Much like the future of media itself, the future of television is more than social. Social is a fabric; it connects the individual nodes that make up the human network. But, social is also not a means to an end. And the same is true about the working theories driving Social TV. Understanding the role social plays in how viewers connect with programs, and other people watching those programs, is essential to defining the future of television.

Over the years, I’ve written much about my vision for the long overdue convergence of not only Web and TV, but also how the three screens (TV, mobile, and PC) and human relationships impact adoption and engagement, as it relates to people and programming. So when I hear the term Social TV, I get it. I’ve certainly used it in the past. At the same time, I’ve also said that the future of television is more than integrating Tweets or #hashtags into the programming, to start a “global conversation” around the world’s largest digital water cooler.

This is a time when bringing to life what is possible takes imagination, design, scripting, and innovation. We need to raise the bar. The future of TV won’t be driven by a social media strategy. Instead, the future of TV will be driven by innovation and a vision for more meaningful entertainment and engagement. (Don’t worry, it won’t be called “enter-gagement.”) This innovation will inspire new programming, revenue opportunities, and ultimately social media strategies.

Chloe Sladden, Twitter’s director of media partnerships, once said, “Twitter lets people feel plugged into a real-time conversation. In the future, I can’t imagine a major event where the audience doesn’t become part of the story itself.”

She’s absolutely right. The program is the event. It’s the epicenter of engagement. The future of TV starts with defining how the event is alluring, captivating, and most importantly, shareable.

Many of you don’t know this, but I ran some very interesting social experiments with top networks and programs for several years. The driving questions at the time are still more than valid today. How do you expand the reach of a network, program, or personality beyond the reach of the existing audience? And, how do you use social media to drive tune-in?

All too often, even the best examples of social media in entertainment are simply finding new ways to connect with those to whom they’re already connected. The goal, in every experiment, was always the same, and it sparked creative thinking and innovation in both approach and technology. Marketers sought to use social media to drive tune in and also find new ways to measure social media’s effects.

I learned quite a bit about how engagement between and during events created a new communal experience that connected events and people together offline and online. I also learned more about the role each of the three screens play in consumption and engagement. Whereas TV, PC, and mobile are all used for consumption of content, consumers have made it clear that they only wish to use the PC and/or mobile for real-time engagement…not the television.

The Medium is the Message, and the Message is the Medium

It is the context of each device  that brings viewers together. The nature of the event also defines how engagement is triggered. We can’t assume that content and channels are agnostic. What we can assume is that audiences are already more fractured and distributed. Each channel (broadcast, online, and social) and each device serves a purpose. But no purpose will ever compensate for unengaging content or events.

If you think about it, some of the biggest events, such as the Super Bowl and the Grammys, are only earning greater concentrations of live audiences. This is in part due to the content of the event, but it’s also driven by the conversations that make the event communal, a real-time exchange. Whether it’s driven by a fear of missing out (FOMO) or a desire to share in the experience, broadcast events are conduits to live participation and, as such, can be designed to spark online engagement.

I refer to the connected class of consumers as Generation-C. It’s not just about Gen-Y. It’s about all consumers who live the digital lifestyle, who are not only connected but incredibly discerning. Connected consumers don’t just expect online, on-demand streaming optimized for each device. They expect to engage in each screen differently and in a dynamic way. This is where you come in.

The experience requires definition. The experience requires architecture. And, the supporting experiential infrastructure must be adaptive. Accomplishing this is part programming, part mobile and social media, and part engagement, both episodically and continually.

Today, we’re seeing experimentation across the screens with strategies that invite audience participation. Some live shows now run social media tickers during programs. Other live events feature Tweets and also live statistics based on social media analytics. Some programs are integrating community participation into content. Others are using social media to tell supporting stories between seasons or airing special webisodes to keep interest and anticipation high between on air programs. Apps are also emerging to open new windows between programs and mobile audiences.

So what?

What we need to do for any of these initiatives to work is align them with a higher purpose and a vision for what the new relationship looks like between viewer and the program, the viewer and the program’s elements, storyline and characters/roles, the viewer and the screen, and between viewers and other viewers.

You must first answer these questions…

  • What is the objective and the purpose of your social TV initiative?
  • What kind of relationship are you striving for, and how will you enliven it through each channel in a way that’s not only engaging, but also relevant?
  • What would the “Tweet heard around the world” look like, and what is the social spark that would trigger activity?
  • What does the experience look like on a mobile phone, tablet, PC, and a TV?

Programming is just the beginning. Advertising also has a new opportunity to engage in a more meaningful way.

Rather than simply buying seconds and using spots to promote social media campaigns, visits to Facebook pages, or rallies to Tweet a branded hashtag (or brandtag), consider the way to tell a story that can live beyond the spot or beyond the campaign.

Old Spice learned that its commercials were too successful to treat as traditional campaigns that would start and stop. Viewers don’t “turn off,” so why wouldn’t a great story continue to live on across distributed platforms where consumers are more than willing to engage? Now, Old Spice hosts an ongoing campaign, which has become a transmedia experience that perseveres across online, broadcast, and social channels. The story, the product, and the series all keep viewers engaged. The series also strives to make consumers part of the story where custom videos are created based on input and participation.

Product placement is also open for reinvention. By making products or brands part of the story, advertisers have new opportunities for contextualized storytelling across multiple platforms and the ability to host new interactions, build communities or drive desired outcomes. Everything, of course, is based on the story advertisers wish to tell and the experience they wish to delivery.

The point is that advertising doesn’t just have to end nor does it have to be limited to a finite engagement in new networks and platforms. Storytelling and consumer engagement are infinite if they’re compelling, delightful, and shareable. But then again, it takes a different vision supported by an irresistible purpose or intention.

Through experimentation, we are seeing what’s possible. However, networks, advertisers, and producers all must think beyond technology and rethink experiences. By not focusing on the experience or defining the nature of relationships, we fall prey to “mediumalism,” a condition where we place inordinate weight on the technology of any medium rather than amplifying platform strengths to deliver desired experiences, activity, and outcomes.

The future of Social TV is not yet written. It takes vision. It takes creativity and imagination. It takes innovation. Most importantly, it takes the architecture of experiences to engage, enchant, and activate viewers.