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Tweeting about TV? Bluefin Labs is reading

Bluefin Labs CEO Deb Roy

Chris Churchill/Chris Churchill

They're listening in on your conversations. Okay, not only yours, but when millions of television viewers take to Twitter and Facebook to broadcast their moment-by-moment reactions to shows, in a phenomenon known as social TV, companies such as Bluefin Labs are there too, eavesdropping on behalf of networks and advertisers. Deb Roy, the Canadian-born, MIT-educated co-founder and CEO of Bluefin, explained to Simon Houpt how he finds intelligence within the chatter.

So, you guys listen to conversations? I'd love to eavesdrop on your employees trying to explain to their parents what the heck Bluefin does.

Most people know that Nielsen can tell you how many people are watching a given TV show. Bluefin measures how many people are talking about TV. We're using social media to discover and understand audience engagement around television in a way that's just never been possible before, because the data didn't exist.

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To what end?

Bluefin can deliver a new kind of understanding to an advertiser: "When I run an ad in a certain show or on a certain network, what is the nature of the audience that's tuning in? Who am I reaching?" We can answer that in completely new ways. Also, "Is advertising having an impact on how consumers now talk about and therefore think about my brand?"

Why is it more insightful than previous measures?

It's this enormous focus group in the wild. Its scale dwarfs any focus group that's ever been assembled by a network or a studio, and you're not asking someone to come in, step out of their day-to-day activities, come look at something, then tell you what they thought—"Oh, and by the way I'll pay you to tell me." You've got people who are just naturally expressing their opinions. There's a dramatic shift happening, not just in the world of TV and social TV, but more generally in how we understand what people think, what they like, what they react to. And that is the shift from reported to observed data.

Isn't there an argument to be made that truly compelling TV content engages people so much that they won't react through social media?

We're wired to share, to express with one another. It actually makes that experience whole when you can connect with someone else about it. In many ways, this is natural human behaviour that's just getting a new outlet, that then amplifies that behaviour in ways we've never seen before. Because rather than the whispered comment or the laugh-out-loud on the couch that the person next to you hears for a moment—instead it's an "LOL" that spreads to your 400 followers and lingers for days.

I understand you're working with ABC News in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election in November. During the winter, you tracked audience responses to the Republican debates.

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We can see which topics and specific moments spur the most reaction. With Mitt Romney's $10,000 bet [with Texas Governor Rick Perry], we could see that immediately drove a reaction. We can go and look at what the reactions are, see the sentiment, the kind of sub-topics: What is the nature of that reaction? We can go a step further and say: "Who was reacting?" and do various kinds of audience analysis. So there's a level of insight in just connecting the dots between what the candidates are saying and doing, and the reactions.

I notice you're on Twitter, but you're not tweeting when you watch TV.

Yeah, I don't watch much TV.

Right. You've got two young kids. Would you want them to start using Twitter while watching Sesame Street?

Ha ha. You know, that's a good question. Their literacy level is not quite at a point where they could be tweeting while they watch.

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