season. And "Game of Thrones."

Dumenco: So how 'social' are you when you watch those shows?

Proulx: I would consider myself an introvert by nature and I would also consider myself a social-TV introvert. I'm actually not a huge tweeter during television. During the times that, just for research purposes and experimentation, I've been hyperconnected, I've been exhausted personally. It's a lot to stay connected and to look across devices.

That speaks to another thing that's changed since the book came out -- the evolution of the whole crazy second-screen space, with apps like Viggle and Zeebox launching, and also the consolidation that's been happening. Google came out with a study that said that 77% of TV-watching includes another device. No surprise there -- we multitask when we're watching TV. But then what the study goes onto say is that 78% of that second-screen activity is completely unrelated to the TV show that you're watching. So I think the inherent challenge that all of these second-screen apps are going to have to face is, how do you reach a large-enough audience? At the end of the day, when we talk about introverts vs. extroverts, what is the easiest, most mindless way for everyone to socially engage online while watching television? It's still Twitter.

Dumenco: The question of who actually wants to "engage" is something I've also thought about a lot -- the idea that there is a limit to the number of people that actually want to constantly tweet or otherwise "publish" to social media. [See: "The Brutal Truth About Social Media: It's OK to Be a Little Antisocial."] Like, not everybody is a performer or a quip artist. A lot of people try to be stand-up comedians on Twitter. Some people are good at it and they get great feedback and they get retweeted and they want to do it some more. And then a lot of other people just want to look at their tweet stream and chuckle at whatever somebody else said, some snide thing, during their favorite show. There's only so much that you can kind of force people to take on new behaviors that don't necessarily sync with their personality types.

Proulx: Yeah, I agree with that. The mass audience still uses TV as a means to veg, as a means to unwind. And if that's the case, do they want to be, for all intents and purposes, working when they're watching television?

Dumenco: Right! Social media can be a lot of work! The other thing is, I watch a lot of shows off-schedule -- I watch things I've recorded, or on Hulu -- and there's a lot less incentive to engage with Twitter or second-screen apps a day or two later. You know, I think literally my last tweet about live TV was during the Oscars -- complaining about the stupid Adele song that won the Oscar because it has such stupid lyrics: "Let the sky fall, we will stand tall," blah blah blah.

Proulx: You just wanted to be heard, Simon! [laughter]

Dumenco: I just wanted to complain is what I really wanted to do. I wanted to whine.

Proulx: I didn't want to say it that way, so I put the positive spin on it.

Dumenco: Well, thanks, Mike! [laughter]

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

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