My last post dealt with the need for digital out of home (DOOH) as an industry to take on the challenge of becoming relevant.  The central argument was that continuing to ignore the megatrends that are rapidly transforming traditional television and media is a recipe for permanent irrelevance. Social media, communities of engagement and experiential viewing powered by the explosion of smartphones and tablets have spawned a nascent industry called Social TV. The post argued that DOOH must invest the time, energy and effort to become an extension of the emerging Social TV ecosystem. Taking a sip of my own KoolAid, I invested two days of my life, a redeye flight and some cash to attend the Social TV Summit in San Francisco. The investment was worthwhile. I learned a tremendous amount, met many people in all facets of Social TV, and marveled at the parallels between their world and our own.

Tools, applications and analytics effectively drive Social TV, and the best examples of the state of the art manage to merge all three. The industry is technology-driven, and benefits from the fact that the end users own all of the hardware at the point of engagement, an interesting contrast with our own world. A tech-driven, young industry is, as you might imagine, heavily slanted toward Silicon Valley, where pitch decks only have one word on each slide, lame metaphors flow like coffee, and anyone over 35 is either washed up Board fodder, a venture capitalist, or both. Cynicism aside, the energy and optimism of the young entrepreneurs who run the various companies is fuel for innovation. The omnipresence of Facebook, Twitter and Google provide both the backbone of the social media infrastructure and the model for success that these startups strive to be. The rush to develop the killer app is on, and that is where the comparisons to DOOH begin.

The apps themselves diverge in their approach to second screen engagement. Frameworks and development environments seem to target program-specific applications. Branded apps cast a wider net with check-ins that leverage a very cool technology called automated content recognition (think Shazam for video). Gamification, the buzzword that currently serves as verbal Viagra for people who simply renamed reward systems and intermittent reinforcement to prove that they are smarter than you, is a common feature across all forms of applications. And it generally works, as B.F. Skinner would attest. It seems clear that the most popular feature of the companion apps is some element of Twitter. Twitter streams, Twitter “rivers” and infographics based on Twitter data get the most attention from users, even when sharing screen space with much sexier features. The element of sameness across many application providers is another parallel to digital signage. The core problem/challenge is well-defined, and solutions tend to cluster around a set of common approaches. Differentiation is hard.

The Social TV industry already has over 100 application shops in place, with many more in stealth mode, and others under the radar or in “pre-funding” phase. There was actually a poll taken during the Summit that asked whether the overabundance of application startups would drive consolidation. Sound familiar, anyone? If the experience of DOOH is any guideline, that poll question will be recycled for years.

Perhaps the most significant parallel between DOOH and Social TV is one of common frustration with the world of agencies. I think it is summed up best by paraphrasing a question that came from an agency type in the audience: “I understand a Gross Rating Point… so how are you going to help me understand what I am buying from you?” The question was met with an audible growl from the crowd. Like digital signage, the Social TV folks have a challenge in helping media buyers value and measure their offering, and it won’t be done using the same metrics as traditional TV. I’m not sure that there needs to be a leap of faith if engagement, click-throughs, and even purchases are quite measurable. Still, like our industry, Social TV suffers from serial testing and toe-dipping, as opposed to long term campaigns and commitments. It makes for a rollercoaster ride for the startups.

Interestingly, the Social TV industry has its own measurement and analytics companies, notably Trendrr and Bluefin Labs, that comb the social sphere to determine what is hot with the socially engaged. Clearly sensing that the same old approach would not play with this crowd, a presenter from Nielsen promised that her company would be incorporating social metrics soon. Recognition that there is value in the social media stream is a huge statement from one of the most traditional media companies out there. It is one that should not be lost on the out-of-home crowd.

Prior to lunch, Jason Kates of rVue asked the audience if they could identify the largest unserved network available to them, one with over a million screens capable of delivering over 300 million targeted impressions per day. The answer, of course, are the networks that comprise the digital out-of-home industry. The message was not lost on the attendees, even if Jason dared to use more than one word per slide. They understand that for the most part, the domain of Social TV is 7 PM to midnight. From 7 AM to 7PM, their engaged consumers are generally not at home, and until now, unreachable. But during that huge chunk of their day, those socially-engaged consumers are exposed to DOOH screens. Sensing opportunity, the Social TV folks weren’t shy about asking questions and seeking to learn more. I viewed that as a strong positive reinforcement for the notion that there is something to be gained by linking our industries more closely.

Social TV has linked social media, mobile and tablet computing, game elements and rewards with traditional television to create measurably greater engagement. The DOOH industry arguably owns the eyeballs of the socially engaged outside the home. We need each other, and while this is very much about connected consumers, this is not about mobile per se. In fact, those who are riding the mobile-DOOH convergence pony confuse the tools with the medium that will be the actual glue. Social media is that glue. It is by definition participatory and engaging, and it is part of the fabric of life today. There is innovation occurring and there are valuable lessons being learned. Ignore the mountain of data and the growing hordes of connected users at your own risk. Game on.