The second screen is a reality. The doubters who believed that people watching TV programming would stay focused solely on the TV itself have been proven wrong, not only by people's behavior, but by the creators of TV shows themselves.
Take the next-generation talent show, "America's Got Talent." The producers of the show have identified several moments in each episode that they see as being especially buzzworthy. It may be an amazing dance, a confounding magic trick, or even a cringe-inducing song. The show attempts to both spark conversation as well as coalesce the conversation via specific hashtags. The show will offer a different hashtag for each moment, and viewers know that they can fulfill this urge they have to share their thoughts, using that hashtag.
In fact, hashtags have become as normal and ubiquitous a part of TV shows as the cliffhanger ending. For a long time, a hashtag was synonymous with Twitter - Twitter was the place that people used hashtags to apply a bit of organization to the service. Twitter has never really had a specific organization format for topics (in the way, say, Reddit does). Instead, bits of order can emerge from the chaos through the wonderfully emergent world of the hashtag.
This is a really great system for social media. Traditionally, in online forums and communities, if you wanted to have a specific conversation, a specific forum (or sub-forum) would have to be established, and everyone would have to know to go to that particular place to talk about that particular thing. Hashtags solve that. Just place the hashtag on the message and send it into the world. The conversation will organize itself. It is perfect for social media, and it is perfect for second-screen conversations (those conversations that occur based on an event in a live TV show) because they can come and go in the world quickly.
Not Just for Twitter Anymore
Of course, the fluidity and flexibility of hashtags is precisely the reason that Facebook has adopted the technology. If you haven't tried it yet (and a lot of people haven't), you can now attach a hashtag to a Facebook post.
It may also be part of the reason that Facebook is beginning to more aggressively move into the second-screen world, ensuring that the conversations don't all end up on Twitter. Trendrr, the social analysis tool, recently worked with Facebook to analyze a week's worth of posts to see how many related to TV content. It found an enormous amount of posts, shares, likes, and general interaction around TV content.
I have said in the past that it is clear that second-screen conversations were bound for Twitter. The lightweight nature of the service seemed to fit perfectly with TV-watching behavior. Facebook feels like an outfit and Twitter feels like an accessory - you can add Twitter to anything, but you have to wear Facebook like a suit.
But Facebook's most significant developments of late have been focused on one thing: mobile design. Facebook is increasingly taking its service to the phone, whether that be in the overall design of the app or in the integration of messaging into the operating system (especially Android). This has had the effect of creating a low-impact version of Facebook and one that can be easily picked up and used as a sideline part of a bigger experience. Hashtags are a part of that. You don't have to try to find the page for your favorite show anymore if you want to talk with others about it. You just have to #tag it.
The second-screen market is enormous. It represents the best opportunity for content producers to both extend the show's reach as well as diversify its revenue stream. Consider a baseball game. Right now, producers need to wait until an inning is over (or some other natural break in the game, like a pitching change) to show an ad. With second-screen tools, they can pop up ads to people they know are watching in a way that is not intrusive or doesn't disrupt the flow of the game. You can even imagine this approach for premium content, like cable TV shows.
This also represents the most efficient way to gather real-time data about not only viewership, but attitudes toward individual elements of the show. Like the America's Got Talent example above, producers can learn if people react more positively to a great dance or a great magic trick. This all represents a significant way to boost the revenue generated from that finite resource of primetime hours.
Which is why there is so much effort being placed on developing the right tools for people to engage. And why second screen is really the forerunner of a much bigger idea: emergent social networks. As the number of things we want to talk about increases, so will the ease with which we can talk about these things, especially things that are not around for a long time. We want to talk about that performance or that episode for only a short amount of time. Once the moment is gone, so, too, should the conversation and the community.
This is what second-screen engagement is all about: ad hoc communities that form and dissipate with ease. The hashtag is a wonderfully simple and efficient way to do this. But it is only the beginning.
Image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014