The State of TV's Twitter Backchannel

  |  March 6, 2013   |  Comments

Should brands that aren't part of a given TV broadcast get involved in its backchannel?

When writing "Social TV" during the summer of 2011, I described television's real-time backchannel as:

"...made up of the millions of living, organic social expressions that act as a participatory companion to our favorite TV broadcasts. It exposes the conversations taking place in our once-isolated living rooms and connects households around the world into a single, opt-in, coviewing event."

A year later, as I was watching the Republican National Convention, TV's backchannel transformed into something more like a "frontchannel" the moment Clint Eastwood took the stage with an empty chair.

Like many people watching, I had Twitter open on my iPad while tuning in to the television broadcast. What would have been an awkward experience to just watch Eastwood's 10-minute speech solely on TV was instead pure entertainment when coupled with the backchannel. My Twitter feed was flooded with some of the best one-liners in reaction to Clint's conversation with an invisible President Obama.

And my second screen experience wasn't just confined to the "interwebs." I was reading off select tweets to my friends who were sitting next to me. They got to experience the backchannel without even being on Twitter.

Fast forward. Today's television backchannel is quickly maturing into the mainstream - Have you noticed how Twitter hashtags and @handles are everywhere on TV? But beyond flashing the Twitter lexicon as on-air lower-thirds, there are three developments within the backchannel to look out for.

1. Twitter as a remote control. Our very tweets can now affect how a show unfolds live on our TV screens. A growing number of networks are experimenting with real-time hashtag polls - the results of which determine what programming gets aired.

Last November, NBC's "The Voice" asked viewers to tweet which act/song they wanted to have performed at the end of its live results show. And this past January, CBS let viewers of a "Hawaii Five-0" murder mystery determine the episode's ending as it was being broadcast on TV.

Now Fox and "American Idol" are taking the backchannel's instant feedback loop a step further by visualizing the results of its real-time polls on-screen as people are prompted to tweet.

This is just the beginning of what's possible when connecting TV programmers to TV audiences in real time using Twitter. And while exciting, let's also be mindful that this kind of "remote control" interactivity isn't a fit for every TV series or genre.

2. "Channels" within the backchannel. Even though audiences engaging on Twitter may be watching the same TV show, not everyone is seeing the same backchannel. Each individual can personalize their second screen experience based on the "micro communities" they choose to follow.

One may simply follow along their standard Twitter feed, or for a more filtered conversation, follow the show's hashtag. In June of 2011, Twitter rolled out a new version of its search feature - one that, by default, delivers the most algorithmically relevant information in the form of "top tweets."

And lately, Twitter has been directly curating and working with named celebrities who are live-tweeting tent-pole events, giving television viewers an insider's peek into broadcasts that TV alone cannot deliver.

In a way, it's almost like choosing which "channel" of the backchannel you want to engage in.

3. Brands embracing the holistic TV experience. During the 2011 Emmy Awards opening number, sponsor Verizon Wireless set the stage for how brands could seamlessly bridge a TV broadcast and its backchannel.

As host and "Glee" actress Jane Lynch paraded through a building where all of television's fictitious characters supposedly lived, she encountered the "Can you hear me now?" guy and stopped to take a picture with him. Those who were also following the #emmys hashtag on the backchannel saw a promoted tweet paid for by Verizon but from Jane Lynch's account showing a photo that looked like the one she snapped.

Nearly 17 months later, we've all (over)heard by now about Oreo's famed spontaneous tweet when the lights went out during the Super Bowl.

And how last month a slew of brands tried to recreate Oreo's "real-time marketing" moment during the Oscars telecast with very mixed reactions. Oreo was a big sponsor of the Super Bowl as was J.C. Penney of the Oscars.

So the big question is should brands that aren't part of a given TV broadcast get involved in its backchannel? There's a line between being a natural or logical part of a TV show's Twitter conversation and hijacking it - and marketers are just beginning to try and figure out where that line actually is.

While the state of TV's Twitter backchannel is strong, there's a risk of it becoming inundated with seemingly random brands' advertisements in the form of overly forced attempts at snarky one-liners. But perhaps that's just another indication of mainstream recognition that Twitter goes hand-in-hand with television.

TV image on home page via Shutterstock.


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Mike Proulx

Mike Proulx is a Senior Vice President and the Director of Social Media at Hill Holliday, a renowned advertising agency based in Boston, where he leads a team with a focus on cross-channel integration, emerging and social media.

Mike has spent the last 17 years working at various interactive, high-tech, and new media companies on the agency-side, client-side, and as an entrepreneur. He has spoken at dozens of events and has been widely featured in the press including The New York Times, Fast Company, TV Guide, Forbes, BusinessWeek, Mashable, and NPR.

Mike conceived, produced, directed, and co-host the TVnext summit which took place in early 2011 and 2012. He is the co-author of Social TV, a best selling book from Wiley publishing that launched in February of 2012. Mike is also the host of the social TV web series, The Pulse on Lost Remote.

He holds a Masters degree in Computer Information Systems from Bentley University and in 2012 was named the AdClub's Media All Star.

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