It's that time of year. The newest seasons of most network television shows are premiering, and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) is courting television networks, producers, and actors to use its platform to promote their shows.
Twitter and television have been tied together for some time. It's one of the social network's biggest strengths, as it gets more posts per user than Facebook or any other platform. But Twitter could always use more tweets, and television-related tweets are likely worth more than average.
That's why Twitter released a new study that found that live tweeting a broadcast can increase total Twitter conversation by about 7%. If the cast tweets, it increases conversation by a much more impressive 64%.
But Twitter failed to show broadcasters that increasing conversation on Twitter benefits their shows in any way. For Twitter to succeed, it needs to provide a service that's mutually beneficial for broadcasters and itself.
Causation, not correlation
Twitter's television ratings partner, Nielsen, released a couple of studies last year on Twitter and TV. Its first study found that shows with the highest number of tweets also received the highest ratings. It should be obvious that there's a correlation between the number of people watching a TV show and the number of people talking about it on social media. But that doesn't necessarily mean increasing the number of tweets about a show will increase viewership.
A second study went more in depth and found that there actually was causation between Twitter activity and television ratings ... sometimes. The study found that "the volume of Tweets caused statistically significant changes in Live TV Ratings among 29% of the episodes."
The types of shows that can draw the biggest benefits from tweeting are right in Twitter's wheelhouse -- sports, live events, and reality TV shows. Programming like that doesn't require much context, so viewers can jump into the middle of a broadcast. Twitter's already working with the NFL for customized content and curated timelines, but it could do more to persuade reality show producers to get their cast to live tweet.
As for serial television shows, however, it's hard to see a large impact on channel changing -- which explains why only 29% of shows see a significant change in ratings. Doubling the Twitter conversation about Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire isn't going to get people to tune in during the middle of the show. It might, however, get people to "borrow" their friends' HBO Go password or possibly even pay for HBO. The studies don't say, but it's not illogical.
A conflict of interest
Even if Twitter can show that it helps broadcasters in some form, there's still a conflict of interest between engaging audiences on Twitter versus engaging them on the television screen. Twitter can become a distraction during the most valuable part of the broadcast -- commercials. And Twitter is competing more and more with television for ad dollars, especially now that it's testing video ads.
Television still draws more ad dollars than digital advertising does, and television ad spend is expected to grow more, on an absolute basis, than digital video ads over the next five years. Still, it's understandable that at least some ad dollars that would have been earmarked for television will make their way onto social platforms as the audience moves there during commercial breaks.
To get those ad dollars, Twitter will have to partner with the companies it's competing against. The benefits aren't as clear for broadcasters as they are for Twitter.
Going after the big fish
Twitter is going after the big fish first, and throwing out bait for all the smaller fish. The most popular television broadcasts on Twitter are sports, comprising about 50% of TV-related conversations. To that end, Twitter's partnership with the NFL makes sense and the company could be working on other partnerships with other sports leagues.
The next step is to increase conversations about award shows -- which it has a pretty good presence in already -- and reality television. Its newest internal study doesn't do much to persuade broadcasters to tweet during its shows, but that doesn't mean Twitter's not a useful tool. The ratings bump for those types of shows from increased Twitter conversation is likely worth the distraction.
Persuading the other 70% of broadcasts, however, is going to be extremely difficult. And getting them to use Twitter to promote the show through ads will be even harder. Twitter has room to improve in television, but it's not going to completely dominate the conversation without providing additional benefits, like revenue sharing, with the majority of broadcasters.
Adam Levy owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple, Facebook, Google (A and C shares), Netflix, and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.