“At its core, TV has always been a very social medium,” explains Kristin Youngling, Director of Design Intelligence at BrightLine. “TV is even more social today than it has been in the past. 80% of TV viewers are now watching with at least one connected device by their side, so it’s not surprising that we’re seeing such a huge increase in social activity coming from the living room.”

It’s true. Social is coming to television in a big way, with major television players like Nielsen starting to look to Twitter to gauge the popularity of TV shows. But the metrics aren’t easy to interpret — shows with high ratings, like The Walking Dead, may get less social engagement than lower-rated live broadcasts, like awards shows and sporting events, which tend to generate more social buzz.

“We’ve been studying the water cooler effect created by the involvement of the audience with television,” says Laurent Maisonnave, founder of Seevibes. “People like to feel that they share an experience with their friends while watching a hockey game, a political debate, or the latest episode of their favorite series. Commenting on TV on Facebook and Twitter allows viewers to share a unique moment with their community.”

But does that commentary equate to television success? Let’s take a closer look at how deep an impact social media is having on the television industry.

The Social Metrics that Are Key for TV

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Pinning down the impact of social networking can be tricky — but many are eager to track it. Nielsen has begun reporting Twitter metrics, looking at how many times a show is mentioned as well as how many people have seen those tweets. On Facebook, the network looks at how many interactions — comments, posts, and likes — a show has gotten as a measure of success.

But neither of these are a perfect measuring stick, which is why Seevibes created its own “Seevibes Score” — a composite score that consolidates data on market share, social impressions, loyalty levels, engagement rate, frequency, and level of response — to gauge how a show is performing socially. “The level of audience engagement with TV via social networks with television has surged by 500% year-after-year. This can make it difficult to compare broadcast numbers over time,” explains Maisonnave.

“These social data points are giving us a new barometer for success or failure when we’re talking about engaging TV audiences,” says Youngling. “Content, both programmatic and advertorial, is now subject to an entirely new set of consumer-driven metrics. We talked about must-see TV back in the Seinfeld days, and now it’s evolving into the idea of must-comment TV.”

“Volume of chatter is important, but it doesn’t always correlate to the success of a show,” warns Carri Bugbee, a social TV strategist. “That’s because some shows inspire a lot of conversation and some really popular shows don’t.” Case in point: people enjoy talking about live events and reality television, but may chat less about popular scripted dramas, which often have higher ratings. “With Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, and The Voice, you love to hate somebody or you’re rooting for somebody. Those things inspire lots and lots of chatter, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the highest rated shows on TV,” says Bugbee.

Where Are Television Viewers Getting Social?

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“Social activity that’s happening around a TV experience is giving people a way to express their opinions and share their experiences in a way that has the power to influence what’s happening on their TVs and beyond,” says Youngling. “It’s emerging as an incredibly empowering channel for viewers.”

Viewers may be interacting in a variety of ways, but Twitter is among the most common — in part because it’s easy to have conversations in real-time, which encourages discussing awards shows, sporting events, and other television as it happens. Add easy-to-search hashtags which are often promoted alongside a show and you have a recipe for television success. “Twitter didn’t have to train or persuade people to change their behavior,” says Bugbee of the network’s television chatter. “It just had to capitalize on what people were already doing. I think that’s why Twitter’s so powerful: it’s easy, it’s obvious, and it’s open.”

Another reason that Twitter and Facebook are so popular is their respective reach. “With a billion users on Facebook and 250 million on Twitter,” says Maisonnave, “it gives users a strong chance of connecting with a friend involved in the same TV show.” There are, of course, plenty of television-specific networks and apps, like GetGlue, Viggle, and even networks’ own apps that encourage check-ins, chatting, and other social interaction during live shows. Still, many viewers stick to their typical social networks.

How Can Creators Encourage Social Activity?

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While some watchers are perfectly happy to chatter about their favorite shows at length, getting a social buzz going can take some encouragement. “There are calls to action in all sorts of programming that are encouraging people to get involved and continue the dialog with that programming,” says Youngling. “For brands, the data is really showing that it’s incredibly impactful and meaningful. When you give audiences the opportunity to interact, they will.”

And hopefully, that encouragement will drive ratings, because for all of the talk about social television, ratings are still what matters. “If shows don’t get good ratings they don’t stay on the air,” says Bugbee. “You see television encouraging social activity with hashtags on shows. Ostensibly, if I’m not watching Dancing with the Stars and I see a lot of posts from my friends who are talking about it, maybe I should tune in.”

So what’s next for social television? “To the extent that online activity can be measured, we’re migrating to a more measurable TV experience,” says Bugbee. “It’s still really early days, but I’m sure within the next few years, online measurement of activity and conversation around TV shows will be de rigueur.”

[Image credits: Iain Watson, Sarah ReidQuinn DombrowskiAl Ibrahim]

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