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Facebook Inc. Posts Will Help Gauge TV Ratings

By Rich Duprey - Feb 17, 2016 at 6:00PM

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Marketers think what you say on social media can determine a program's success or failure.

What you say about programming on social media, good or bad, will be tabulated to give marketers a fuller picture of viewer engagement. Nielsen will now track Facebook mentions in addition to Twitter. Photo credit: Spencer E Holtaway.

Does what you say online translate into what happens offline? Consumer and media ratings giant Nielsen (NLSN -0.07%) thinks so, and it's expanding its coverage of what TV shows you're talking about on social media to make the data available to content production companies and advertisers. Your opinion apparently does count.

Nielsen began tracking show mentions on Twitter (TWTR 0.54%) a few years ago, in what it called its Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings, but last month the consumer habits measurement firm announced that it was adding Facebook (META 0.22%) mentions as well and would rebrand the service as Nielsen's Social Content Ratings.

The belief in the ability of social media to influence opinion has grown to such an extent that marketers have tried to harness the power of the hashtag by including them in commercials, TV shows, and movie trailers commonplace. Yet whether they can actually change consumer behavior to create a hit TV show is debatable. It may have been thought at one time that a program getting a lot of social media mentions would be a lucrative place to advertise on, because viewers were "engaged," but there's little evidence to back up such theories.

Comments, likes, or retweets don't indicate a person is actually watching the show, and may be little more than an exercise in measuring background noise. Nielsen, though, stops short of saying that's what its ratings service will deliver.

"By measuring program-related conversation across social networking services," the ratings provider said in a press release announcing the new changes, "TV networks and streaming content providers can assess the effectiveness of social audience engagement strategies and better understand the relationship between social activity and tune-in."

Or, shorter, here's some cool, additional data you guys may or may not find useful.

Just because tweets are mentioning a show doesn't mean they like it, or even watched it, suggesting rating based on such datapoints will have a lot of background noise in them.

After all, the SyFy channel's Sharknado was screaming across social media when it aired in 2013, the same year Nielsen began tracking Twitter mentions, generating some 5,000 tweets a minute. Yet with 1.4 million viewers, it did no better really than other original movies the channel made, and actually fared a little worse than Chupacabra vs. The Alamo, which drew in 1.5 million viewers. While there's something of a cult fandom behind the shark-storm movie, enough to allow SyFy to make two sequels to the movie with third slated for this year, it also continues to debase the reputation of the channel as a provider of original, quality content. 

Perhaps Nielsen's social media ratings can help bridge that gap, but it's doubtful it will save us from such dreck being produced, as SyFy says it considers the movie a success as a result of the viewer engagement.

Nielsen's partnership with Facebook, though, is by nature going to be different from what it has with Twitter because when you Tweet something out on the platform, it's largely available for everyone to view. On Facebook, however, posts are more private, viewable only by those you allow to see what you write.

To get around that, Nielsen won't be the one actually monitoring what you say on the social network, but rather Facebook itself will be peering in on your conversations and aggregating the data, presumably keeping you anonymous while providing the ratings service with the following information:

  • Whether a post is original about a show.
  • If it's been liked, commented on, retweeted, or shared.
  • The reach it's achieved, which Facebook describes as the number of impressions, or times a post is displayed and seen.
  • Demographic information, such as age and gender.

Nielsen has also tracked YouTube views since 2012 and plans on incorporating Instagram mentions as well in the future. Whether that will provide any useful, actionable data for programmers and content creators remains to be seen, but maybe they only care that their shows are having something said about them. As P.T. Barnum was once reputedly quoted as saying, "I don't care what they say about me; just make sure they spell my name right!"

Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.

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