Social TV: Sideshow or Revolution?

As with pretty much everything in this industry with the word ‘social’ appended to it, ‘social TV’ went through a spectacular hype cycle. In the early days there was a surge of start-ups scrambling to get a foothold, although few survived as — more often than not — user retention rates usually fell off a cliff after the first couple of days of use. When app owners were asked how they were going to make money, the words ‘if we can capture just one percent of TV revenue’ were invariably mentioned.

These days the social TV graveyard is a cluttered one and even some of the stars of the space are there too. IntoNow — which was acquired by Yahoo in 2011 for somewhere between $20 to $30 million — was shuttered earlier this year. Miso was acquired by Dijit which was acquired by Viggle. GetGlue, once regarded as one of social TV’s success stories, was sold for a firesale price to i.TV, who closed it in order to launch the ‘tvtag’ app earlier this year. Even Zeebox chose to kill off their brand in favour of ‘Beamly’.

Part of this process has been good old-fashioned consolidation. A new opportunity emerges, companies flock into the space, and then only the strong survive. However, many of these companies weren’t just muscled out or taken over by competitors. Quite a few were simply bad ideas that being poorly executed by ‘me too’ companies, many of whom offered little or no value to the end user (often in the form of Twitter clients with TV mentioned somewhere in the name).

Now it looks like the leading social networks — mainly Facebook and Twitter — are set to dominate the space. But even they don’t exert as much influence over the TV industry as some might have you believe.

Earlier in the week YouView published some interesting stats on TV consumption in the UK which they carried out in conjunction with YouGov, an independent research firm. The headline stat YouView chose for their press release was ‘One in Seven Decide What to Watch on TV from Social Media ‘. This, YouView say, demonstrates that has had ‘a huge impact on our TV tastes with around one in seven viewers now getting TV recommendations directly from it [Facebook (12 percent) and Twitter (6 percent)]’.

A huge impact? Really? Let’s take a look at those figures in again. Roughly one in eight people say they use Facebook for TV decisions, and it’s safe to say that those people only use Facebook for some of their TV decisions. And then just over one in twenty uses Twitter for TV recommendations. While those figures are undoubtedly noteworthy and of interest, it’s hardly a revolution. And it doesn’t get much more interesting when you look at how many people are actively talking about TV: just four percent of people talk about TV on Facebook each day, while two percent use Twitter to talk about Twitter on a daily basis.

If this was 2004, it might be worth getting excited about the growth ahead. But it’s 2014, and the time for exaggerating social media’s potential has come and gone. Even Facebook and Twitter are struggling to find new users, and many of the existing users are tiring of the current crop of services, whose user bases are either plateauing or declining. So is it time we put the idea of a social TV revolution to bed?

Well, if we’re talking about social media leading to a fundamental shift in the way that people watch TV, then yes. That’s not going to happen any time soon. However, if we lower our expectations a little, then there are still lots of valuable opportunities and some interesting growth areas.

Twitter, for instance, will undoubtedly be able to build a business through things like Twitter Amplify, as broadcasters push out content and advertising to their followers. And even if the reality is that relatively few people in any given TV audience are actively tweeting about TV, when you aggregate those different users across every TV audience, and take into account the number of people who read those tweets, you have a scalable proposition.

Another thing that the social TV survivors have learned is that it’s important to be useful. Both Beamly and TVtag have put a personalised TV guide at the heart of their new offerings, while Beamly can also act as a remote control for Sky and Virgin set top boxes. These utility features — the type of thing pretty much anyone could use — just might be social TV’s beachhead into the mainstream.

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