How Twitter delivers TV audiences: 3 insights for marketers


By: Katherine Khorey

Research from the Spiegel Research Center, in partnership with U.S. cable broadband service provider Suddenlink Communications, suggests that viewers may not be affected by TV shows’ advertising on traditional media. Exposure to a television trailer for a show has no link to viewers watching that show for longer stretches or tuning in at all, but exposure to the show’s buzz on other platforms, namely Twitter, is a different story.

The Spiegel Center presents three insights to help grow and maintain TV audiences:

Insight 1: Twitter buzz grows TV viewership and attention span
Spiegel/Suddenlink research suggests a show’s strong involvement in Twitter is linked to a higher viewership.  A show can tweet tune-in reminders from its official feed or launch hashtags for live discussion. Examples of Twitter use that adds value for viewers include the always active Twitter feeds from ABC’s Modern Family cast members, and the live tweet conversations that created deeply engaged audiences for shows like Fox’s Empire and the CW’s The 100.

This engagement can translate to TV ratings. According to Spiegel’s research, Twitter buzz seems to attract more viewers and encourage them to watch a show’s broadcast for longer. This insight is very valuable to advertisers, as audiences engaged with a TV show’s Twitter conversations tune in for longer. In other words, they do not change the channel or interrupt their viewing experience, and are more likely exposed to scheduled advertising during the program.

Insight 2:  Timing is key
According to the research, viewers who did not tune into a show at the start of the season might be unlikely to join later. Effective media strategies should capture viewers’ attention before a show premieres, converting significant numbers into loyal audience members by the time those numbers start to matter.

An instance of early timing occurred in 2015, with ABC’s summer-long media promotion for the fall premiere of The Muppets. Leveraging audience excitement over the newest take on an established brand, the multi-platform campaign shared everything from positive buzz on early screenings to dramatic updates on the leads’ love lives. Potential viewers caught on, and the show premiered to high ratings.   

Early communications can be used to get viewer feedback, too. Negative feedback is especially important to track.

Insight 3:  Sentiment matters
Suddenlink data showed that viewer sentiment on Twitter influenced both audience numbers and length of viewing time. Sentiment is the positive or negative charge to a viewer tweet. Positive sentiments correlate with a small increase in viewership. Negative sentiments, however, correlate with significant downturns in both numbers and time spent watching a program.

This suggests that a negative audience response may be more powerful and effective than a positive one that occurs at the same time. This power seems to have manifested in both ABC’s The Muppets and the CW’s sci-fi drama The 100.

The Muppets’ initial high ratings dropped sharply in ensuing weeks as viewers on social media called early episodes unfunny or mean-spirited. Despite previous goodwill and a publicized midseason retool, the numbers never recovered. In The 100’s case, the show’s loyal Twitter following was outraged by the handling of a character death in 2016, and vocalized their feelings on the platform. Ratings reached a season low the following episode.    

Both these trajectories align with Spiegel Center’s research. There could be ways to increase a show’s resilience to negative sentiment, like immediately addressing negative buzz or aligning early positive buzz with what audiences can truly expect from the show. But consistent negative sentiment from viewers may be a reliable indicator that a show is a sunk investment. The Muppets was canceled at the end of its first season, while The 100 was ultimately renewed, along with its network’s entire slate. As its research continues, the Spiegel Center will explore further ways to address this issue.

Spiegel’s insights from Suddenlink’s data show a strong link between a TV show’s Twitter presence and its audience’s behavior.  Higher Twitter involvement correlates to larger audiences and longer viewing times, which matter because it increases the likelihood of exposure to in-show advertising. An early social media presence is also effective at capturing audiences. Yet, negative sentiment from audiences are more powerful than positive sentiment. Overall, show creators and advertisers must be wary, because good buzz has a hard time defeating bad press.