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Now part of Twitter, Bluefin Labs, the MIT Media Lab startup that studies the collective mood of the Twittersphere, can help the social media giant address a key business problem by putting a clearer value on the “promoted tweets” that it sells—particularly those related to television advertising.

Twitter and Bluefin confirmed the acquisition today. While many companies analyze tweets, Bluefin is unique in how it closely it measures people’s reaction to specific airings of TV shows and ads, enabling the company to tease out the differences in how people reacted to and amplified a message depending on what time they saw it and what TV show surrounded it (see “A Social Media Decoder”).

Bluefin will give Twitter another tool to service the $72 billion U.S. television advertising market, allowing the company to tell advertisers, for example, when TV ads resonate with consumers on Twitter and how best to augment advertising with a companion social-media element.

“Right now nobody knows what a ‘promoted tweet’ is actually worth,” says David Morgan, founder of Simulmedia, a New York City–based company that uses set-top-box data to determine ad placement. “If you are McDonald’s, you have known for 40 years what a television ratings point” is worth, “but if you are buying a promoted tweet, you don’t have historical data to show how valuable it is to you.”

This kind of mapping could extend to topics unrelated to events on TV, Morgan adds. “You could imagine it could be any news or event: it could be weather, it could be ‘I want to understand what happens in Twitter when it snows, or when the humidity rises 10 percent in six hours.’ Or you could imagine stores doing in-store promotions,” Morgan says.

A TV-Twitter advertising symbiosis has emerged very strongly already. For example, last Sunday nearly 21 million Super Bowl–related tweets were sent during the game, and nearly 30 percent were about the ads. Meanwhile, more than half the televised ads also included a Twitter hashtag, and many of the advertisers also purchased promoted tweets from Twitter.

“Twitter would like to be able to show exactly how to complement buying Twitter with buying TV,” Morgan adds. “Without question, Bluefin has the most robust analytics around using Twitter feeds and Twitter data tied into TV viewing.”

Bluefin uses keyword cues to determine the age, gender, and other demographic characteristics of the tweeter; gleans the sentiment of the tweets; and also tracks what other topics those users tweet about. The company thereby maps what it calls “affinity relationships” across various topics, interests, and groups of people.

The company was originally founded by Deb Roy, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, and Michael Fleischman. “Now as part of Twitter, we look forward to working closely with Nielsen, TV networks, advertisers, agencies, and the rest of the TV ecosystem to help shape the future of social TV,” the founders said in their blog post announcing the deal. Bluefin had raised $20.5 million from several venture firms and individuals. The sale price was not disclosed.

In an earlier email exchange, Jean-Philippe Maheu, the recently hired CEO of Bluefin Labs, says the company’s technology that matches each advertisement airing to which tweets it prompts in real time, was unique in the market. “Bluefin Labs is the only company that has the ability to measure how consumers respond to TV commercials via social media,” he said.

Last year Twitter hired a Head of TV, Fred Graver, to work out ways to develop the Twitter platform as a TV-watching companion, guide, and font of crowdsourced ratings. Twitter also recently inked a partnership with Nielsen to help develop social-TV ratings to sell to television programmers.

One insight from Bluefin’s work is that viewers—even members of the same demographic—sometimes react to the same ad differently depending on the show in which it appears. Seeing these reactions can help advertisers refine the content of ads and decide where to place them, says Mike Proulx, director of digital strategy at Hill Holliday, a Boston ad agency, and co-author of the book Social TV.

“Twitter wants and needs to continue to prove its value as a place for brands and media companies to invest marketing dollars. Bolstering the company’s arsenal of measurement and analytics capabilities is one way of doing that at scale,” Proulx says.

Bluefin’s mapping could extend to topics unrelated to events on TV, Morgan adds. “You could imagine it could be any news or event: it could be weather, it could be ‘I want to understand what happens in Twitter when it snows, or when the humidity rises 10 percent in six hours.’ Or you could imagine stores doing in-store promotions,” Morgan says.

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Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, Mobile, Twitter, EmTech2013, Social media, media lab

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