Hard to assess impact of social TV

When a company reveals usage stats at a conference, it’s usually a sign that the strategy it’s promoting is paying off.

At TV Connect in Turkey two weeks ago a number of TV operators and content providers talked about take-up of their social TV activities. But it’s far from clear to me what the actual value of the new currency of “followers” and “likes” is.

In case you’re unfamiliar with social TV, this much-vaunted concept promises to improve TV by integrating social-media technologies and behaviors into the experience, in order to make viewing more engaging and advertising more relevant.

The numerous stats on show at TV Connect would seem to suggest that it has legs. One operator spoke of how 25% of its subscribers had used the social features of its TV service, with each sending about 26 messages per month via the platform. A content provider described how 19% of the audience of a game show played along via an online version of the quiz.

But what are we to make of these numbers? Does a 25% take-up rate bode well, given that about 90% of Internet users in Turkey use Facebook? Is a 26 messages per user monthly average a positive sign given that the average Facebook user sends some 30 per month?

I’m not saying that the operator’s results aren’t positive. TV is a more narrow medium than an all-purpose social network, in when, where and how it is used. I’m just not clear on how these figures can be translated into actual value for TV operators and content providers.

And neither are many in the industry, it seems. When asked about the impact on their viewing figures, subscriber retention or other conventional metrics, the speakers couldn’t point to any hard data. Social TV is not powerful enough, for example, to prevent a dip in viewing when a big sports event is on another channel, noted the content provider executive.

Arguably, new behavior requires new metrics. A queue of social media gurus is probably already forming to explain to me the value of social-TV activity. But can they convince the spreadsheet wizards in TV subscriber acquisition and retention or the curiously conservative world of TV ad sellers and buyers?

Clearly it’s early days for social TV. But these experiments are not always cheap, despite their use of third-party platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. One operator spoke of using actual human moderators to filter out comments that might offend its family audience, a burden which will only grow if social TV becomes more popular.

Our biggest concern, however, is that some social TV strategies aren’t good enough. Consumers are already using Twitter and Facebook to comment on and interact around programmes. Unless operators and content providers improve upon this experience, consumers will just ignore their services – or worse, be annoyed by them. We’ve seen a number of services that just get in the way of the core TV experience.

For the time being, we advocate a low-cost, low-risk approach to social TV, based on these three tenets:

  • Second screens should come first
    Several operators and vendors have devoted significant time and money into building the ability to like and communicate via the TV screen. Initial numbers would seem to indicate that this investment is paying off, but we think the novelty will wear off. Smartphones and tablets offer a more suitable platform for this very personal activity – and a more profitable one. Delivering advertising via these screens will involve far less technical and commercial challenges than via the TV screen.
  • Social viewers won’t meet in walled gardens
    Some operators have created systems that are partially closed in a bid to use social TV to keep subscribers. If the customer cuts the cord, they lose access to the social TV network, the reasoning goes. We believe this road will lead to a dead end. The network effect means global social networks will always be the favored option for their hundreds of millions of users.
  • Don’t be afraid to be a wallflower
    Some warn that TV operators and content providers have to invest heavily in social TV or risk losing their audience forever to third-party Internet services. We disagree. Consumers are already using Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Wikipedia, and numerous other sites to enhance their TV viewing without operators’ help. Starting to improve on and gather data from this activity can be as simple as creating a Facebook page or a Twitter hashtag for a service or show. There are also plenty of social-TV start-ups willing to cut operators and broadcasters a good deal.

Rob Gallagher directs Informa’s global research http://blogs.informatandm.com/authors/rob-gallagher/ into broadband, TV, digital media and the connected home.