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The Promise and Peril of Social TV: Part II - Tom Cunniff

Tom Cunniff
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Published: March 1, 2012 at 12:21 PM GMT
Last Updated: March 1, 2012 at 12:21 PM GMT

By Tom Cunniff

In Part I of this two-part post, I talked about why the conversation has shifted so strongly to social TV, and about its promise.

If you missed it, I suggest you start here. If you don't, the post you're about to read will make me sound like a complete killjoy.

The promise of Social TV is clear, and there are good reasons to be excited. But we also have very good reasons to be wary. Here are a few.

Nobody Watches TV Because They Want To Work

The central promise of Social TV is deeper engagement. No more passive viewers! Everyone will share what he or she loves about the show – even the commercials! Once couch potatoes are struck by interactive lightning, the theory goes, they'll never watch TV the same way again. How could they?

Sounds great. But the living room couch is not the most fertile area for a revolution that asks people to work harder at being entertained.

Away from the heady hallways of Wall Street and Sand Hill Road, the world is an exhausting place for a lot of people. Holding one job isn't enough. You need to work two, at least if you want to live indoors. As Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America",

"When I watch TV over my dinner at night, I see a world in which almost everyone makes $15 an hour or more, and I'm not just thinking of the anchor folks. The sitcoms and dramas are about fashion designers or schoolteachers or lawyers, so it's easy for a fast-food worker or nurse's aide to conclude that she is an anomaly — the only one, or almost the only one, who hasn't been invited to the party."

A lot of people who fall asleep in front of the TV don't do it because they're bored. They do it because they are bone-tired.

The closer we get to screwing with the stuff at the core of what makes TV work -- lean-back, relax, and let yourself be entertained -- the more carefully we should tread.

It's easy to criticize TV for being mindless entertainment. But sometimes that's exactly what people crave most: escape. I think for social TV to succeed, it has to make it easier to escape – not harder.

People Will Talk About What THEY Care About, Not What YOU Care About.

The recent Oscars broadcast is a case study that all would-be Social TV programmers and advertisers should study carefully.

Here we have hundreds of glamorous celebrities, dozens of amazing movies, and the first silent movie nominated for an Academy Award in 83 years. Plus, glossy new TV commercials launched especially for the occasion.

All of this is perfectly awesome fodder for Social TV. But what did people talk about? All they could talk about was Angelina Jolie's leg.

Just after her arrival on the red carpet, a Twitter feed for @AngiesRightLeg appeared. Then, just after Jennifer Lopez popped out of her dress, a Twitter account called @JLosNipple popped up, Tweeting: "Did you see me?"

And while lavishly produced TV spots were airing, people dove into Social TV – but probably not the way the advertisers hoped. The spots gave viewsers time to re-Tweet @JLosNipple saying "Just to clear the areola, me and @AngiesRightLeg have no beef."

It's exciting for advertisers to think of the possibilities on the second screen. But consumers have to be entertained. We will have to get very creative indeed if we hope to compete with @AngiesRightLeg and @JLosNipple.

The More Data We Have, The Dumber We Get

The conventional wisdom about digital marketing is that it is superior to "dumb" analog media because it is vastly more intelligent.

We can put precisely the right ad in front of precisely the right person at precisely the right time to make a sale.

That has been the promise of digital from the earliest days, and every year we have doubled-down on that bet. This promise is what created the infamous Kawaja Chart, it's what's fueling Big Data, and it's a big reason people are excited about Social TV.

The promise sounds gloriously undeniable. But to borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, "However beautiful the strategy you should occasionally look at the results."

The results are not encouraging: the more data we have the dumber we have become. We have driven click through rates from a high of 35% in the early days down to near-statistical zero today.

We might be forgiven for doing that with web banners, which are a tiny fraction of most marketers' total marketing spend. But, woe to the CMO – and CEO -- who repeats the same mistake with the millions they spend on TV.

The Perils Definitely Exist. But Don't Ignore The Promise.

It's important to point out the perils. But I don't want to sound like Girolamo Savonarola demanding a bonfire of the digital vanities, and I definitely don't want to be burned at the stake as a heretic and schismatic.

So, let me end on a more encouraging note. I believe we will be smarter about Social TV than we have been so far because there is so much more at stake.

A big, important group of consumers will want to be social while they watch TV. They will inexorably force us to get good at it.

We shouldn't fear @AngiesRightLeg. Instead, we should be grateful that it's kicking us in the keester to get smarter.

Tom Cunniff began his career as a copywriter at traditional agencies, founded an interactive agency in 1994 and now works on the marketing side creating and integrating traditional and interactive. All of Tom's opinions are entirely his own. Tom can be reached at tomcunniffnyc@gmail.com.

Read all Tom's MediaBizBloggers commentaries at Radical Common Sense.

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Reader Comments(1)
Tom, great article. I have been thinking about social tv... the term that has been sticking with me is "happy accidents". I am not sure we can engineer social tv successes beyong the occasional happy accident. The thought is still developing in my mind though...
Posted at 08:51 PM on Mar 1, 2012 by Jaffer


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