How Tuned In Are Second-Screen Users, Really?

It's an open question whether TV programmers and their advertisers can effectively capture all of that second-screen activity that we know both subjectively and objectively is going on in living rooms everywhere. We know that the smartphones and tablets are out, but how much do these distracted users really want their attention knit across big and little displays? After all, part of the two-screen dance must have something to do with the TV viewer at least subconsciously disengaging to some degree with the first screen in order to engage the second.

Sure, there are lookups off of on-screen prompts and all of that. But marketers risk deluding themselves if they believe people are usually activating a secondary display because they really want to dig deeper into the content on the first.



According to the latest Nielsen survey of device users, 76% of second-screeners using a tablet and 63% of those using a smartphone are just looking up information online, while 68% (tablet) and 55% (phone) are surfing the Web and 53% (tablet) 52% (phone) are on social network sites or apps. In general, it is safe to assume that people use personal devices in personal ways, even when in the presence of the great and powerful TV. Perhaps there are studies somewhere down the line that can surface this presumption of mine, but I think there is something to the idea that second-screen activity is compelling in part because it is not TV.

We know that almost a majority of smartphone owners (46%) and slightly less among tablet owners (43%) do use their devices while the TV is on every day. But it bears repeating that the overwhelming amount of that time is spent on tasks that are disconnected from the TV programming or ads.

Marketers and programmers surely will want to latch onto the glass-one-fifth-full stats that show 21% of tablet second-screeners and 18% of phone users have read social media conversations about a show. But again, let’s not mistake that absolute number of people who did the activity once in the last month for habitual behavior. At best it is a potential action among a slice of viewers waiting to be triggered.

Nielsen asked whether the user had performed any of these second-screen activities in the previous 30 days. But how much this activity is habitual and more than occasional is less clear. Likewise, 20% and 13% of tablet screeners and smartphone users, respectively, have purchased a product they saw advertised on the big screen, 15% / 10% watched a program based on social media mentions. And 13% / 8% wrote something about a show.

This is all to say that the second screen is undeniably an opportunity for the first screen to engage the viewer to interact, if the trigger is right. The connection is there to be made if the incentive is there for the user to break from their other second-screen activities that are divorced from the first.

Maybe there is nothing to this idea, but it strikes me that when it comes to activating behaviors on devices, media and marketers have to think about how they are interrupting a user mode. This strikes me as especially true of magazines that are trying to engage a kind of second-screen activity through mobile codes, AR and other activations of print. The magazine reader has chosen a certain mode -- thumbing through an analog medium. Asking a reader to turn into a mobile phone activator is asking them to switch modes.

Granted, the two situations are different. The second-screen tablet and smartphone user in a TV room is already engaged in connected interactive activity. Still, an on-screen prompt is pulling the viewer out of their independent personal media experience and into a conversation and connection with the first screen. Is this a shift in modes that the marketer or media company needs to understand in order to engage more successfully? Or am I suggesting a distinction without a difference?

3 comments about "How Tuned In Are Second-Screen Users, Really?".
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  1. Roger Baker from Giant Interactive, June 18, 2013 at 9:10 a.m.

    It's an interesting take on the 2nd screen world. I know from person experience that I haven't yet turned to a second screen experience when reading a magazine -- I think you're spot on there.

    However, I have used a 2nd screen app to engage with a program or channel. Think the difference is that audiences have always multi-tasked when watching TV. In early TV history, the 'woman of the house' did housework while watching soaps (if my TV history books are to believed). The "man of the house" traditionally watched TV as his sole activity. (I'm watching football, GO AWAY!)

    I think that carries through to the present day, perhaps with less gender specificity. Viewers do multi-task while watching TV. Whether that means catching up with friends via social network, answering email, or engaging in those traditionally second screen activities (web research on actors, plots, more info on the show, etc.), they're not just watching TV. They ARE doing more.

    I agree with your point "second-screen activity is compelling in part because it is not TV", that people CAN make it a more personalized experience that moves that their speed, addresses their specific questions and allows them a more individualized experience. Marketers who hope to capitalize on the technology must accommodate that unspoken desire.

    Great post. I'll be sharing it.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, June 18, 2013 at 9:17 a.m.

    Thanks Roger. I agree the distinction with tv and device is not as marked as with magazines, but I still wonder whether there is something there that does demarcate the two screens in people's minds and attitudes so that marketers need to be aware of it.

  3. Steve Habbi from Critical Mass, June 18, 2013 at 11:56 a.m.

    We learned a lot developing Pit Pass, the second screen experience for Nissan & Playstation's reality show GT Academy last year on Spike TV. It's up for several awards at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, you can see the case study film here or visit the site at

    We used an HTML web based approach rather than app based to reduce barriers and simplify loading. Pit Pass was also fully social being connected to Facebook for promotion and cross channel conversations. Each week's exclusive "bite-sized" content was synced to the show providing a deeper level of information and engagement for fans, ideally during the ad break.

    Content included behind the scenes footage, interactive maps, polls and racing tips from instructors. We used time-synced animated snipes during the show that told viewers what to do. The experience was successful and was well engaged by the audience I may add that was tech savvy and sure to have smartphones or tablets on hand.

    IMO lots of awareness and calls-to-action are key to engagement. Twitter integration would also be a nice touch.

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