This post originally appeared on Altimeter Group’s blog.

Real-time content synchronization between offline and online media has become the darling of social TV, frequently serving as its very definition for companies looking to marry traditional and digital marketing experiences. Take Target, for example. Prior to the 2013 release of Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience,” Target promoted the album synchronously on social, mobile, and TV. Its Facebook video post offered an exclusive pre-order of the album, and appeared simultaneously in fans’ news feeds while the commercial was broadcast.


As my colleague Rebecca Lieb notes, TV pairs well with Twitter synching, too. In
one indicative case study, GMA News used Twitter to increase viewer engagement with the Philippines’ 2013 election. By broadcasting tweets about the election on-screen during their programming, GMA News sparked more than 800,000 posts about the candidates and, as a result, topped all competitor TV ratings during the election. And, with Comcast and Twitter’s recent expansion of the
See It platform, brands can go one step further by effectively turning Twitter into a TV remote, allowing users to click through directly from tweet to broadcast on their mobile phones, tablets, and smart TVs.

On-Demand programming pressures brands to rethink social TV strategies

Social and broadcast synchronization offer tremendous opportunity for brands to reach engaged audiences on multiple screens. But what happens when brands can’t create shared experiences as easily?

Those focused on social synchronization as it stands are playing a short game that doesn’t account for TV’s future. According to BTIG media analyst Richard Greenfield, as of October 2013, each Netflix subscriber watches an average of 93 minutes per day, making it “larger than any single cable network.” Combined with releasing entire seasons of original programming at once (think House of Cards and Orange is the New Black), this puts a wrench in viewers’ ability to share experiences on social networks in real time, as well as advertisers’ ability to deepen cross-channel marketing messaging and avoid media fragmentation. Add a premium paywall, and the social experience becomes further disjointed.

This is where technology applications have an opportunity to shine. TV “check-in” apps like
i.TV’s GetGlue allow for viewers to form micro-communities once they tune in to programming. However, such apps have to prove that they scale before they can provide value to brands. On stage at 2013’s Dreamforce conference, Twitter’s Marc Heedt, brand strategist and social TV specialist, shared that the utility of such apps isn’t high enough yet. “We want to create the whole package for advertisers, including all apps, Nielsen data, a Twitter ad buy, etc. On their own, these apps don’t scale in the same way [social networks do].” Also on the panel was Facebook’s Daniel Slotwiner, head of its Measurement Solutions Group. Slotwiner added, “These apps can’t be disregarded. However, their gamification component isn’t enough of an offering to make them catch on at scale and prove useful in synching experiences.”

Facebook "is watching" status functionalityBut, what about the similar TV check-in (“is watching”) functionality available to Facebook users? This offers potential for on-demand synching, but in a community setting where viewers are already comfortable sharing. In 2014, I believe we’ll see the big social players put more stake in social TV, solving the problem of synchronization on their home turf rather than simply enabling apps to do so on their APIs. Until then, brands looking to target on-demand viewers should focus efforts on smaller audiences using dedicated check-in apps.

It’s also worth considering that time-shifted programming doesn’t always equal paltry social results. Many season and series finales (think AMC’s Breaking Bad) are able to attract enough viewers to create social trending on Twitter and Facebook even in the face of time-shifted premieres across time zones. “Real-time” equates more to “same night” in these cases, leaving breathing room for brands pushing for content synchronization amongst screens.

As social TV matures, its future looks increasingly promising. When considering the possibilities that lie ahead, Twitter’s Heedt extrapolated, “Consumers will be so integrated into programs that they decide what they want to watch and vote upcoming content up or down. Imagine changing the ending of a telecast based on consumer voting.”

An interesting thought, but a somewhat displaced desired outcome. This has been the rallying cry of “interactive TV” for the past decade, but it has never come to fruition. It’s doubtful the advent of social TV will be the catalyst for a “choose your own adventure” style of programming. I’m not comfortable leaving the series finale of Mad Men in the hands of the viewers. Don Draper can’t be controlled like an American Idol pop star.

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