Social TV and Second Screens: To What End?

December 5, 2011

watching TV with a mobile deviceThere is a bubbling thought stream these days about the interesting concept of Social TV. It's become an official must-do theme for the television industry on two levels: programming and advertising. The idea is being advanced, because we're learning that people watch television with a "second screen" in their hands — a whopping 86% of us — as shown in this chart from Yahoo Advertising. The numbers put goose bumps on the arms of any marketer, because they are a potential data goldmine.

Any time something new comes along these days, it's always a good idea to think about the law of unintended consequences by following the thought stream to where it empties into the sea of application. It's a storm-tossed ocean where an idea floats or sinks based on its ability to withstand waves from a thousand directions.

So excited are revenue-starved broadcast and programming executives about Social TV that a coalition of 10 broadcast companies have joined with ConnectTV to tap this new market, according to TVNewsCheck.

The partnership will offer a "second screen" app in early 2012, allowing viewers to tap into related content and swap comments with friends watching the same broadcast TV show at the same time. Broadcasters hope the app with lead to increased revenue, greater engagement and better tune-in promotion. Participating station groups include those of Pearl, the joint venture formed last year to pursue the mobile DTV business. They include Belo, Cox, Scripps, Gannett, Hearst Television, Media General, Meredith, Post-Newsweek and Raycom.

Cory BergmanMSNBC and Lost Remote's new media guru Cory Bergman is the top observer of Social TV activity, having entirely shifted the focus of his Lost Remote to one that follows this new trend. Cory told me that traffic to the site has skyrocketed since he made the switch, which evidences the thirst for knowledge about it. Via email, I asked him to define the concept:

Social TV is anything that connects people through television. TV has always been very social, but the advent of social media and the proliferation of smart phones and tablets have magnified the conversation like never before. So much so, social media has quickly become a core ingredient in TV marketing campaigns as shows and brands aim to become — and stay — part of the conversation. Several TV marketers (and Twitter and Facebook) say they believe a successful social marketing effort positively drives ratings, which helps explain why the industry has adopted social media much faster than they adopted the web.

All this conversation creates data. Suddenly, content-creators, programmers, distributors and marketers have a real-time feedback loop into how people are reacting to what they're watching on TV. A TV rating is binary: you're watching or you're not. But all this data is beginning to enable a new real-time metric around viewer engagement, which the industry is beginning to watch very carefully. Engagement helps inform everything in the process, from ideation all the way to ad sales: the most engaging shows soon will be able to charge more for the same GRPs.

Since a majority of these conversations occur on smart phones and tablets in front of TV — "second screen" devices — there's a new crop of startups working on creating content and advertising experiences synchronized to television. This alone will become a multi-billion dollar business, fundamentally changing the production process and for the first time opening up the potential of interactive advertising. As ads play on TV — either in a standard break or integrated into programming — a call-to-action will appear on the second-screen experience. Until now, interactive TV has suffered from a lack of scale. The proliferation of devices promises to jump those hurdles with a scalable, unified experience.

Cory Bergman is one brilliant fellow, and I've no doubt that he's onto something here. Like everything else, though, I have questions, so let's think out loud about this.

Social TV is designed to take advantage of a large "audience" by providing them with opportunities to share the experience of watching TV — what broadcasters want — or get more information about advertising — what Madison Avenue wants. There is a natural conflict between these two concepts, however, because while people certainly can multitask, they're still only able to truly concentrate on one or the other at any given moment.

For the television industry, it's an attempt to bring people back to the concept of real-time viewing as a shared experience. The flaw in this logic is that it ignores the fundamental business reality of that real time experience. It's not about engaging with viewers about programming; it's about gathering a large audience for advertising. Any second-screen effort, therefore, disrupts that purpose by shifting attention away from the first screen — with it's big-dollar ads — especially during advertising breaks. This is a perplexing conundrum, for the ad value available via the second screen is surely not the same as that of the first screen (at least not yet), so the unintended consequences of this path could be the opposite of what's desired.

"But Terry," you say, "isn't this where it's all going anyway?" It's hard to argue with that, but let's not overlook the very real fact that second screen activity gives people yet another thing to do during commercial breaks, another reason to devalue the core competency and value proposition of television. Cory told me that this is already underway.

"The majority of the (second screen) activity is unrelated to the broadcast," he said referring to the chart above. The key is creating content and experiences that "shift more of the multitasking behavior to engaging with the show and its related advertising experiences."

Pepsi BottlesFrom the advertiser's side, there's a prime time dilemma brewing over this, because advertisers themselves are altering their messages to drive people to their own second screen experiences. Pepsi, one of the most innovative of all advertisers, is re-thinking the very nature of its TV ads, as explained by Steve McClelland of Media Daily News. McClelland wrote that Pepsi thinks the time has come to stop thinking about TV ads as stand-alone messages.

Rather, they should be seen — and utilized — more like "trailers" for "deeper branded digital experiences." At least that's the view of Shiv Singh, the global head of digital for PepsiCo Beverages...

Singh said he sees three big changes on the horizon for TV advertising, including a re-adjustment in the value placed on ads "as we seek to account for engagement metrics in the pricing." The story arc of ads will also change as marketers adapt the view of advertisement as trailer "versus the whole story." And third, said Singh, "location-aware technologies will force a greater degree of engagement on a format that has historically been passive, impersonal and certainly without any extensions."

...It makes sense for TV advertisements to be thought of as an element in a broader narrative arch for the brand — a narrative arch that allows the brand to tell a more complete and a more interactive story."

Pepsi is a far cry from a local car dealer, but we're talking about a developing concept here. This is about business strategy and tactics and, more importantly, about tomorrow. With Social TV and second screens, we have the people with the money — the people formerly known as the advertisers, who want even more to have people actually see their ads in order to jump start this "narrative arch" — competing for the same second screen eyeballs with the very programs into which they drop their ad messages. It's the classic "immovable object meeting the irresistible force," but the problem is that only one has the cash.

Houston, we (may) have a problem.

There's a whole cottage industry developing to promote this second screen idea based on assumptions that may be only partially true. Examples like the recent Victoria's Secret Fashion Show are heralded as second screen successes, because they generate big numbers in the social networking world. Cory Bergman noted via Lost Remote that the clout of the Victoria's Secret brand had a lot to do with the success.

The Pink Carpet live stream began an hour before the broadcast with a running social stream that let users simultaneously post to Facebook or Twitter. Beyond CBS’ own promotion, Victoria’s Secret plugged the event on its Facebook account (15.8 million fans), with a big splash page and countdown. And during the show, @VictoriasSecret (322K followers) live-tweeted the event.

This particular event is noteworthy for two reasons. One, it was a ratings and online success for CBS, but it was even more so for Victoria's Secret. It's an example of a brand — an advertiser — spending a bunch of its marketing money on its own media to accomplish the same purpose as a branding campaign. This was a large scale version of what's taking place every day in small ways, as more and more advertisers figure out they don't necessarily "need" traditional media as they once did. Two, I don't have any numbers to back this up, but my guess would be that much of the social activity took place during the commercial breaks, which was again good for Victoria's Secret but not so much for CBS. One day, Madison Avenue is going to revolt from the status quo, because it realizes that the bang for the buck simply isn't there anymore. It will seem like overnight when it happens, but it's been building since the remote control was first created. The TV industry has been fighting to save its diminishing core competency ever since.

Law & OrderIn 2005, I did a study of the NBC program Law & Order. When the show first went on the air, program content measured about 48 minutes. Near the end of its run, the content length had been reduced by five minutes to a total of 43 minutes. So in a 19-year span, the network had increased the advertising load of the show by 42 percent. This is how we ended up with a full one-third of prime time dedicated to marketing, and it set the stage for the consumer revolt of the TiVo generation. That horse will never return to the barn, and it's into this environment that we're introducing Social TV and second screen concepts.

What we have on our hands here is a mess, which often resembles a child throwing food against the wall in order to see what sticks. We've got to begin to examine the real issue in all of this, that we are in the advertising business, not the content business. This will allow us to better deal with the very real revolution underway in the advertising world. Don't think we're in the ad business? Then why do we "drive" traffic to our websites instead of serving people content in the unbundled universe of the Net?

We're on a collision course with the very people who've paid our bills all these years. Our efforts to reinstate the big audience advertising environment that is slowly slipping away conflicts with those who've discovered that they, too, can use this wonderful monster known as the World Wide Web to themselves play in a world we used to own. We need to wake up about it — and quickly.

It is not my intention to toss a big, wet blanket on the concept of Social TV. I'm a supporter of using new tactics to advance our brands. However, I'm an even bigger supporter of local media companies playing offense in this changing and chaotic world, and this seems ever so much like another defensive play. And we always need to be analyzing potential risk along with potential rewards.

When we talk about being social, we need to ask ourselves "to what end?" The real money may be more in helping advertisers be more social instead of ourselves. They'll gladly pay for their own bigness, not necessarily for ours anymore.