Networks Target a Bigger Share of Social Media Dollars

The Challenge: Creating ads for a platform that wasn't designed for them

As consumers spend more time online, broadcast and cable networks continue to bulk up on their digital offerings, with advertisers intent on reaching these consumers with increasingly effective ads. Network generated online video, Websites and microsites are no longer considered "emerging media" -- they've arrived.

And now, with social media ad spending in the U.S. expected to grow 55 percent to nearly $3.1 billion this year, per research firm eMarketer, networks are trying to figure out how to grab a greater slice of that revenue pie as well.

Advertisers such as AT&T, Denny's and Verizon have embraced network-produced social media programs, though it's still a pretty small slice, buyers say, estimating that TV networks probably have a single digit percentage of the total.

Social platforms present a unique challenge-unlike most traditional media, social media wasn't really designed with advertisers in mind. "Social has been on everybody's radar for a while and from an advertiser standpoint everybody is still trying to figure out how to be there," says Susan Malfa, senior VP/sales for Bravo, Oxygen and Women at NBCU.

That said, social media sponsorships are expected to grow this year, though probably more on the cable side, where channels are singularly focused on genres such as sports, news and celebrities-topics that tend to dominate the social media conversation. OxygenLive! and Bravo's Talk Bubble are two of the social platforms that Malfa's group has devised to allow viewers to interact with talent in real time on those networks.

"The dollars are still pretty small," says Maureen Bosetti, executive VP/national broadcast director at Optimedia. "But clients are interested in it and it's absolutely critical now to figure out where social fits into their entire media plan." One reason: brand buzz on social platforms translates to "earned media."

Many clients use social media to extend campaigns beyond traditional media. Bosetti cited client Denny's, which she says got a lot of mileage out of a multifaceted campaign Optimedia put together with sports network ESPN that included TV, radio, social media and mobile. The social media pieces included tie-ins to both Twitter and Facebook with ESPN baseball commentator John Kruk. Kruk did a weekly tweet about baseball that managed to weave in a few words about Denny's as well. He also appeared in a piece of original content for the client called "The Chicken Show" that resided on Facebook.

According to Bosetti, social media is a harder code to crack for broader based networks. "There's a limit to what they can do to promote on the air and they aren't pushing the envelope in this space," says Bosetti. None of the major broadcast networks would comment.

While buyers say talks around social media aren't likely to make or break deals this year, executives at ESPN and CNN say they intend to make social media part of the upfront conversation.

"In the upfront we take a little bit of a different approach," says Lisa Valentino, VP/digital sales, ESPN. "In the context of Monday Night Football or our college football offering we try to weave in social elements to renewals or sponsorships, as opposed to, ‘Here are our social media opportunities.'"

While integration is a core strategy, Valentino says the network also has stand-alone social media opportunities. Case in Point: a program that was developed with YouTube-and just renewed with sponsor AT&T-called Your Highlights, where fans upload personal sports moments (a child's soccer game, for example), which are voted on by viewers, with the winning highlight appearing on SportsCenter. "It's a great example of how to bring social media with context and scale to life," Valentino says.

ESPN has also plunged into the social gaming space, via a partnership with Playdom, which produces ESPN-branded games like College Town, where users play the role of athletic director at a college, and whose sponsors include State Farm, Subway and Warner Bros.

With huge followings on both Facebook and Twitter, CNN is aggressively expanding its social media offerings, according to Greg D'Alba, executive VP and COO, CNN Sales, Marketing and Operations. Like ESPN, the news network has crafted both integrated and standalone offerings. The network's Royal Wedding coverage was integrated with Facebook Connect and Twitter, and it sold sponsorship packages to General Mills' Fiber One, Subway, Marriott's Residence Inn, AT&T, Get Glue and Tiffany.

CNN's SXSW coverage was integrated with Twitter and Gowalla. There was also a partnership with online sharing site Vimeo and CNN iReport to create, personalize and share coverage of the festival in Austin, Tex.

So while social media may not make the loudest noise at this year's upfront, the platform's growing track record will at least be a part of the conversation.