Why Facebook and Twitter Are Fighting Over Your Television

Inside the campaign to take over your living room, screen by screen


When the new season of ABC’s hit political thriller Scandal premiered Thursday night, fans cataloged each moment of melodrama in the worldwide living room of Twitter and Facebook. It was a global gabfest.

But is it a business?

Facebook and Twitter certainly hope so. In a crowded market of screens, TV is still the biggest, commanding roughly $70 billion in annual advertising. Although viewers have more choices than ever, most of them are still tuning in live. Nielsen reports that online video accounts for a small portion of time spent watching TV, just over 2%, even after including YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu.

Facebook and Twitter have the same grand strategy to cut a slice of that $70 billion. Unike Netflix and Hulu, their plan isn’t to take attention away from TV, but rather to attract more attention to TV advertising.

Take Scandal, for example, whose audience is young, female-driven, and racially diverse. If a company like Samsung wants to target Scandal viewers, the traditional approach would be to air a commercial on ABC and hope smartphone sales grow. By teaming up with Facebook or Twitter, Samsung can air a commercial on TV and then target people who talk about (or are likely to watch) Scandal on Twitter and Facebook, surrounding them with ads wherever they look, whether on their TV screens, phones, or computers.

In the lead-up to its IPO this fall, Twitter launched Amplify, which partners with TV channels to pump promoted tweets and short video clips (co-branded by an advertiser and network) into feeds where users are likely to be tuned into the channel. Nielsen has reported that these doubled-up ads translated to a 58-percent-higher purchase intent for consumers.

Last week, CBS and the NFL joined the roster of network partners participating in Amplify. Ford has already linked up with ESPN for instant replay videos. Minutes after you see a highlight from your favorite college football team on TV, you could also see a Ford-sponsored replay on Twitter.

Twitter has also partnered with Nielsen, which will soon publish Twitter TV ratings with data from smartphones and tablets. A Nielsen report in August found that more tweets equal more viewers, and vice versa. In 29 percent of episodes surveyed, Twitter activity boosted live television viewership in a “statistically significant” way, and 48 percent of the time, higher TV viewership led to a higher tweet volume.

The ratings system isn’t a business just yet, and some argue it isn’t much of a ratings system, either. But it reflects Twitter’s broad approach to using data and screen-share to edge its way into a $70 billion market.

Facebook has its eye on TV, too. The company announced last Monday that it will offer top broadcasters weekly updates on how conversations about shows translate into comments, likes, and shares. In September, Facebook revealed that it was opening up to select media partners, giving companies like CNN search tools to find out how users are reacting to current events and television shows.

Facebook’s adoption of the hashtag and trending topics, both of which originated on Twitter, is also a play to harness social chatter. If you watched the series finale of AMC’s Breaking Bad September 29, you could click on a hashtag to see the show as a trending topic in the upper right of your screen. With the latest updates to Facebook’s Graph Search feature, you could also find friends who used Breaking Bad-themed hashtags in their posts.

Which social media giant is better positioned to make television magic?

Facebook has the people – 1.15 billion users to Twitter’s 240 million. But Twitter has a head start. Even though tweeting about television is far from average behavior, with the majority of messages coming from a small number of vocal users, it has become the platform for talking about must-see television. Twitter was mentioned in half of Super Bowl commercials this year.

The company has aggressively invested in tracking. In the past year Twitter shelled out $90 million for the social analytics company Bluefin Labs and an undisclosed amount for another analytics startup called Trendrr. Its acquisition of the mobile ad serving platform MoPub for $350 million in September will also benefit its targeting efforts.

Neither Twitter nor Facebook has built out the sort of TV strategy that could meaningfully change their fortunes in the short term, but that’s not stopping them from making this sell: TV advertisers don’t just belong on television screen; they belong on every screen.