Twitter is making audience measurement sexy

Andy Littledale (@andylittledale), managing director at SecondSync, discusses the way social media is changing TV audience measurement and the commercial potential of broadcast analytics.

In the UK 27,000 hours of domestic TV content are produced annually at a cost of £2.6 billion (Ofcom).

Spot advertising and programme sponsorship on UK commercial TV channels generated revenues of £4.36bn in 2011 (ThinkBox).

Both the commissioning and scheduling of this content and the pricing of the spot ads and programme sponsorship hinges on one thing: the way the TV audience is measured. Success is measured on how many people are watching.

Counting eyeballs

The Broadcasters’ Audience research Board (BARB) was established in 1981 to measure the size of TV audiences in the UK, and it hasn’t Andy Littledale, managing director at SecondSyncchanged significantly in 30 years. It uses a panel to estimate the number of eyeballs in front of a show. That panel consists of boxes in 5,000 homes that record viewing information, and the numbers are extrapolated to estimate viewing across the entire population. When you read that 10 million watched X Factor last weekend, that data comes from these 5 thousand boxes. As a statistical method for estimating TV audience sizes, it is robust and effective but it has been accused of being a blunt tool considering the investment decisions that are based entirely on its data.

Enter social media

In the past few years something very interesting has happened. Social media, and especially Twitter, has extended the shared experience of watching a TV programme, breaking it out from the living room and onto the internet. Viewers are tweeting about TV shows in huge numbers. This behaviour is reinvigorating the traditional linear broadcast at a time when it was under threat from time shifted viewing (the effect of iPlayer and Sky+, for example). It is also re-inventing the way broadcasters and advertisers can measure their audience.

At SecondSync we map tweets to UK TV programmes and we’ve identified over 6 million individual UK twitter users who’ve tweeted about a TV show since Jan 1st 2012. We track all mainstream TV channels and on average pull in around 750,000 tweets per day. Here are the top 10 series from the last 6 months, measured purely on total volume of tweets.

The X Factor

Big Brother

The Only Way is Essex


Family Guy

Celebrity Big Brother

The Jeremy Kyle Show


The Voice UK

Geordie Shore

Before you write off Social TV as a phenomenon confined to talent shows and soaps, Question Time comes in at number 15 and frequently tops 50,000 tweets per broadcast.

Breaking down the stats

Our statistics enable us to compare how shows perform against each other in terms of tweet volumes and peaks in Twitter activity. We have also created a dashboard product to enable broadcasters, production companies and agencies to interrogate this wealth of audience data and mine for audience insights.

We’ve identified some very interesting patterns of behaviour. Different genres, time slots and demographics display very different patterns of engagement. Viewers of drama tend to tweet in the ad breaks. Peaks in talent shows occur during the acts. Women tend to tweet 2 minutes before a film starts. Men like to tweet their favourite lines throughout a film. Here is the top show from Thursday, 11th October, The Plane Crash on Channel 4, with over 80k tweets. See if you can spot when the plane smashed into the desert.

SecondSync infographic, The Crash

Future predictions

There have been some fairly bold predictions from companies in the states that social data like this will eventually replace viewer panels such as BARB in the UK. We do not subscribe to this view. We see our data primarily as a tool to help broadcasters get instant feedback on their shows, commission better programmes, and schedule them in the right slot. We see it as an opportunity for brands to target engaged audiences rather than simply trying to put their message in front of the largest number of people.

We’re working closely with industry and academic partners to shine a light on this interesting behaviour and to fully understand the commercial implications of what we are measuring.

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