It’s safe to say that social media has passed a tipping point, especially with respect to brands and media outlets. The new mantra all the way up to the top of those organizations has become “we have to be a leader in social”.
This wasn't always the case. In the early days, entertainment and media companies were slow to catch on. The internet and user generated content were seen more as a threat to well-established business models than an opportunity to drive revenue or create better experiences for music, film and television. Today, things have swung pretty far in the opposite direction.
In the case of cable and network television, I would argue that the embrace of social has swung too far.
From the top down, execs are now looking at social metrics and making decisions based on increasing them. How many Tweets? What was the sentiment? How many Likes? How can we drive more engagement? Are viewers interacting with us enough on their "second screen"? I sense a general fear setting in that everything needs to be social.
This is an understandable reaction to a real shift in how people now communicate and consume culture, but the unintended consequence is that instead of social media augmenting the enjoyment of television, too often we are seeing the reverse: television programming designed to augment social media activity.
The content itself is being co-opted, transformed and obscured. Hashtags, usernames, more usernames, Tweet your reaction, take a selfie and post it here, news consisting of who posted what and who posted what in response, backstage Twitter mirrors and "social correspondents" at awards shows, @jtop3627 picking the Top 10 plays and proclaiming them “off the hook”, contrived social media stunts that take up minutes of air time, movie trailers consisting of nothing but Tweets from people you don't know, your avatar could show up on this screen with thousands of others, and on and on.
What's ultimately lost sight of is the actual viewing experience. It's compromised by all these efforts to get people to Tweet, post, Like, vote or engage with one social app or another. When I am immersed in a show, I don't want to feel like I'm being herded into some hashtag or social media strategy. The implication is that enjoying the show is not as important as my going online to promote it. It breaks down the 4th wall and takes me away from getting lost in the story.
A few prescriptions
Some shows may benefit from encouraging viewers to react and participate online and in real time. Certain reality shows and sporting events come to mind. But many others do not. I want to watch Mad Men or Walking Dead uninterrupted and get caught up. Networks need to know that it's okay to push social hard on some shows, but lay off on others.
For shows that don't merit the real-time push during viewing, the focus should be on social activity and data during non-viewing hours. Facilitate engagement around a show on social platforms in a way that is natural to how people are actually using those platforms (e.g. - special video or outtake footage that people will want to share). If I come across a recommendation or mention of a show, it will stick in my mind. When I start seeing that repeatedly, eventually my interest peaks and I'll seek it out. If I like it, I may start mentioning it and furthering that word of mouth (e.g. - a response to a friend who tweets "just finished House of Cards, what should I start next?"). All of this happens away from the TV, and is word-of-mouth the way it has worked forever. If you can facilitate that or be a part of it - friends talking to friends spontaneously - you are golden.
When I do want to chat or share my thoughts while viewing, I want to do it with people I know who are also watching or interested in the same program. This occurs naturally with texting, and is something I do all the time. A group iMessage will open between me, my brother and my dad during a Sox or Patriots game. Sometimes we rope in friends who are Yankees or Jets fans and take we'll take shots at each other. Very different from posting into a churning stream of Tweets or heavily-filtered Facebook newsfeed.
If someone creates an app or second screen experience that facilitates this -
helping me send thoughts, reactions, predictions or comments to people I know want to hear from me - I will be intrigued. It might look something like this:
- You can create a group around a specific show and invite friends to join, or participate in wider public groups.
- When you want to watch socially, you would indicate what you are watching and with whom you'd like to share that (public, or with a certain group).
- You could nudge people in a group that a certain show is starting, and they would have the option to receive that reminder as a push notification
- A basic group chat would open up and let you post your thoughts to the group as the show airs, and respond to your fellow viewers
- If you are not watching live and your group is chatting about a show, you can temporarily mute all activity
- When you go do get to that show on your DVR, you can play back all of the group chat in synch with the show and see each comment in context
- Easy experience on a phone or tablet sitting beside you, but great potential as as well for connected TVs and devices like Roku, Apple TV, etc. to integrate and let you see each chat/comment in a small overlay on your actual TV screen.
But above all else, the focus needs to come back to the quality of programming. "Breaking Bad" is an example of a show that was and still is heavily discussed across social channels. Each new show that airs sets out to replicate the same buzz and activity. But although it's almost universally regarded as one of the best series of all time, BB's ratings for its first handful of seasons were paltry. The social activity later on was the result of the viewing experience and people catching on to that. Word of mouth worked over time on (and off) social because the content was so good, not as a result of any social strategy.
Social media is here to stay and will play a role in the discovery and consumption of TV from here on out. But it's still just a tool that can be used in service of the viewing experience or to its detriment. At the risk of oversimplifying, the best formula is to make watching a show more enjoyable so that viewers will want to watch again, and help people who are not watching become aware of the show and take an interest in it. Get that right, and you won't have to worry about people promoting your show naturally across every social channel out there. This is the best way to drive ratings and repeat viewership. And the last time I checked, that's still the basis on which networks are getting paid.