Social TV: Coming to a multi-screen near you…

Recent statistics from the UK’s regulator, Ofcom, point to some very interesting changes in user behaviour and the growing simultaneous use of multiple different channels of media, for example TV and broadband internet. This will come as no surprise to the younger generation who are growing up with the latest technology at their fingertips, however Ofcom’s survey shows that 20% of all media usage in the UK is now ‘multi-tasked’.

Us Brits consume nearly nine hours of media in a window of just over seven hours per day, with as much as 29% of that being multi-tasked media in the age 16-24 category. Much of this activity is attributed to the growth of smartphones, in particular the iPhone, and more recently the emergence of a wide array of Android devices.

Ofcom’s survey notably took place in April/May 2010, before this summer’s World Cup. However, separate research by Allot Communications reveals that global mobile data usage went up 24% during the World Cup and surged by an impressive 35% during individual matches, as many people used their smartphones to access real-time match information.
Of course much of this smartphone usage is also on social networks as people comment on matches, discuss players, argue about bad refereeing decisions and complain about the lack of goal-line technology using applications such as Facebook and Twitter. In years gone by, this sort of conversation would take place around the office coffee machine or the school playground the following day, but in 2010 it seems absolutely normal that this banter takes place in ‘real-time’ during the match itself.

Sporting content

Sporting content has long been a powerful weapon in the service provider armoury, with exclusive events such as football matches and boxing title fights being used to attract new customers and increase ARPU. However, the internet age has created a hunger for statistics, and a vast array of data is now collected and collated for all major sporting events. In addition, the accessibility of video highlights and replays is driving further data usage as consumers watch and share their favourite sporting moments.
As identified in the Ofcom report, the new generation of smartphones is a big factor in the increased data services usage and the growing phenomenon of multi-tasked media consumption. The burgeoning applications ecosystem means that sport-related content can be accessed and organised in a user friendly and customisable way. And this point is crucial. Smartphones are personal devices where users can tailor their applications and information feeds to their own preferences.

Though you may go to the pub to watch an important football match with friends, or sit down and watch something on TV with family at home, individuals can also actively consume their own desired content on a smartphone without disrupting the viewing pleasure of others. So the days of TV channel-hopping to check on sports scores are over, and we have a whole generation growing up wondering why anyone would want to use ‘Teletext’.
Underpinning this data services growth has also been the widespread availability of 3G & 2.5G mobile networks and the associated ‘all you can eat’ data bundles that have lowered the barriers to entry. As we have discussed in previous Evolve features, flat-rate packages bring their own issues, but there’s no doubt they have helped drive forward the use of mobile internet services.

Social TV

The concept of audience participation itself is not new, with phone-in competitions and SMS voting well established sources of revenue for both the TV production companies and the host service providers. More recently, the integration of social networks for engaging and involving the viewing public has led to the development of Social TV, which the MIT Technology Review has identified as one of the 10 Emerging Technologies for 2010.
Virgin Media in the UK is one of the first communications providers to take a leap into Social TV with the launch in August of its Sofa Stadium application that is designed specifically to be used on your computer whilst watching a Premiership football match on the TV. The application facilitates mid-match banter in a football-oriented application and allows you to take part in polls, vote for the best (and worst) player, and includes integration with Twitter and Facebook for sharing comments and viewing others’ comments on the game.
Sofa Stadium is currently a free application, launched to coincide with Virgin Media’s push into broadcasting football in High Definition (HD). So it appears to be an effort to create a community and improve the customer experience, building brand loyalty rather than being used directly as a revenue generator. However, clearly there is potential for this type of application to be used as a platform for further targeted advertising in the future. It is also only available on a standard web browser at the moment, rather than having dedicated iPhone or Android apps, though surely these will follow before long.

Integrated applications

It’s still early days for Social TV, and the business model is going to take some finalising. Will the communications providers be able to stake their claim in this space or will it be yet another wave of application and over the top providers who gain the upper hand? And where will the revenue come from? To be successful for a multi-play service provider, Social TV will need to have some exclusive value-added content that is not available through other social networking applications. Otherwise the community interaction will almost certainly take place directly on the global social networking platforms.
Ofcom’s statistics show that there is a growing appetite for multi-tasked media consumption and Social TV applications are one way communications providers can engage their customers in multi-screen services and further drive up data usage. When launching new service propositions, they must look beyond the single screen and build offerings that not only work on multiple devices, but work as integrated applications across multiple devices simultaneously. And with the recent arrival of the iPad and a number of lookalike tablet devices, communications providers might just have the perfect platform to work with.