How Social Media Is Changing Television As We Know It

May 24th, 2011
Published on
May 24th, 2011

Ynon Kreiz, CEO of the Endemol Group, told the crowd at the Digital Life Design Conference in January, “Everyone says that social television will be big. It’s not going to be big – it’s going to be huge!” He added, “Get up, run to your garages, and get to work designing the future of Social TV. Whoever figures it out first will be the Steve Jobs of this generation.”

Apparently, someone listened. From hardware such as Apple TV and Roku players to software such as GetGlue and Yidio, concepts are pouring in to the Social TV arena which means that change is on the horizon.

As it is used today, Social TV is a broad term referring to sundry technologies that support social interactions in the context of watching television or consuming TV-related content. In the hardware realm, those could be streaming devices, gaming consoles and internet-connectable Blu-ray players and TVs. On the software side, consumers are looking at a wider variety: content discovery, check-in, gaming and programming applications, for example.

Yet many key questions about Social TV remain unanswered. For instance, how will these concepts come together into salable technologies? What do consumers want to see from the world of Social TV? To answer these and more, the User Insight team began a yearlong Social TV research project, called “The Social TV Experiment,” applying the best of what the firm does: user research.

Why Social TV is relevant

Social TV could define the next generation of immersive interactions.

Before we jump into the project’s quarter one results, however, it’s worth addressing some questions that readers of digital publications are likely wondering. Namely, why is Social TV relevant to me? A fair question, to be sure.

Well, in short, it’s changing the way we all watch TV! In the Spring of 2007, Nielsen reported that more than 2.5 million fewer people tuned in to the major four networks than in Spring of 2006. All of that changed once YouTube went viral, however. The seemingly declining technology of television suddenly resurged, albeit in a digital form. More recently, in 2010, Forrester found that U.S. consumers spent equal time on the Internet as they did watching TV.

As we’re all spending more and more time on the Internet, we’re also increasing our interactions there. And, companies have made note! I think we all remember the Old Spice videos from last summer in which Isaiah Mustafa dressed only in a towel for two days and responded to fans from a set made to look like a bathroom. The videos had more than 83 million YouTube Channel upload views – more views in the first 24 hours than Obama’s victory speech. The success of these Old Spice videos was, in large part, thanks to the real-time, rapid responses made to users – making the videos “conversational.”

Social television is—by definition—an interactive, social experience; it requires our attention and our consideration. Just as social media and technological innovations are changing the ways in which we publish and consume information, so too will it change the television landscape. Social TV not only has the potential to put the user in control over the what, when and how they consume TV, but it also allows users to collaboratively define and share their experience. Sound familiar?

Look who’s watching

In order to better understand the real people out there watching television today, we here at User Insight began our Social TV project with persona research. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a persona represents a cluster of users who exhibit similar behavioral patterns. In quarter one, 40 contextual interviews were conducted to observe how users consume programming and use technology in their home environments. Respondents were selected from a broad spectrum of technology use, social media sharing and TV programming consumption.

After completing the contextual interviews, our team analyzed the data and created user profiles. Next, in order to visually highlight the Social TV user profiles and to demonstrate how they relate to each other, we plotted them on a user map, which plots Social TV consumers according to the key variables identified in the research – their enthusiasm for TV, social media usage and technology usage.

A comparison of the UserInsight Social Media TV personas.

Now, you’re probably wondering what those clever user names represent on the map up above. To wit:

  • Showless Joe

    “I like flipping through the channels when I come home from work; it helps me relax and unwind. I have shows that I like, but I’ll only watch them if they happen to be on when I’m at home. I don’t talk about TV and I don’t use social media. I don’t understand the appeal of social media; if I need to talk to someone, I’ll call them or email them. As for technology, I don’t need the latest stuff. The technology I have right now suits me just fine.”

  • Keeping Up Karl

    “I have shows that I like, but I don’t schedule my day around these shows. If the TV is on, and I see that one of my favorites shows is coming up next, I’ll stick around to watch it. I don’t really talk about TV with friends, but I will occasionally. I use social media to stay connected to my friends and family and I enjoy seeing what’s going on in their lives. I’ll use technology when it suits me, but I’m not ‘into’ technology.”

  • Present Pat

    “My schedule is very busy and irregular. If I want to stay current with the TV shows I like, I have to use my DVR or watch them online. The DVR allows me to watch them when it is convenient for me so that I don’t have to schedule my day around a show – it may be 15 minutes later or a day or two later. I use social media as a way to see what’s going on with my friends and family. I like reading other people’s business and viewing their photos and I may make a snarky comment about them. I will talk about TV in person – at parties, at work etc. – but not on social media websites. I am tech-savvy, but not as tech-savvy as I would like to be.”

  • Chatty Cathy

    “I watch live TV because I have my favorite shows that I need to see right away so that nobody spoils them for me. I’m frequently talking about my shows and I don’t like to be left out from a conversation. I use social media to share my thoughts and read others’ posts also. I like to share what I am doing or watching via social media and enjoy connecting with people. I like and use technology because it makes it easier for me to converse with all of my friends and family. I’ll use whatever mode of communication works best at the moment – phone call, text, email, Facebook, etc.”

  • Passionate Penny

    “I am a self professed TV junkie. I need to be on “Intervention.” Whenever I am home, the TV is on. The first thing that I do when I get home is catch up on the TV episodes I’ve missed. I love my DVR because it lets me fast forward through the commercials and I can watch as much as possible before I fall I asleep. I am so involved in my shows that I will even look up things related to the show online – IMDB, TV websites, etc. If I pick up a new show, I have to start from Season 1 to really know the characters and understand what is going on in the show. I also love social media. I am constantly checking my social feeds – making comments and posting about what I am watching or what is going on in my life. I give and take advice from my online friends about interesting and popular shows. I’d be lost without technology.”

To learn more about this user map, check out this screencast, narrated by our CEO, Eric Holtzclaw. In the next phase of research, our team here at User Insight will test various Social TV concepts against these user profiles to obtain valuable insights as to the types of consumers that will likely adopt and utilize various Social TV technologies.

It’s up to us

Google Wave famously failed in a similar experiment.

Like all forms of media, Social TV must reach a tipping point before it goes mainstream. And, like all forms of media, in order for people to adopt it it must facilitate interactions that add value to their everyday lives. Luckily, that’s where we interaction designers come in.

One challenge members of the design community face is designing for convergence; that is, the natural struggle that happens when we have both synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication. Many social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and messaging boards, are asynchronous – I can leave a message and respond to it later – whereas television has traditionally been a synchronous media. How will designers account for the difference? Although it sounds fairly straightforward, it isn’t. Google famously failed when it introduced Google Wave, a product that tackled a similar problem.

Furthermore, there are the difficulties inherent in “many-to-many conversations,” such as: how do you accommodate many people interacting socially with one another online, often engaged in a multitude of conversations and sub-conversations? One only need look at the comment threads after online news stories to see the difficulty in keeping up with the flow of such conversation, even when it follows familiar conventions such as message threading.

In order to successfully design a balanced flow of information between asynchronous to synchronous communication, UX designers will have to think beyond established best practices and heuristics and work to gain a better understanding of the context in which these experiences will take place as well what features and interactions will make these experiences engaging.

According to my colleague, User Insight Senior User Experience Strategist Robert Hamburger, the challenges of designing for this emerging field are twofold:

Not only will designers need to have a greater understanding of the different contexts in which these interactions might take place, but they’ll also have to experiment with the functionality that will make the Social TV experience more fun, rewarding or informative.

Because best practices have not been established in this space, Hamburger sees a critical need to integrate ethnographic research and behavioral based feedback from longitudinal studies with real users to identify the features, functions and interactions that will win in the marketplace.

As Social TV evolves each day, User Insight will continue to forge ahead in our quest to determine what it is that users really want in the Social TV space. Please join the conversation about the research on the User Insight blog and share your input about this new and exciting frontier. In addition, there are a multitude of (asynchronous) conversations and material out there about Social TV and how it will continue to affect web design, user behaviors, consumption, etc., including some articles here at UX Booth. Read them all and be sure to share your thoughts with your fellow designers. We’ll do the same, and we look forward to shaping the future of this exciting medium, together.

Further Reading

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