Shawndra Hill, Assistant Professor in Operations and Information Management at the Wharton School, talks about the appeal, potential and fun that "Social TV" can unlock for brands. While many TV shows like "The Voice" and "American Idol" are already using it for voting and partnerships, the possibilities for others are endless when you consider that 56% of viewers are already logged into social while watching.

Written by
Shawndra Hill
September 2012


"Social TV" - the integration of social media content into TV programming and advertising to better engage audiences with shows and fellow viewers - is one of the hottest, and the most fun, social media applications today. The potential synergies between TV and social media could be game changing. But even now, innovative shows like American Idol, Glass House, and Dancing with the Stars allow viewers to influence content by voting. News outlets like CNN and FOX promote Twitter hashtags and Facebook discussions while displaying selected viewer tweets on air. And advertisers have gotten into the act too, through second-screens and supplemental content, promoting social media channels on air that encourage viewers to play games with other consumers or contribute their own brand-specific content to YouTube.

A recent Viacom survey found that Social TV viewers engage in up to seven different types of social TV activities, with 85% watching TV with others, and 56% using social media applications to interact online during broadcasts. Simply put, consumers' TV viewing behaviors have been changed by social media, and networks and marketers must adapt as viewers multitask their attention across multiple screens. But how does it benefit businesses to know this? An obvious first question for advertisers, for instance, is whether it is better to advertise on the first screen (TV), second screen (digital devices), or both? These questions can only be answered through a better understanding of how people actually behave when performing TV-related social media activities.

Social TV strategies are indeed successfully increasing and sustaining user engagement.

How social TV strategies influence viewer engagement and behavior has been the subject of my recent research at The Social TV Lab, where we have begun to quantify the social media strategies of some of TV's most popular shows using data on real-time public viewer responses on Twitter and Facebook. Two of our recent case studies, one of Super Bowl XLVI, and the other of the popular reality/game show The Voice (in which products from the show are sold on iTunes), show that social TV strategies are indeed successfully increasing and sustaining user engagement.

The Super Bowl study focused on real-time social media responses to TV advertising. We linked the content of real-time Twitter responses to aspects of Super Bowl XLVI ads including social media strategy, creativity, and product type. We analyzed millions of tweets and found that online consumer engagement, as measured by new Twitter followers and overall buzz, correlates directly to having an active social media strategy. When, for example, an advertisement contained a social media-based game, viewer engagement was sustained over the duration of the entire broadcast. Looking more deeply at the content of viewer responses, we also found that positive sentiment and levels of Twitter sharing - measures often used to quantify the effectiveness of TV ads - varied significantly by demographic category.

The Voice study focused on real-time social media responses to social TV strategies, including the placement of on-air hashtags and tweets. When specific tweets are posted on air, viewers are more likely to discuss those tweets than messages created by the same online social media users if not posted on air. We also found that tweets and other social media content draw different levels of social media engagement on-air tweets with new information result in more engagement than general on-air hashtag posts (but only on the first, East Coast airing). Most significantly, linking online buzz to sales, we found buzz an excellent predictor of sales. Song, contestant characteristics, and quality were even better sales predictors when combined with buzz, suggesting that buzz and perceived product value together can best explain sales. Of course, iTunes sales during The Voice is a very specialized case, but the fact that we can observe purchases over time in response to TV content lets us begin to understand the previously mysterious relationship between content, buzz and sales.

It has been a long time since I have been as excited about a specific application domain as I am about Social TV. Social TV is unique because it allows us to isolate sources of information being spread on social media, potentially generating new insights on how influence and information spread on online social networks. Public commenting and large sample sizes allow us for the first time to determine the difference between what makes products social and what makes them popular, and complex enough to make the problem of predicting business outcomes interesting to researchers who will have to build complex models and develop Business Analytics to accommodate social networks, text data, and time. Content providers, application developers, and advertisers will create innovative ways to link products shown on TV to online purchasing opportunities in real time, and when they do, we will be able to link TV content directly to consumer behavior and sales. And, of course, it's simply fun: People just enjoy watching and commenting on TV.

What kinds innovative social media strategies might you plan to incorporate in your next TV campaign or program?