With interest in location-based social networks (LBSN) hitting an all-time high with Foursquare's recent funding announcement valuing the company at $115 million, a new type of social networking has emerged that borrows some of the mechanics and incentives from location-based services: event-based social networks (EBSNs).

 

While LBSN users notify their personal networks where they are physically located by checking in to the service (and earning virtual badges in the process), EBSN users earn their virtual rewards by also using check-in mechanics, but without actually being physically present at a location.

Alex Calic (@alexcalic) is currently working on an undisclosed start-up having spent the past 10 years at several tech companies. After starting at Assal and Coremetrics, Alex was most recently VP of [insert title of whatever needed to get done that quarter] at Clearspring Technologies. Prior to that he was VP of Corp. Dev. at InPhonic where he helped take the company public, launch Wirefly and acquire a dozen mobile and e-commerce companies.

The network effect caused by the interest of the most engaged fans is bringing indifferent audiences that are connected to these fans off of the sidelines and into the viewing experience.

We see from studies and personal experiences that recommendations from social networks do influence our television viewing habits. Combined with the abundant, on-demand nature of information available on the Internet, it's easy to understand how the changing content consumption habits - from the day after to the day of - have affected the media industry.

While much of the demise of print news media can be attributed to these changing habits (and explained nowhere better than on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), it has actually had the opposite effect on live television event broadcasts. Here is audience data from some of the most widely-known live-broadcast sports and entertainment events from this year.

  • Golden Globes (January): This year's television audience was 17 million, 14% higher than in 2009.
  • Grammy Awards (January): Almost 27 million viewers tuned in, a 35% increase over last year's broadcast and the highest TV ratings for the event since 2004.
  • Super Bowl XLIV (February): This became the most-watched television program in U.S. history, beating the finale of the TV show "M*A*S*H" with a total audience of over 150 million and an average of over 106 million viewers.
  • Academy Awards (March): The Awards had over 41 million viewers, up 14% over the 2009 Oscars.
  • NBA Finals Game 7 (June): The deciding game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics pulled in a viewership of over 28 million, the largest basketball audience since 12 years ago, when Michael Jordan won his last of six NBA championships
  • World Cup Final (July): The finals between Spain and Netherlands became the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history with over 24 million viewers, topping the previous record of 19 million viewers during the United States' match against Ghana in the elimination round only weeks earlier.

Some might argue that there are better explanations for this renewed interest in live television programming. The economy, for instance, means people stay home more often for entertainment purposes. Or it's due to a wide range of content quality: the offensive-minded Super Bowl match-up; the popularity of Lady Gaga for the Grammys and Avatar for the Golden Globes and Oscars; the deciding game of a classic NBA finals match-up; the final of the World Cup, the most-followed sporting event in the world. But the fact is most of these events are leveraging social media hubs like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube more and more as part of their tune-in marketing campaigns to engage with fans and would-be viewers.

And it's working. The network effect caused by the interest of the most engaged fans is bringing indifferent audiences that are connected to these fans off of the sidelines and into the viewing experience. The real-time nature of information flow on the Web, along with the ability to extend social connections through Facebook and Twitter, has made it increasingly difficult for people to avoid watching or hearing about live television event broadcasts - or even attempt to try to watch them in a non-linear, time-shifted manner without having the outcome spoiled by social media channels. Combined with the social pressures around participation, additional audiences are being influenced to engage in these events via social networks.

Some recent engagement figures from Facebook and Twitter seem to confirm this. Facebook has shared that about 30% of all status updates on the site during the U.S. versus England match included a World Cup-related term. More impressively, Twitter saw the number of Tweets per second (TPS) it handles top 3,000 as a result of the Lakers beating the Celtics in the NBA Finals. This record was broken a week later on the heels of two World Cup matches that generated almost 3,300 TPS. To put this into context, Twitter's normal activity is 750 TPS, which is a big reason why the service has experienced over six hours of downtime since the beginning of the World Cup.

With live television event broadcasting benefiting greatly from social networking, can EBSNs become the next big opportunity in social media?

More Than Virtual Badges and Threaded Conversations

Even though the most well-known companies in this segment of social networking have positioned themselves in a slightly different manner from one another. At the most basic level, services like Fanvibe (formerly Fanpulse) sporting sporting events, GetGlue by AdaptiveBlue (home entertainment like movies, books and music), Hot Potato (general events), Miso by Bazaar Labs (TV shows and movies) and Tunerfish from Comcast (online video and TV shows) all address some type of live event participation through their services.

As ReadWriteWeb points out in its recent coverage of some of these apps, their current lack of users adversely affects the social value of their respective networks. With Facebook and Twitter already driving the lion's share of social media status updates and check-in functionality becoming a commodity, these EBSNs will need more than virtual badges and threaded conversation capabilities around events to drive adoption.

The solution is partnering with the leagues and organizations behind these events, as well as the television networks with the broadcast rights. Being promoted by the events or built into the digital experiences of the broadcasts is the ideal way to drive mindshare and user growth. For this reason Tunerfish is best positioned of the group to succeed, since it comes out of Comcast, which has the largest television subscriber base and is in the process of acquiring one of the biggest network TV broadcasters in the U.S.

Being part of Comcast helped Tunerfish land its first promotional partnership with HBO when the service went live last month. Owning NBC could bring a lot more of these types of opportunities to Tunerfish. With an iPad app also in the works from Comcast, adding Tunerfish's functionality to the application could automate the check-in process for millions of TV viewers across every television show and network available in the U.S., creating an enviable interest graph.

There is hope for some of the other services as well. AdaptiveBlue, which has been around the longest, probably has the most robust underlying platform. The company leverages semantic technologies to generate social recommendations for its users based on their check-ins and ratings. By covering a broader range of interests than just TV shows and movies, and with strong platform usage resulting from its recently launched GetGlue iPhone app, AdaptiveBlue can create a much deeper interest graph than some of its competitors.

Hot Potato could find early success among sports leagues, as its founding team comes from MLBAM, the digital media arm of Major League Baseball. That being said, MLB, which is the most tech savvy of all the major sports leagues, did announce it has integrated its own check-in functionality into its iPhone app just last week.

 

Miso's best opportunity for success is tied to the investment it took from Google Ventures last month. With the announcement of GoogleTV earlier this year, Miso should have the inside track in doing for GoogleTV what Tunerfish could do for Comcast - integrating directly into the television guide and discovery experience for set-top boxes.

Over $400 billion in television advertising and on-demand video revenues exist worldwide, according to a recent report published by media researcher Futurescape. As I've mentioned in previous posts and tweets, live TV event programming - such as sports championships and entertainment award shows - will only increase in value to broadcasters as produced series-based programming becomes more accessible on demand in a non-linear viewing experience.

For EBSNs to succeed, they will need to leverage Facebook and Twitter's platforms as distribution channels - much like Foursquare did initially - in order to drive utility for its users and interest for their own services.

Live television represents the best opportunity for advertisers to find and connect with an engaged audience in the present. Combined with real-time status updates, event producers and advertisers can receive immediate feedback from users on their TV viewing experience. This social feedback loop will be critical in delivering better television programming and advertising in the future.

With nearly half of Facebook users simultaneously watching television while on the site, and Twitter showing its impact during the recently concluded NBA Finals and World Cup, it's those companies' game to lose at the moment as each brings a respective interest and sentiment data set that can add tangible value to traditional TV audience metrics.

For EBSNs to succeed, they will need to leverage Facebook and Twitter's platforms as distribution channels - much like Foursquare did initially - in order to drive utility for its users and interest for their own services. By becoming the interface between users and their Facebook and Twitter accounts, ESBNs have an opportunity to get users to build subnetworks within their respective platforms that are unique and more valuable to those on Facebook and Twitter - something Foursquare is also starting to do with its own LBSN.

The ultimate benefit in evolving a platform in this manner is that an event-based social network can become the audience- and data-provider to event creators and distributors, as well as advertisers, while delivering better programming recommendations and socially targeting advertising to its users in the process.

Whatever the eventual outcome, it will unfold live.

Photo by gerard79.