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Facebook: a Social TV gatecrasher or just fashionably late?

19 Feb 2014  |  Richard Marks 
Facebook: a Social TV gatecrasher or just fashionably late?

Richard Marks of Research The Media argues that Facebook's 'Watching with Friends' report on social TV is long overdue - highlighting that, like television itself, Social TV is a multi-platform phenomenon.

At a recent MediaTel event on the future of TV advertising I took part in a panel debate which touched on the value of social media and in particular the perceived value of a tweet or a 'like'. At the time I commented that it would be unwise to write off Facebook for Social TV, and I drew an analogy with Manchester United.

Open season has been declared on both giants recently: Facebook is perceived to have missed the boat on mobile and is allegedly losing younger users to newer, less advertising-saturated services like Snapchat and Tumblr. Even Princeton shot itself in the foot predicting the 'death' of Facebook.

As for Manchester United, well, as a Chelsea fan I probably shouldn't go there.

What prompted my comments was noticing recently that one of my favourite shows, South Park, has just over a million followers on Twitter, but over 49 million Facebook 'likes'. That is potentially 49 million news feeds they are appearing in, including mine.

Other big hitters on Facebook include Big Bang Theory with 29 million and Walking Dead with 24 million. Even the resolutely pre-Facebook era show Friends has 19 million. This also extends to brands - Converse has just 439,000 Twitter followers but 40 million Facebook 'likes'.

Comparing 'likes' to followers is like comparing apples to bananas, but this did lead me to believe it is a bit too soon to be writing Facebook off when it comes to Social TV.

Up to now, though, Twitter has dominated the conversation about social media and television. Whilst Facebook conversations flower in private walled gardens, Twitter is a more open medium in terms of data availability. As a result a number of companies have been able to process and analyse Twitter APIs and shout about the value of Social TV - Bluefin Labs and Trendrr (both since ingested by Twitter), SecondSync (Kantar now a shareholder) and SocialGuide (owned by Nielsen).

Unsurprisingly, Social TV played a prominent role in Twitter's recent IPO.

In this debate Facebook has stayed relatively quiet up to now. One can only speculate as to why. It may be that conversations are less easy to analyse on Facebook, with not just one single metric but a combination of 'likes', posts and replies and (initially) no direct and easily analysable version of a hashtag. There is no equivalent of the Twitter firehose due to the privacy issues and the way in which Facebook works. All tweets are effectively public domain, but Facebook posts are not.

Meanwhile, strategically it seemed, Facebook was more interested in competing with TV - particularly with imminent auto-play video ads - than in complementing TV as Twitter aspires to do.

Either way, Facebook Social TV data has been limited up to now. However, in the last year Facebook introduced a 'watching' status update and the equivalent of a hashtag. Then US research guru Dave Poltrak of CBS claimed that Twitter had not won the 'battle' for Social TV and that Facebook was developing its own Social TV metric and had 'better' Social TV data than Twitter.

A month ago, UK-based SecondSync announced a deal with Facebook to gain access to social TV data in the US, UK and Australia. This is a hugely significant deal as it is the first time this data has been made available outside of Facebook itself.

Hot on the heels of that announcement, SecondSync has just unveiled the first fruits of the relationship, a summary report 'Watching with friends: how TV drives conversation on Facebook'.

It is fascinating reading, particularly in the context of TV researchers having seen so much analysis of Twitter data up to now, but so little from Facebook. In that sense it can seem like the door opening on a pocket universe that we knew existed but our telescopes could not see. The report is also significant for comparing data from more than one country.

On the face of it some of the headline data appears startling in the context of what we have seen from the Twitter universe - 2 million Facebook 'interactions' during the UK X-Factor final, 4.5 million during the Breaking Bad finale in the US. That netted to an impressive 10% and 24% of the viewing audiences, respectively.

The report also indicates that when it comes to TV, Facebook is arguably more of an 'immediate' social medium than had been suspected - with 60% of interactions during broadcasts themselves, perhaps because 80% of these Facebook interactions are now via mobile devices.

However, an interaction is not the same as a tweet. An interaction is defined by the SecondSync report as a TV-related post, a comment, a 'like' or a share. These datasets are working on different levels - again apples and bananas. A Facebook conversation is more intimate, like one happening over the garden fence; Twitter is more of a loud-hailer to the nation. The challenge will be to understand how to use the two in combination and evaluate the success of Social TV strategies across both platforms.

Meanwhile, the title of the report makes clear that it does not attempt to look at what impact the related Facebook activity has on audiences themselves. A Nielsen report last year did claim to have statistical proof that Twitter activity could drive audiences to live TV and debate has raged about the relationship, not least in this column and elsewhere on Newsline and Connected Consumer.

What is clear is that it won't be an either/or when it comes to Facebook, Twitter and Social TV - related conversations are rife on both media. TV broadcasters and advertisers will be hungry for further insights on how best to use them to support and enhance their content and campaigns.

Each social media has unique strengths. Twitter is a celebrity-infused public medium generating visible buzz. Facebook may be less public but, as this new report shows, it does have more detailed demographic analysis than is possible on Twitter. Both can be Social TV winners if broadcasters and advertisers can be educated in the unique TV-related strengths and differences of each social medium.

I hope this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of insights from both Facebook and Twitter this year. Facebook is celebrating its tenth anniversary, but Twitter is also a healthy eight years old. As they both move out of infancy we need to understand even more about how these maturing media interact with each other and how they impact and are impacted by television.

However, there is one dark horse in the Social TV hashtag race: Tumblr. Who would have predicted that the humble .gif would stage a revival in 2014? Possibly Tumblr is more image driven, fannish and less realtime, but who knows?

Can we have a report on Tumblr and TV next please?

Richard Marks is the director of Research the Media. Find out more here.

Twitter: @RichardMlive.

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