Smart audience enagement through social media — learning from the pros

Many TV show hosts and Web producers are scrambling for ways to get their audiences interact more directly with their programs.

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One very effective way of fostering such engagement is by creatively linking interaction over TV and Web, according to Maggie Fox, founder and CEO, Dundas, Ont.-based SocialMedia Group.

Fox was host of a panel titled: TV Reframed – Who Said TV is anti-social? at nextMedia, a learning and networking event for creative professionals held in Toronto recently. The event attracted folk from the advertising, broadcasting, TV production, media-buying and interactive sectors. 

Fox cited ABC Social: Episode Commentary as an example of smart audience engagement using social media.

Launched early in November, ABC Social: Episode Commentary allows viewers of an show to add short comments in real time in a window to the left of the site’s video player. Users log into this feature using their Facebook accounts and can the share their comments with their Facebook friends, should they want to.

Fox said the feature was used very effectively during the Michael Jackson funeral in the summer of 2009. Fans of the pop star could share their comments while watching the performers at the star-studded affair, and snagged its highest Nielsen NetRating ever.

“If you compare the ABC and CBS coverage of the funeral, there was nothing exclusive about the actual video stream, because everyone had the it,” noted Elmer Sotto, a member of the Facebook Canada team and another panelist.  “Yet ABC had significantly greater traffic and viewers than its competitors.”

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The fact that ABC allowed people to invite friends on Facebook to come and watch a show with them and then comment on it drove the results, Sotto noted.

The network used the premiere of the sci-fi remake V to launch ABC Social, which featured commentary from V executive producers Scott Peters and Steve Perlman. ABC plans to include similar expert commentary in other shows coming down the road – alongside comments from network execs, actors, show staffers, journalists, bloggers et al.

This symbiotic relationship between TV and social media is sparking several innovative initiatives, noted Sotto,

He said much of the innovation happening on Facebook is actually being led and executed by media companies, including new media services such as Kooloo, the big networks (ABC, CNN, NBC) and traditional media firms, such as

He cited some ways these media companies use Facebook creatively:

  • ABC allows people to watch content with friends and family worldwide, and interact with one another based on this content.
  • Other media firms use Facebook to allow audiences to stay abreast of upcoming shows and movies.

TV and Web – Building bridges

Television show hosts and networks need to work hard and smart to marry content they create on the Web with what they do on TV, panelists said.

TV personality and new media specialist Amber MacArthur shared how she does this with Webnation, a fast-paced show she hosts every Wednesday night on CP24 that looks at what’s hot in the digital world, from viral videos to new technology.  

“We’re trying to make that very interactive.”

She said Webnation incorporates a lot of audience feedback. “For example, a couple of times during the live broadcast, we switch to a guy who is moderating all the conversation on Twitter to get feedback on what people are saying on the Web.”

She said tremendous effort is required to monitor and manage audience interaction online and offline.

That’s the difference between pure TV and a blended approach, she said. “If it’s a TV show, once it’s over, it’s over and you move on to the next show. But if that conversation continues on the Web, you need someone who can monitor and manage that online component as well.”

The potential for promoting audience interaction on a TV show is limited, MacArthur suggested. She cited the example of a Webnation contents, where viewers are asked to submit their photos.

“We may only show three photos on a live show, or a version of the show that’s archived online. But we still need to find other ways to thank people who’ve contributed, who’ve put links up on Facebook, Twitter and other sites … and we want to engage in that conversation with them. So there’s a lot of upkeep to building a community online that isn’t there with traditional TV.”

That being the case, she said, there’s definitely a need within TV networks for person to fill in the roll of “community specialist” or “social media specialist.”

“This is a person who would manage the social media component. But you need person with the right kinds of skills. Because if you get in a person who doesn’t understand the space, it could actually backfire.”

When it comes to monetizing content — especially online video — advertising strategies that work well on TV often aren’t suitable for the Web, said MacArthur, who is founder of MGImedia, a social media consulting and online video production firm with offices in Toronto and Halifax.

It’s important that agencies and online video professionals recognize this fact, she said.

For instance, she said while use of pre-roll and post-roll ads is fairly commonly for online videos, it’s not necessarily the best business model for this medium.


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Online video audiences quite often ignore pre-roll ads, MacArthur observed. On the other hand, she said, if the host of a popular online program presents a product, talks about it knowledgeably, and endorses it — that resonates a lot better with audiences.

If cleverly done, it could also be exceptionally lucrative.

The strategy, MacArthur said is being used very effectively by one of her colleagues, Leo Laporte, through his online tech podcasting and video service – (MacArthur often co-hosts episodes).

Twit began as a two audio-only shows in April 2005 – The Tech Guy Radio Show and This Week in Tech. Today the service includes more than 15 shows as well as 40 hours a week of live video streaming. According to the Twit TV Web site, the service which started off as a hobby is a full-time business employing seven people and a dozen other contractors from different parts of the world.

MacArthur said as part of Twit TV’s advertising model, Laporte personally recommends certain products services. “This advertising is host-driven in terms of the type of content. For instance, Leo will recommend services such as: Audible, GoToMyPC. and so on. “He’s the one presenting the product and endorsing it. For the audience this makes a whole lot of more sense than pre-roll.”

But what about the credibility factor in host-driven advertising? How can a host maintain editorial integrity, while being paid to endorse a product?

On his site Laporte says he’s limited the ads to “a handful of products” he can personally use and endorse, from companies such as AOL, Cachefly, Citrix, Audible, Astaro, Drobo, Squarespace, Carbonite, Visa, Google, and Ford.

These firms “have helped us improve our quality, increase our variety,”  the Twit TV Web site says.

The issue of how to square host-based endorsements with editorial integrity has been hotly debated.

But purely from a financial standpoint, the “endoresements” model appears to be working well. “Leo reported that he made $1.5 million last year,” MacArthur noted. “That’s pretty good.”

She said in her own experience too, when she’s be in a position to endorse something it’s always worked better than any ads inserted at the beginning and/or end of a show. “The audience just tends to ignore that.”

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