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Bluefin circles social TV

Bluefin Labs is among a small number of analytics specialists trying to define the value of social TV data. Marketing director Tom Thai tells Jonathan Webdale it’s still early days.

Tom Thai

Tom Thai

There’s little disputing that Twitter and Facebook chatter about TV has gone through the roof in recent years. This is in part because of the growth of social networks and the fact they simply provide people with a new outlet for something they were doing already: talking about television.

But it’s also because of a concerted effort by these companies to encourage TV networks to promote them. Broadcasters – desperate to find new ways of hanging on to, engaging with and understanding their audiences – have willingly obliged.

“By our measurement, just in the past year, social TV activity by consumers has increased 800%,” says Bluefin Labs marketing director Tom Thai.

“Twitter had tremendous foresight in the very early days to start working with TV networks, to get them to care about using Twitter hashtags and the Twitter social platform to engage their fans. We’re seeing the fruits of that labour right now. When TV networks do call-outs, it’s almost always about Twitter. That didn’t happen by accident.”

Bluefin is a social TV analytics company – one of a handful of specialists in this space; its main rivals being Trendrr, recently profiled as part of C21’s Social TV season, and SocialGuide, a company bought out this month by Nielsen.

SocialGuide focuses solely on analysis of Twitter, whereas Bluefin includes data available from the limited number of public Facebook posts that exist around a given show. Trendrr goes further and mixes in data from social TV apps GetGlue and Viggle, two social TV app makers that this week announced plans to merge.

Bluefin was set up four years ago and is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts – home to the renowned MIT Media Lab, where company founders Deb Roy and Fleischman developed the technology on which they’ve based the business.

This technology, dubbed Bluefin Signals, detects available social data, gathers it together and organises it so that the firm can then work with TV networks and advertisers to make sense of all the information.

“Networks can get more value for their TV commercial inventory and advertisers can get more value out of their media buys, so they can put their commercials in shows on networks that drive more social, more conversation,” explains Thai.

Bluefin counts Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC among its 40 network clients, he says, adding that, increasingly, when these companies talk to their advertisers they present not only audience numbers but social stats as well.

“Where we’ve seen the heavy action on the TV network side is making decisions about ad sales and inventory – literally increasing their top line – so they can use social TV or social engagement data to justify selling their commercials at higher rates.

“What we’ve seen develop in the past 12 months is the TV networks using this new notion of social TV ratings side by side with traditional Nielsen TV ratings.”

Decisions about whether or not to continue with debut shows based on the amount of excitement they generate on social networks isn’t something that’s happening quite yet, however. This year, for the second year running, Trendrr published its top 10 of fall pilots with the most social buzz. Bluefin produced a similar chart last year but didn’t see the value of doing so this time round.

“For us, and our clients, it’s an interesting piece of data for stories but not actionable for their business use cases,” says Thai.

Bluefin is putting plenty of emphasis on the advertiser side – hence the recent appointment of former Publicis, Ogilvy & Mather and Razorfish exec JP Maheu as CEO. Not only is the firm offering data relating to the buzz around TV programmes but TV commercials too.

MTV Video Music Awards

MTV Video Music Awards

And the company’s creating a buzz of its own as well. Time Warner Investments, SoftBank Capital and others put US$12m into the firm at the start of this year, following on from a US$8m first round featuring the likes of Redpoint Ventures and Lerer Ventures. All are taking a punt on a nascent market whose true value remains inchoate – but then that’s the point.

According to Bluefin, the recent return of The X Factor to Fox in the US drew the most social mentions of any TV season premiere ever – 1.4 million on its opening night, which was seven times more than the debut of The Voice and half a million more than previous record holder Pretty Little Liars.

And yet the show bombed in the TV ratings in comparison with the first season’s opener, falling 23%, according to Nielsen, and eclipsed by The Voice on NBC.

This year’s MTV Video Music Awards was the second most social televised event of all time, with 12.8 million mentions on Twitter and Facebook, according to Bluefin. But despite this, TV ratings for the two-hour event fell by more than half, achieving 6.1 million viewers, versus 12.4 million in 2011.

How does Thai explain this? The short answer is he can’t, and nor can anyone else at this stage – it’s simply too early in the game. “You have your traditional rating and you have your social TV rating, but what is one social TV rating compared with one traditional TV rating? No one knows the answer to that, so that’s a piece of work for the industry,” he says. “It’s only just beginning to evolve.”

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