The traditional way to watch television used to be curling up on the couch, remote control in hand. Today, you’re more likely to swap out that remote for a laptop, a smartphone, or a tablet. The multitasking world doesn’t stop just because your favorite show is on!

Instead of bemoaning the change, television networks are actually encouraging people to use those devices to get even more involved in their shows while they watch. The additional content networks push to supplement on-air programming is called “the second screen.” Social media is playing a big part in getting the word out about second screen materials, as well as helping to promote live shows.

Twitter is pivoting to increase its focus on television with acquisitions and partnerships, while new platforms are popping up focused entirely on the social experience of viewing TV. These have seen widespread adoption by TV networks and advertisers, who have seen hard data that social chatter converts into ratings and revenue.

To learn more about the second screen phenomenon, we took a look at the changes happening in the world of Nielsen ratings, then examined trends for television on social media. We even got the inside scoop from Kimber Myers of GetGlue, a leading TV-focused social media platform. Here’s what we found out.

The Start of a Trend

Nielsen, the gold standard for assessing the performance of TV programming, has started collecting interesting data about the second screen trend. According to a study conducted last year, tweets about television have increased drastically of late. In June 2012, one in three people using Twitter posted about TV show content at some point, a 27 percent increase from the rate five months earlier.

The figures about concurrent use are impressive, too. Nielsen estimated that 41 percent of tablet owners and 38 percent of smartphone owners used their devices while watching television at least once a day.

Television — and Twitter in particular — have been cultivating a closer relationship. Nielsen announced late last year that it would begin tracking a Nielsen Twitter TV Rating that measures the conversations on the microblogging platform as a metric for a show’s success. Those rankings are slated to begin with the Fall 2013 season.

Nielsen’s new emphasis on Twitter metrics as a valid sign of success for TV programming shows how well-entrenched social is becoming in business operations. A heavy volume of social media interactions means that your brand, in this case a television show, is building a reputation. When your social team is able to direct the conversation by discussing major cliffhangers, sharing exclusive content, or simply generating buzz about the show, a smart program can cultivate a strong, vocal following on social media.

Why Social Can Boost Ratings

A frequent argument about social media and its migration to online entertainment is that it would detract from the traditional TV viewing experience. But counter to that concern, marketers, technologists, and showrunners alike have discovered that social media can help turn the live airing of a program into a social event.

GetGlue is a social network devoted to live television, and it posts charts of the most popular broadcast and cable shows on the platform each week. To get a better sense of what’s happening on the social side of your favorite shows, we chatted with Kimber Myers, senior director of partnerships at GetGlue. She explained why social is especially important among cult favorites, such as Doctor Who on BBC America.

“It was the No. 3 cable show on GetGlue during the week ending March 31, behind only Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, she said. “It isn’t setting ratings records, but it has an engaged fan base that loves to talk about the show with other fans.”

Tapping into those fans is a way for smaller TV programs to still get a bit of the lucrative social business. “We work with more than 75 networks in a collaborative way, with both sides coming to each other with ideas on how to promote their shows,” Myers said.

She added that since many of the platform’s check-ins are also cross-posted to Twitter and Facebook, GetGlue may be responsible for as much as 30 percent of tweets about a show.

That social chatter has benefits in addition to increased brand awareness and buzz. “Nielsen and SocialGuide have just released a study that an 8.5 percent increase in tweets can equal a one percent lift in ratings,” Myers said. This illustrates that ratings — the classic metric for television performance and greenlighting additional seasons — is entwined tightly with social.

Myers highlighted The Walking Dead as one of GetGlue’s success stories that best demonstrates how social can translate to ratings. The network compiled an infographic that tracked the correlation between the AMC show’s strong performance on both GetGlue activity and Nielsen ratings. For each episode during the show’s run at the top of the GetGlue charts, both sets of numbers follow the exact same rise and fall. We highlighted that show previously on Sprout Insights for its smart use of social media to engage viewers, and this example confirms how well that strategy has worked.

The Business Angle

The big question for television is how to translate good ratings into financial stability and success. By jumping on the second screen bandwagon quickly, the leaders of Twitter and GetGlue are pursuing a potentially lucrative position. For GetGlue as a business, the trend is toward “Promoted Entries.” Pepsi is the first partner in that new form of content, kicking off with sponsored stories during the Super Bowl.

“We’ve seen a very positive reception by brands and agencies alike,” Myers said of the new revenue stream. “Promoted Entries are native ad units that are designed to maximize brand exposure within a highly relevant environment. Brands love that they can enter the second screen conversation in a relevant and authentic way.”

For GetGlue as a social network, the platform also has worked to find new ways for the shows to increase their word-of-mouth. Myers said brands take many actions, from offering stickers to running sweepstakes, from sharing content to giving discounts, to encourage fan interactions on GetGlue. Shows can also attract new fans when people’s check-ins are shared on Facebook and Twitter, meaning a new, bigger audience gets reached.

Twitter also pushed deeper into the television sphere with partnerships around NASCAR and the 2012 Summer Olympics. Most notably, it recently purchased analytics company Bluefin Labs, a specialist in broadcast media data, which will further cement the network’s role as a tool for live television. Partnerships with television give social networks access to an all-important cash influx, while television networks have a public platform to promote their shows and mobilize their fans.

A show that works to connect its live airings with social media can see positive results, both in online chatter and in ratings. Almost all of the programs highlighted on GetGlue’s charts are shows that have involved social media strategies. Even if that doesn’t yield a place on Nielsen’s top 10 list, it does help to assemble an active, vocal base of fans.

What do you think of second screen television? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: Keirsten Balukas, Vintagedepot, Nic McPhee, Refracted Moments]