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What opportunities does Euro 2012 offer for Social TV?


Futurescape interviews Anthony Rose, CTO of London-based zeebox (and who previously launched the BBC iPlayer), on how his company is creating innovative new services around sports. zeebox launched its first app to consumers in October 2011 and News Corp-controlled pay-TV operator BSkyB took a 10% stake in the company in January 2012.


Anthony Rose

Anthony Rose

Anthony shares his thoughts on:

  • New features for Euro 2012
  • Social TV strategies and engaging fans and viewers
  • Integrating Facebook and Twitter and viewer attitudes to Facebook sharing
  • How the company is developing from tech startup to platform

What is your strategy for Euro 2012?

We’re planning a very cool second screen Euro 2012 proposition, where you’ll be able to do real-time voting with other people. There will be a Be The Ref widget, where you can shout “Foul” or “Goal” and you’ll be able to see what other people are shouting about.

There will be tweet streams, of course. But, importantly, you’ll be able to join your tribe, so if you follow one team and not the other, you’ll be able to see, using zeebox, unlike a regular Twitter client, the tweets from everyone around a match or from team A or team B.

We’ll also bring you real-time stats on the scores.

Using zeetags, there will be real-time stats and information around what’s happening within the match.

And of course it will be available on iPhone, iPad, Android smartphones and the Web.

The idea is watch Euros with zeebox and friends. If you watch at home on your telly, although millions are watching, you’re really watching alone. With zeebox you can join in the action – be the ref, see what other people are shouting about, get the buzz and with our new version of zeebox, there is also group chat, so you can create viewing parties with your friends as well.

We think that celebrities and sports people will be creating viewing parties within zeebox and sharing those group chat links. With zeebox group chat, you can actually share the link, tweet it, put it on Facebook, e-mail it to as few or as many people as you like. There’s going to be a whole range of fun group chat sessions or viewing parties around the matches.


Does the large scale of the event pose special challenges?

zeebox is a very nice technical platform, where the servers automatically analyse things on TV and ingest programme guides and so on. But when it comes to special events, you have to create editorially-enhanced experiences. Obviously, the servers can’t generate polls and voting widgets automatically, that needs to be done manually. It’s hard to predict the number of people that will come to a given match and, of course, it also takes editorial effort to build viable propositions. And there are many matches, so it becomes a repeated event, too.

So the answer is, absolutely yes, we have to devote special editorial and technical effort to making sure it’s a great experience.


Will you be trying out new Social TV strategies for the event?

We’re going to be creating some of our polling and voting widgets that will connect to your social graph, so when you vote for things, your friends can see or you can share with people “Get off!” or “Foul!” or whatever. It can create a whole load of buzz around you and friends having a go, slagging off the ref or the other team, cheering on your team and really turning it into a social event, so we’re building some new sharing mechanisms for doing that.


How will you be engaging fans and viewers?

We’re building up a social media team at zeebox. As we transition from being just a tech startup to being a full-featured platform, we’re beefing up the editorial team. We’ve recently hired Robin Morley from the BBC. He’s going to be heading up our social media team and really working to go where the fans are and engage with them for this event and for other TV shows, whether it’s EastEnders [the top BBC soap], sports or a singing competition. We’re going to be working hard to engage a lot more closely with the fans and creating propositions that are targeted towards a particular fan base.


Will there be different uses of Facebook and Twitter?

I think one of the really unique things with zeebox is you can login to zeebox with either Facebook or Twitter or both. And we then create a unified social graph that consists of the people you follow on Twitter and your friends on Facebook. So you can, for example, follow celebrities on Twitter and, if they use zeebox or if they tweet, you can get their tweets uniquely. Additionally, we designate a star watch list for particular matches, so we’ll be creating a twitter list for the Euros. That will be the key players, sports commentators and so on, and you’ll be able to get within zeebox the filtered tweet stream from the key people you might really care about.


Will there be different Social TV services for different audiences fans, casual viewers, men vs women, different ages?

Overall in zeebox, we’re trying to create diversified propositions for different shows.

Clearly the demographics on EastEnders is very different from Formula 1 and very different from The Voice. But I think that within a given proposition, you try to identify the core use case for that proposition. I think it’s quite hard to create multiple different use cases for a proposition.

So you can say EastEnders is about a female audience that want maybe additional backstory, gossip, actor interviews, to follow the actors and so on.

Formula 1 is about guys watching live, with extra race statistics, maybe watching it on Sky HD, but wanting real-time stats or to have a chat with friends or hear the Formula 1 driver radio. But it’s hard within Formula 1 to say we’ll make a separate [proposition] for females and for males.

For us, the diversification is by programme type, rather than within a programme.


Will you aim to motivate specific forms of viewer engagement?

Yes, we try to figure out what the proposition is for a given show. For The Voice, the proposition is really about agreeing or disagreeing with the panel, yourself saying the song is brilliant or sucks. You’re really the judge yourself. You’d like to be the judge and see how your judging compares with the real judges and also with the rest of the audience.

We did that with Eurovision, it was very cool. You could vote on acts as they appeared and you could see what everyone was voting on in real time.

Whereas with Formula 1, the proposition is very different. It’s all about statistics, the map, the driver rankings, the tyre changes. It’s about taking a three hour race and bringing it to life in a new way, with additional information that you wouldn’t want to be displayed on your TV, but you would like on the second screen.


How are you using your experience from other football events, such as the Champions League Final?

For those who use zeebox regularly, they’ll see that it evolves on quite a rapid basis. Every month typically, there’s a new version with cool new features. Using our Showtime plugin system, we can create these plugins on a programme-by-programme basis.

Each few weeks we try to introduce a new type of proposition that we haven’t supported before. Recently, working with Monterosa, we added a polling system. So now our editorial team can create polls with very little effort for a given show, whether it be a game show or Eurovision.

Separately, working with Tellybug, we’ve introduced twitch voting. “Get off!” “Love it!” “Boo!” That’s now in the mix and able to be used editorially.

We have a new social activity stream and API that is becoming available to partners. That means that when people do these activities, it can be shared with their friends as well, which then creates a viral campaign that brings your friends back into zeebox and makes your zeebox experience more exciting. As soon as you start interacting around a game, that sort of magnet will bring your friends in to join you.


You recently turned off the Facebook auto-share, because people hadn’t warmed to that?

That’s right. Facebook’s got this fantastic new ticker system, called Open Graph. Facebook did an excellent job of telling companies about the cool new feature and if you’re a Facebook user, you’ll see that your friends are listening to things on Spotify and so on.

What we did is, we used it and of course we gave people the chance to turn it on or off. I think we didn’t make it as visible as we should have and some people loved it and some people didn’t and so what we’ve done is we’ve turned it around. We now really have it switched off by default and the first time you get to a [TV] programme inside zeebox, we prompt you: would you like to share your viewing in the Facebook ticker and we show a little picture of it. So this is in fact what many companies are doing.

People talk about Social TV and people say that zeebox is a Social TV proposition. Actually that’s not correct. Zeebox is an augmented or enhanced TV proposition. We bring you information and social. And some people love social and some people are not that interested in social.

Some people love zeebox as a newfangled programme guide, [with] an ability to book things, find out what’s popular and find things to watch on TV. Or it’s a great app for giving you information on the cast and crew. But they don’t want social activity. Others love social.

What we’ve found is that it’s important you don’t try and force social on people who don’t want it. And we’ve always had the ability in zeebox. You don’t have to login. You can use zeebox just as a great programme guide without logging in at all.

For those who do log in, some of those people would also like to connect with friends, but they don’t necessarily want to share, to engage in “frictionless sharing.”

There’s nothing special about the change [to opt in to share]. With every release of zeebox, we try to pick the new things we want to do and try to look at what consumers are telling us and feed that into the new release. We added programme booking, Twitter buzz scores, a seven-day EPG slider and we tweaked our privacy and sharing settings to give people more upfront notice and the choice of opting in or out rather than turning sharing on by default and letting people opt out if they wish.

There’s an interesting article, “Facebook finally cracks down on auto-sharing spam with 10-second rule.” It looks like many companies were using the Open Graph posts. The way Facebook had encouraged it originally was as soon as you begin watching a programme, you should just send out the fact that you’re watching it. What they’re asking for now is you should be watching the programme for at least 10 seconds. What we do in zeebox is we designate you as watching [a programme] if you’re watching for more than 30 seconds.

These things will evolve over time. I think frictionless sharing is really going to revolutionise things in the future. But it’s important, just like the Like button and tweeting, that they need to be refined, both for the proposition and also for the way people engage with them, so it becomes useful and people don’t perceive it as a privacy issue.


You’re moving from being a tech startup to being a platform – what are the implications of that move? How’s the company going to develop over the next six months?

I think it’s a natural evolution. As a dotcom startup, you initially put all of your money into a tech team, because you have to build things and you’ve got nothing until you’ve built the technology. Eventually, you’ve got your launch proposition. And at that time, you can now start putting your funding into the editorial team that can support it and make it better.

I think we’ve done an excellent job of building the technical platform and product. What we now want to do is as you use zeebox to switch to a given TV show, we’d like to use our editorial team to enhance shows. So as the user base grows, we can now begin to afford to put particular love and attention into specific programmes and engage with the audience for those programmes.

It’s basically the same as any company as it moves from small tech team to a larger and more mature company, you switch from first gear, where it’s all about Web development to create something to launch.

The next step is to focus on things like CRM, engaging with consumers, working out branded propositions and engaging with advertisers. You can use the platform you’ve built as a technical base to deliver all the cool things that can be done with that platform, for advertisers, sponsors, fans, celebrities, broadcasters and programme makers. These are all engagement models that you can build on that tech platform.


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