Facebook, Twitter Compete For Social Gold At The Olympics

Facebook's new Olympics deal treads on territory long held by Twitter. But will it be enough to stake its claim on the second screen?

Long before the crack of a single starter pistol, fierce competition for second screen domination is raging at the London Olympics. And Facebook is edging into Twitter's lane.

Earlier this week, Facebook and NBC announced a partnership aimed at driving exclusive content to NBC’s Olympics Facebook page. In turn, NBC will feature conversations and data from Facebook users during its broadcasts. While no money is said to be changing hands, the agreement is designed to increase Facebook’s TV presence during the games and vice versa. 

Almost immediately, talk arose over whether the move constituted a legitimate challenge to Twitter’s dominance of the social TV market.

“Real-time social TV—sports, especially—is Twitter's niche to lose,” says Stowe Boyd, a designer and researcher who penned a report called "Social TV and the Second Screen." "Facebook relationships are generally closer friendships than those on Twitter, so to the extent that people are discussing games, shows, and news with close friends Facebook has some steam. However, Twitter offers both close and loose relationships at the same time which appeals to a different demographic: info junkies, young people, fans.”

According to a March 2012 study by the social analytics firm Trendrr, 80% of the social activity surrounding broadcast TV happens on Twitter, versus only 7% for Facebook, though as Mike Proulx, author of the book Social TV points out in an email to Fast Company, that statistic only includes public Facebook activity, not "Friends Only" content which can't be measured by social analytics. In order to spark conversation and bridge that gap, Facebook may have to do more than just throw poll results on a television screen.

"On one hand, the nature of Twitter puts it at an advantage around the notion of 'instant,'" Proulx adds, "but on the other hand, since it happens much more in real-time, any individual tweet often lasts mere seconds within one’s Twitter feed before others quickly stack it down. Some of the best social TV executions I’ve seen involving Facebook are less about engaging with television as it’s airing but more about content that is pumped to loyal television series’ fans in-between episode airings. This helps to keep the TV show top-of-mind and buzzed about."

Twitter also has more practice than Facebook, having already partnered with NBC for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, and with ESPN for this year’s NBA Finals. That’s left Facebook playing catch-up, though a recent deal with the BBC to stream its Olympic broadcasts and a collaboration with CNN on election coverage show the social network moving quickly to gain ground. Facebook will also need to step up its mobile presence if it wants to take full advantage of the second screen revolution. According to research published by Nielsen last April, more than 80% of American tablet and smartphone owners use their devices while watching television.

If there’s a power move for either company in staking its claim on the world's second screen, it could come in the form of a smart acquisition of a smaller social TV app. Boyd says Shazam, the music identification service that made a big splash during last February’s Super Bowl, is “an obvious acquisition for the giants.” It boasts state-of-the-art technology, brand recognition, and a community that’s 180 million users strong. Meanwhile, Yahoo’s already gone shopping for the next big thing in social TV, having picked up second screen app IntoNow.

Boyd says the potential for social TV is so huge that there will be plenty of room for multiple players. Partnerships and apps centered around specific events are only the beginning. And plenty of big data is in play. For example, while much has been made about the user-data Facebook will provide NBC as part of its collaboration, Boyd says the future of social TV lies in the kind of data broadcasters can provide to apps and technology companies.

“I think network promotions, especially apps devised for a single event, series, or sport extravaganza, are transitional. No one wants to have to use special purpose, 'use once throw way' apps. We naturally want more consistent and familiar tools that work broadly. After the novelty wears off, and the market matures, networks will publish a secondary stream of metadata published in an open API so that the world of social TV and second screen apps can access it. And do all sorts of things with it. This is a great example of the benefit of opening things up instead of controlling closed assets. That will be the start of the golden age of social TV.”

[Image: Flickr user Charles McCain]

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