Twitter's biggest advertising pitch is that it has the same engaged audience as the highly lucrative television market, which is why the company will delight in and flaunt the latest Nielsen study that suggests Twitter boosts ratings for television shows. "A first-of-its-kind study by Nielsen has affirmed what nearly everyone in the television industry already suspected: Twitter conversations sometimes do cause people to turn on the TV," reports The New York Times's Brian Stelter. That would indeed prove great news for Twitter, which can use this metric to sell itself as a way to get more eyeballs on TV (and the ads that go there). But, a closer look at the study shows it doesn't quite have the data to back up that contention.
For most shows, most of the time, Twitter does nothing to boost ratings. "Most of the time, there was no statistically significant relationship between the two sets of data," writes Stelter. Indeed only 29 percent of the time did tweets result in a "significant increase" in ratings. Just because many people tweeted about Sharknado, doesn't mean that anyone watched it. In addition, just because a show had fewer tweets, doesn't mean that it can't get huge ratings, like the Game of Thrones "Red Wedding" episode, which got about half as much Twitter attention as Sharknado but was watched by five times as many people.
Then, of course, there are the times when Twitter piques the interest of others and sends them to TV. Twitter says its most effective at boosting ratings for reality shows. People tweet during all sorts of programming, but tend to tweet throughout an entire reality TV show, and after performances in competition shows. Unlike a show like Homeland, people feel the need to watch reality shows live and talk about them right then and there — much like sports.
But, beyond programming like that, which has become less popular with both viewers and networks, overall the study doesn't say much. "In this study Nielsen simply isn’t able to quantify Twitter’s impact — just that it exists, some times," adds AllThingsD's Peter Kafka. Another Nielsen study has before confirmed a "correlation" (rather than the causation seen here) on the impact between Twitter and ratings — but it showed a relatively small effect. "The study found that for 18-34 year olds, an 8.5 percent increase in Twitter volume corresponds to a 1 percent increase in TV ratings for premiere episodes, and a 4.2 percent increase in Twitter volume corresponds with a 1 percent increase in ratings for midseason episodes," explains the study.
In other words, it takes a ton of tweets to move the scale a very tiny bit, which is what one TV ad executive told Kafka. "Twitter can boost our ratings a little bit, the exec told me, but beyond a certain point, more Tweeting about our shows just leads to more Tweeting about our shows, not more eyeballs," writes Kafka.