Twitter and TV – A Pause For Reflection!

Nigel Walley – 2nd April

Sept 2011 - New NW BW crop for social mediaI have finally recovered after AdWeek.  I went to four conferences and followed two more on Twitter, which was over-kill.  As I sat in the final conference, my over-riding thought was how those of us in new media have yet to make the case for a central role for the web and social media in marketing budgets.  It was like 2003 all over again. There were some truly dreadful presentations from new media types, but the area that bothered me most was the perpetual over-claiming for the role of Twitter around TV.

I am a massive Twitter fan and probably count as a ‘super-user’. I am also a massive fan of broadcast TV.  I like the story that they are somehow mutually beneficial, however it appears to have spun out of control.  It has leapt from an observation of concurrent use, to an implication of symbiotic dependence, to the point where now Twitter are peddling the line that not only do they influence TV audiences, but that a brand advertiser can  get material benefits from co-ordinating Twitter campaigns with TV ad spots. The only problem is that there is no data to back any of this up. Or if anything, the data disproves it.

The difficult truth is that the majority of people within the UK television audience don’t use Twitter.  This fact, that it is only ever represents a small sub-set of an audience, has huge implications for Twitter as a measurement tool, let alone as an audience driver or advertising medium.  Around TV, Twitter flags up ‘noise’, which is fun, but it is not ‘representative’ or ‘attributable’ noise.  It can be used to create fun TV charting tools, for the Twitter-using audience but it does not imply that Twitter can affect audience size apart from a small number of exceptional shows.

We would recommend a blog by Paul McGrath of CBC (here) who has done a simple analysis of the difference between correlation and causality around Twitter and TV audiences.  He makes the case that most Twitter stats quoted around TV are correlations and do not imply a causal relationship – if anything, Twitter benefits from TV success not the other way round.  He shows that Twitter is an interesting gauge of the audience, ie reflecting noise, but is not a measurement of it, or even a driver of it.

As a comparable measurement system, the BARB panel is also a sub-set, but it makes no claim to be anything other than a panel. But it is one in which huge amount of work has been done to make its profile representative and relevant to the industry that uses its data.  Secondly the data sets it quotes are tailored to a specific job: calculating broadcast audience sizes and allowing the targeting and evaluation of TV ads. Unlike Twitter, it claims no other role.

On Twitter’s more pro-active claim of being an advertising medium in the TV context, it is clear that Twitter does NOT let you talk to a TV ‘audience’ as they claim, just a self selecting sub-set.   If you are buying or selling social ad formats that relate to TV shows, you need to show who this sub-set are, and how they relate to the main broadcast audience.  There is a complete absence of any data on this in the case studies I see Twitter present. I would suspect that for most TV shows the answer is that it can’t.

A major problem is that Twitter, and all the other social media formats,  don’t seem to understand the difference between ‘scale’ and ‘reach’.  Social media loves ‘scale’.  We see too many social media presentations that quote the number of people that have accounts, or how many people use a service daily, or how many total interactions may have happened in a given moment. These are just scale numbers.  Most of those interactions have no implication for the marketing industry and aren’t usable.   It’s just willy-waving or what Thinkbox would amusingly call ‘number-wanging’.  Advertising doesn’t work that way.

Advertising needs ‘reach’ not ‘scale’.   For advertising ‘reach’ you need large numbers, focused on a single point, at about the same time, in a contactable format. Nobody in TV ever says ‘there were over 300M ad views on UK television last night’ . Its a stupid number but, if you do the maths, you’ll see it is true.  That would be talking to the ‘scale’ of TV, not its ‘reach’ and its what the social media people do all the time.  However, if BARB reports  ‘12M people watched Corrie last night’ that IS interesting, and a description of reach within an advertising platform that  is usable.  You can stick an ad in Corrie’s ad break and hit those people and get a reasonable breakdown of the demographics of who saw it.

The problem for Twitter around TV is that, with a small number of exceptions, they can’t deliver reach. There just aren’t enough Superbowls. During AdWeek, a company called SecondSync was trumpeting a tenfold leap in Twitter use around a particular Corrie episode with a high profile story line.  Once again they quoted scale numbers, highlighting the millions of Tweets that had been generated. But analysis showed, that active Twitter users watching a normal Corrie episode average out at just  .003 (or  of the broadcast audience. During the ‘spike’ episode that number had increased from .3% (27k) to 3% (270k) of the audience.  That is just not a number the advertising industry should or could get out of bed for.  Yet once again, Twitter will hit the conference circuit with expensively produced graphs and illustrations to trumpet the scale figures (over a million tweets!!), while ignoring the reach (or lack of it).

Part of Twitter’s problem is that it wheels out a ‘one size fits all’ promotional deck for all conferences, which offers no real analysis. I have seen the same generic Twitter deck, full of US case studies, four times. As someone who actively uses Twitter to promote our highly specialised, niche business service to a tiny, specialised niche business audience, I know it works for me.  But after four presentations, I still can’t say the same for a soup manufacturer.  Given the ISBA and Ad Week audiences contained FMCG marketers, car marketers, finance marketers and others,  I would like to have seen its different applications explored by product or industry.  How could/should Twitter work differently for low interest FMCG, versus high interest service companies?

More importantly, I would like to see a discussion of where is works as an advertising medium, and where is it sales, PR or customer service?  How does/could its role differ between them, and how do the different Twitter ad formats  available apply?  Or even, what different measurement or validation approaches apply across them? I have never seen this explored or even hinted at, just lots of random case studies with no numbers.  There was an opportunity at AdWeek to address the bigger strategic context for Twitter in a way that would have reflected the audience. Instead, we got SuperBowl case studies.

I love Twitter. But until they (and the rest of the new/social media industry) stop willy-waving with global user figures, and take a humble look at the true impact, they will gain no long term credibility among marketers.

Nigel Walley  @nwalley

ps We would recommend you read the following blog by Tess Alps of Thinkbox on the subject here.

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