Social media as a broadcast channel – Promax 2011

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to participate in a panel discussion at the Promax 2011 conference on the subject of how our use of social media has changed the way we consume, and potentially even create, television. The opens up a massive subject area for me – everything from what a broadcasters business model should be, to how people in the UK are now consuming media as a whole. Working in an environment which is resolutely anchored in broadcast media, I have many challenges simply communicating the cultural shifts in how we consume and value media that are, without a doubt, occurring.

Below is a bit of a braindump (so apologies if it’s a little verbose in places) that I mailed the other members of the panel the evening before the event to try and capture some of my observations in how changing technology and cultural attitudes toward media might affect our work and provide new opportunities for us to explore.

Platforms for marketing
One thing that is very clear to me, and that is that social media is still regarded as another message publishing channel (with “viral” sidebenefits). Indeed, most of the marketing-orientated talks I’ve seen about the social networks seem to talk about the opportunities of leveraging them to this purpose without fully taking into account what they are. What this typically leads to in large organisations is “social” being another line on a media plan, instead of it being approached as an emerging medium. By the time this reaches the creative agency, there is often no choice but to simply execute the creative within that medium – effectively just publishing it there. The vast majority of facebook “apps” are not applications at all, but web content published within that website, using a couple of internal facebook functions to spam people’s profiles. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that users are tiring of this pointless, transparent activity. The best uses of social media (e.g. Intel Museum of Me) use the technical mechanisms of the social networks to deliver unique creative experiences that become inherently viral. What is important to remember is that social networks are not publishing platforms (or if they are, then they are strictly personal publishing platforms), but actually services, and that they live or die on the service they provide their userbase (as MySpace found out when their inability to restrict signal to noise ratio meant that it became inherently unusable). Facebook’s innovations are all about allowing people to connect with each other better, to share content, to maintain (and control) personal relationships and to stay in touch. It’s the 01’s equivalent of the text message in the 00’s or the pub in the (16)90’s!. Anyway, I could rant about this all day….the gold is in making your content or creative useful for people, leveraging the network to do it. Simply having it as a bullet point in your media plan is NOT good enough and I see broadcasters doing this far too often. Great integrated campaigns like Nike’s Live Strong robot simply used the social network as a a technical conduit for interaction, nothing more…and yet the impact that it has is huge, simply by virtue of how engaging ideas spread.

Viral, memetic content spreads irrespective of the publishers intentions. There is no such thing as “viral” content, only content which has spread virally.

One of the things that the above leads to is unrealistic metrics being used. I think that many marketeers are asking the wrong questions a lot of time. KPI’s around social media should be around how people respond to social activity ( which is hard to measure) rather than interaction per se. To fully make use of this emerging medium we need to look more carefully at what we’re trying to achieve and measure our success or failure differently. This will be particularly important when we’re talking about actual content (and not just messaging). I don’t have answers on this, but might be an interesting thing to canvas opinion on it. To still talk of clickthroughs and page impressions seems positively medieval to me – just as BARB ratings shortly will. Most of us working in creating online content know exactly how these analytics are implemented and manipulated – we need a better system and to be clearer about our goals.

Applications are not content. “Apps” are tools and services. They are useful. They enable the user to achieve a goal. We should look more carefully at what the opportunities of technologies, platforms and emerging services offer (particularly those that are programmable – which, btw, EVERY service should be. Seriously, screw IP – if facebook worried about closing off their service like some content creators do we wouldn’t even be having this conversation) rather than how we can make them another channel for distribution or publishing. Zeebox etc are promising in terms of experience, but they are shallow at present, partially due to their lack of integration with the core broadcast service. It’s all going to be about what you do with them…how do we make those services useful for our customers, to enhance their viewing (and thus engage them further with our business)?

Blurring the lines
We reference HBO quite a lot in our work, mostly for their success in treating premium content with impact, whilst maintaining a useable and browsable site. Their approach to social content has been no less creative, with teh HBO Connect site making engaging content out of social activity. From the opening page where you are seeing who is interacting with what content on the site in real time (which is actually a bit brilliant when you sit with it a while) to the social visualisers (branded contextually for some shows like True Blood), this turns social interactions and interactions with the site (and thus the brand) into further premium content and experience – I can’t say what it’s impact in marketing terms is of this decision, but creatively it puts the brand experience at the heart of the social engagement and this is, imho, full of win.

There is evidence to suggest that young people consume campaign content with no differentiation to the primary content. Buzzwords such as transmedia storytelling have been coined to describe this, and much of Channel 4’s recent youth-orientated output has clearly had considerable effort put into it to blur the lines between the show diegesis and the campaign and supplemental material. This not only requires considerable collaboration between marketeers, planners, creatives, production companies and networks, but also requires a leap of faith that “content” doesn’t exist purely in self-contained media types, but is an entire ecosystem of materials which, as long as a coherent creative strand is present, will offer great new opportunities for broadcast television networks.

With thanks to other panel members:
Jon @ knifeedge
Federico @ Discovery
Jody @ channel 4 creative
Paul @ Somethin’ Else

About Andrew

I am a technical director, creative technologist and digital strategist who has been working in the web industry for 15 years. An early online user from the days of Prestel and BBS systems, I am a self-taught technologist and developer who has been immersed in the creative possibilities of digital technology from childhood. My career path has taken many turns, from the heady dot-com agency days, through the corporate world and the variety of experience which freelance brings. Throughout, my goal has been to help organizations and brands realise the potential that the art and science of being digital can achieve, and to help them create opportunities to better use the most important emerging medium of our time. I am a strong advocate for digital as a multi-disciplinary medium, with an enviable record in building and retaining teams, and in the importance of the creative disciplines of collaboration, vision, practicing and failing in order to push things forward.

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