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Tweet Seekers: How Your Social Media Outbursts Influence TV Networks

MTV's VMAs attracted the most social media attention ever. How do we know? Why should we care?

The top ten social TV events, from Bluefin Labs Social TV rating data.

I watched MTV’s Video Music Awards last week, but not on TV. I watched on Twitter, where a sudden spate of Lady Gaga (drag!) and Beyonce (baby!) tweets reminded me that the network is still nominally interested in the musical arts. And I wasn’t the only one person who found the vox populi’s take on the event noteworthy.

The VMAs turned out to be the most social-media active television event ever, at least according to Bluefin Labs, a scientifically rigorous company in the burgeoning industry of social media ratings. Using cognitive and computer science methods developed by co-founders Deb Roy and Michael Fleishman at MIT, the company’s array of computers monitors social media and television to offer both qualitative and quantitative assessments of what people are watching and how they react to it.

In the case of the VMAs, 1.25 million people made 2.5 million comments about the show, more than the 1.5 million comments made by 700,000 viewers of the most recent Super Bowl. The two events produced Social TV Ratings, Bluefin’s proprietary metric, of 9.4 and 9.2, respectively. It’s logarithmic, like the Richter scale (think of it as measuring the social aftershocks of television impact), controls for social media inflation as more and more people join services, and benchmarks against a wealth of past data.

Right now, the company counts about 4.4 million “90-day active” social media users; at the time of the Super Bowl, there were 3.9 million, a 500,000-person increase in six months. (Bluefin says there are 20 million people in their social media universe this year, but they focus on active users in their ratings.)

The VMA social explosion is the latest benchmark of growth at the intersection of technology and public expression. It’ll no doubt be eclipsed soon, but as a minor footnote in the history of social data collection, it might be fitting that a celebration of a medium that MTV has abandoned is one of the early high points of the next trend in content.

Bluefin sees Twitter and other social media as a kind of “focus group in the wild,” according to Tom Thai, the company's vice president of marketing, and has been selling TV networks, advertising agencies, and advertisers access to data about what works and what doesn’t with viewers. Programming decisions become easier if you know not just how many people are watching, but why, and social media offers the ability to cast a wider net and gather more granular data than has ever been possible before.

“If you’re a TV network, you’d look at two things: Data to inform your programming decisions, [and] data to aid in your advertising sales by proving that beyond having a certain level of eyeballs, there is this additional social media engagement,” Roy says. “Agencies themselves use the data from the opposite angle: ‘Hey, a show might deliver me half a million eyeballs, but I want to know which shows deliver me engaged eyeballs.'”

Bluefin shared some of their VMA findings with GOOD, and it gets specific. They can search by key terms (“#VMA” and “Beyonce” were the two most popular, natch) and the results get a little blue—“fuck” and “shit” return plenty of hits (“lady gaga is drunk as fuck”)—a trend the company sees as a feature, not a bug: “Social media is not the polite/filtered type of audience feedback that a market researcher would get in a lab or focus group environment,” Thai says.

Is it a little weird to know that when you’re cracking jokes, complaining about, or lauding what you’re watching, a computer program somewhere is documenting that in real time? Sure it is, and the company is mindful of privacy concerns, noting that it only releases data in aggregate to identify specific trends.

But there is something to the idea that your online complaints, if shared by enough people, might get back to the people that make decisions. Twitter can provide a cathartic place to vent about consumer complaints (I’m looking at you, airlines) and the idea that someone might listen is attractive.

Thai points out that the company documented complaints about TNT's offering limited commercials, sponsored by Hyundai, during a big summer premiere. They thought the so-called commercials didn’t seem limited at all (one viewer’s counter-offer: “If I buy a Hyundai, will they show me less commercials?") A different approach might get a more positive reaction and better results for the network and advertiser, and the viewer to boot.

Bluefin is preparing new products now to enter the ultimate public opinion arena. “Elections are around the corner, [and] we’ll be able to prove out our value proposition across a number of different of areas,” Roy says. It’s not hard to imagine a future where campaigns rely as much on social media analysis as they do phone polls and focus groups, even if its slightly disconcerting to think that 140-character bursts of pique could influence world events as well as the prime-time lineup.

Or, as one of the VMA’s viewers cannily observed, “JUSTIN BEIBER WON OVER EMINEM? Wtf is wrong with people.” Welcome to the 21st-century public square.

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