Commentary

Making Noise: A Conversation With Combe's Tom Cunniff

For an increasing number of consumers, watching television has gone from a passive activity to a truly social one. Armed with any mobile device, they are able to rate, comment and participate in select TV programming and chat about their favorite shows via social channels -- all in real time. Advertisers have taken notice -- and are becoming involved in the conversation. Media economist Jack Myers predicts that, between 2012 and 2020, social TV will generate an aggregate $30 billion in spending by marketers.

Tom Cunniff, vice president and director of interactive communications at Combe Inc., believes social TV gives brands the opportunity to better connect with consumers in a more engaging, emotional way. He recently experienced the integration of TV and social himself — and shared his thoughts on social TV.

What do you think is fueling the growth of social TV? 

First of all, marketers realize that TV is not going away and will probably still be the dominant form of media for some time to come. Secondly, I think there’s a problem with most digital media, which is that it’s inherently anti-scale. We keep trying to shrink and shrink audiences down as small as we can with the illusion of finding the one person who’s going to buy today. So I think smart marketers look at social TV as a chance to have an integrated solution — something that has the mass reach of television and the intimacy of social.

Why should advertisers even care about social TV?

We have to care about what consumers care about. Consumers like to watch TV, be entertained by it, and they like to talk about what they just saw. TV has always been a social activity. Go back to the 1950s, when TV was introduced. Families sat around the TV and talked about what they were watching, usually during the commercials. This isn’t new behavior. This isn’t technology leading something and enabling it. This is what consumers already do. As an example, when the Giants and 49ers were playing for the NFC Championship, I spent the entire fourth quarter talking about it on Twitter with all my friends. It made the game much more exciting.   

Are more shows are being created to take advantage of social media?

Not yet. We see some tacking on of Twitter hashtags and “like us on Facebook” messages. Hollywood has to do some thinking about how to integrate social. It’s really what we talked about interactive TV becoming.

What is a great example of a successful social integration with TV?

My favorite example is Heineken Star Player, developed by an agency called AKQA. It’s an app that lets you interact in real time with a UEFA Champion’s League game. Whether you’re watching the game on TV, on your mobile device, or on your laptop, you predict what’s going to happen next. So if there’s a corner throw, will it lead to a score? A foul? You predict what’s going to happen.

This goes back to basic human behavior: Nobody is more of a sports expert than a man with a beer in his hand watching television. So this app just harnesses that. The agency has done a good job of game-ifying the app. You earn points, bragging rights and can be in your own league with friends. You can play against the world. I don’t know what the business results have been, but I would say if I was CMO of Heineken, I’d be really excited about the app because it just feels so natural. If I can get a guy to have a Heineken in one hand and his mobile device in the other hand watching TV, that’s awesome.

How can data be used to make better programming decisions?

We should be looking for signs of vitality in shows that haven’t yet caught fire. As an example, Seinfeld didn’t hit the Nielsen top 30 until its fourth season, but it had consumer buzz. But today, in this sort of hair-trigger environment, you’d just kill that show -- you’d kill it instantly because it wasn’t performing well. So I hope that more people say, “You know what, this show hasn’t caught fire yet, but there’s lots of buzz on Twitter, on Facebook, and everywhere else. We should give it some time.”

What I worry about is that we’ll end up drawing the wrong conclusions from the right data. We’ll say, “there seems to be a lot more buzz when the character wears a hat.” And so now, suddenly, we’ll have everybody on How I Met Your Mother wearing a hat because that’s what the data tells us. Data is fairly neutral. We can be smart about it, or we can be dumb about it. I’m praying for smart but worried about dumb. 

Is the recent resurgence of Betty White’s career a great example of the public being rewarded for their social support?

A great example. We have to give credit to the Snickers campaign, which got that public support going. Again, that points back to the power of television. A problem in business is that we have people who grew up in the TV world and people who grew up in the digital world, and there’s some disdain for the other side. I feel lucky because I spent about half my career in traditional media and half in digital, and for the past 10 years I have crossed both. Both sides have strengths.

If you want to create mass awareness of Betty White and bring her back, there’s nothing like TV. If you want to start a word-of-mouth campaign, there’s nothing like social for activation. Betty White is actually a great example of traditional and digital media working together. That’s the kind of thing that we should be looking at and taking advantage of. We should resist the urge to reinvent the wheel. There’s fundamental human behavior involved here, and it’s working really well without our interference. We should just figure out where we fit naturally.

 Bill Duggan is group executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers.

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