I think we can all agree that Twitter is a remarkable platform that’s having a significant impact on television. I’m not sure we can actually agree what that impact is, though.
Twitter touts itself as a “virtual water cooler,” a 21st century venue where people can gather to discuss whatever’s on their minds. In a world where viewers increasingly watch television alone, Twitter really is creating online fan communities. During prime time, it’s not uncommon for more than half of the top-trending Twitter topics to be related to television shows. Clearly if a show gets a lot of mentions on Twitter, this means something — but what exactly?
One thing that Twitter should NOT be used for is straightforward TV measurement. I know that many networks and advertisers want to get away from sample-based measurement and move to census metrics that measure everyone. And with 140 million active accounts, Twitter would appear to be a pretty big census.
Unfortunately, 140 million accounts is still just a sample, albeit a huge one, that does not represent the entire TV audience. To state the obvious, Twitter users are younger, more tech-savvy and more affluent than the population as a whole, so their viewing patterns can’t be extrapolated to the full viewing population.
Plus there’s the practice by certain TV shows of posting hashtags on the screen, thereby actively encouraging their viewers to tweet. Under standard TV measurement rules, if any show were to shout out directly to Nielsen panelists, Nielsen would immediately slap an asterisk on its ratings, thereby rendering them suspect. But no one seems to worry about the distorting effect of a show directly begging for more tweets.
There’s also the question of how much of a census Twitter really is. A lot of people have accounts but not everyone tweets. The New York Times recently quoted an executive from Twitter Amplify who said that “when people turn on TV they turn on Twitter.” This illustrates yet again the self-referential nature of most technology discussions. Just because you and your best friends do something doesn’t mean that the rest of the world does, too.
For example, after Super Bowl XLVII, Twitter announced that a record 24.1 million tweets were sent that night. Now, 24 million is a big number — but it pales in comparison to the 108 million people who actually watched the game. And if you assume that the average Twitter user sent five tweets that night, that would mean that fewer than 5 million people were tweeting – less than 5% of the entire audience. That’s hardly a census.
On the other hand, Twitter could have a direct application to analyzing how engaged people are with a show, which could be important — since people who are intensely interested in a TV show are theoretically engaged with the commercials.
Part of the problem with Twitter, though, is that if viewers are TOO engaged with the show, they might miss the ads altogether. I know that when I’m live-tweeting a favorite program, my focus is on the iPad during the commercial breaks, not the ads. I remember concentrating so hard on reading live #madmen tweets that I had to learn from Twitter that Christina Hendricks was on a Johnnie Walker ad during “Mad Men,” even though the actual ad was running on the show RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. So my engagement with the commercials is surprisingly low during my favorite shows, precisely because of Twitter.
Twitter can clearly play an important role in promoting TV shows and commercials. By building digital fan communities, Twitter builds fan loyalty. A lot of positive tweets about a show will grow audiences.
Twitter seems to have embraced this model. According to at least one recent report, Twitter is working closely with media companies to use the platform as a promotional vehicle. Unlike other online companies who have tried to siphon advertising away from TV to the Internet, Twitter is bringing a collaborative approach to help TV find new audiences. For example, Twitter includes video clips from shows or sports events into user streams.
Twitter has similar deals with advertisers, allowing them to send ads to people who are watching specific programming, a strategy that has been embraced by agencies like MediaVest USA. The trick will be to develop ad-based tweets that people actually want to read. A Twitter version of a banner ad won’t be very exciting and could cause a backlash on the service itself.
As ubiquitous as Twitter seems now, it’s hard to remember that just five years ago, it was only recording 100 million tweets per quarter — about as many as are now recorded during the Super Bowl. This is such a new phenomenon that we can’t even know for sure how permanent a presence it will be. One way to make sure the platform doesn’t just turn out to be a fad, though, is for it to imbed itself more closely with television — because, all the naysayers aside, TV is not going away.