Twitter’s Big Push to Monetize Social TV

The company is courting advertising dollars by trying to prove that tweets can drive television ratings and help brands target more engaged viewers

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Fred Tanneau / AFP / Getty Images

As Twitter has grown in scale over the years, so has its users’ chatter about television. Sports, live events like awards shows, and quirky content that aligns well with the snark of the Twitterverse (think: Sharknado) often become national trending topics that generate millions of tweets from viewers. Some 300 million tweets about U.S. television were posted in the first quarter of 2013 alone, according to Nielsen. In effect, Twitter has become the world’s virtual water cooler.

But while it’s long been obvious that very popular television events like the Super Bowl have the ability to drive massive Twitter activity, it’s been less clear whether the inverse is true: Can a show that gets tweeted about heavily see a ratings boost thanks to the promotion on social media?

This week Nielsen (a business partner of Twitter’s) published data showing that tweets can in fact boost ratings — sometimes. The study, which analyzed minute-by-minute tweets and viewership for 221 individual television episodes, found that tweets drove up viewership to a statistically significant degree for 29% of the programs. Twitter’s effectiveness as a ratings driver varied by genre. Competitive reality shows were the most likely to get a boost, with 44% of those episodes seeing increased ratings. Comedies and sports also saw significant boosts, with dramas lagging behind. On the flipside, increases in viewership were found to boost the number of tweets about a given show for 48% of the programs.

(MORE: Twitter 101: Understanding the Basics)

“This is the first time that we’re able to demonstrate a causal link not just between the fact that TV shows cause tweets…but the fact that it works the other way around too,” says Andrew Somosi, CEO of SocialGuide, the company owned by Nielsen and McKinsey that conducted the study. “The Twitter activity reaches new people and those new people actually…change [their] behavior based on a tweet and come and tune in.”

For Twitter, the data could help them convince more television networks that purchasing a promoted tweet or hashtag (which can be as expensive as $200,000) at the right time can have a direct, positive impact on television ratings. In May the company launched Twitter Amplify, a video advertising product that allows brands to create more eye-catching visual tweets that also feature short commercials from sponsors. Channels such as Discovery, A&E, and Bloomberg TV are already part of the program, along with other media companies, including TIME parent Time Inc.

In addition to the networks, Twitter is also trying to appeal to the brands that broadcast commercials during regular television shows. A new targeted ad program allows brands airing commercials during a specific show to serve up promoted tweets to users who are tweeting about the program. Large companies such as Adidas, Holiday Inn Express, and Samsung have experimented with the initiative.

Now that Twitter has proven that working in tandem with television is lucrative—the company is expected to generate almost $1 billion in ad revenue by 2014—competitors are trying to get a share of the advertising pie. Facebook has taken a recent interest in its own “social TV” metrics, commissioning a study that found that Facebook users’ TV-related social interactions during a week in May were five times the interactions on all other social media networks combined. The difference is that while most users’ Facebook data is tied up in various privacy settings, they tend to open all tweets to public view.

(MORE: Facebook Rumored to Roll Out Video Ads in Users’ Feeds)

Expect to hear Twitter mentioned along with television even more often this fall. The company is teaming up with Nielsen to launch an official Twitter TV Rating, a standard metric measuring how often tweets about each television program are viewed. The measurement could help networks develop more effective social media strategies by drawing regular correlations between Twitter activity and television ratings. Twitter hopes this experiment will lead to the purchase of more promoted ads. So far, their strategy of piggybacking off of television has been working.

“Twitter and where they’re going certainly is focused around real-time news and information,” says Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner covering technology. “Partnering with the media companies and television companies I think is a natural fit.”