NEW YORK: Companies such as CBS, Procter & Gamble and Disney are taking a nuanced approach when it comes to assessing the potential uses of information drawn from social media.

Traditionally, broadcasters like CBS have relied on combinations of ratings provided by firms including Nielsen and mainstream market research into viewer opinions.

These insights, however, are now supplemented by vast amounts of online data. The first episode in the latest season of Two and a Half Men, for example, generated over 78,000 comments on this medium.

While this material diverged greatly in usefulness, especially compared with surveys, David Poltrack, EVP, research and planning, at CBS, argued the "exponential movement of a conversation through the population" on social media must not be ignored.

"As a one-time measurement, we have better ones," he told Technology Review. "[But social media is] a continuous monitor of conversation about a programme, episode by episode. And that is something we can't replicate."

Elsewhere, Procter & Gamble, the FMCG group, has conducted trials with Bluefin Labs – also working with CBS – to track the social response to running the same ads in various different programmes.

"Historically, we have held context as a constant. Well, surprise! In the real world, context plays a fundamental role," Craig Wynett, P&G's chief learning officer, said.

The metrics used remain limited at present, but are progressing, he added. "[We can't work out] if the message spread until every man, woman, and child heard it ... It's early days, but it shows promise."

Discovery Communications, the broadcaster, runs 75 pages on Facebook, between them boasting 45m fans, as well as 23 Twitter feeds, offering reminders and information regarding content.

"It's all that beautiful viral effect of social media to get people to watch our shows, and we aren't the only ones who do it," Gayle Weiswasser, Discovery's VP, social media communications, said.

Analysis undertaken by NM Incite, run by Nielsen and McKinsey, found that a 9% increase in online buzz before a series goes to air delivers a 1% uptick in viewing numbers in the first week.

However, Duane Varan, chief research officer at the Disney Media and Advertising Lab, suggested that while firms like Bluefin offer "technically impressive" solutions, marketers should proceed with care.

"People who use social media are not representative of the general population, it's very difficult to understand the differences, and it's a dynamic, variable thing," he said. "There is so much we don't know about how the social-media universe differs from the real universe."

Data sourced from Technology Review; additional content by Warc staff