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A Complete Guide to Second Screen Media and Its Impact on Marketing

Have you ever come across demands asking Netflix to start a category for “something easy to watch when you’re only kind of paying attention?” What about a category that Twitter user @bazecraze suggests in this Tweet for people who plan to text on their phones for the duration of the program? 

These asks might sound ridiculous, but they’re driven by a real need. People in our digital society consume video content (like Netflix shows) with the understanding that they’ll be scrolling through their phones or doing other tasks at the same time. 

While not every show or piece of content lends itself to this model, this is where the second screen media concept comes from. While you watch TV on your “first screen”, you’re doing other things on your “second screen” simultaneously. 

What is first screen vs. second screen media?

The first screen that precedes the second screen is almost always assumed to be television, although, in an increasingly mobile world, that may or may not be the case. If you’re watching television on a tablet or smartphone, that device would be the first screen and a laptop might be a second screen. 

The core concept to keep in mind is that the first screen is where you’re engaging with the content you initially intended to watch, and the second screen is for whatever else you’re doing at the same time. 

How did second screen media come about?

One explanation for the evolution of the second screen concept is that consumers react to what they’re seeing on television, and then share their reactions or search for more information in real-time. If you’ve ever done a quick search for an actor’s IMDb page to find out what else they’ve been in, searched past stats for the sporting event you’re watching, or posted on social media about the latest reality TV incident, you’ve contributed to this statistic. 

Whether you consciously recognize it or not, you are engaging with the content in front of you in a way that transcends the TV screen (or the tablet/laptop/smartphone screen, as the case may be). 

Multi-tasking, in an “always-on,” hustle-based culture, is another explanation for the double screen. Many people today (especially younger generations) don’t feel like it’s acceptable to sit and watch TV just for the sake of watching TV. That time has to also be used for catching up on emails, reading news, sending texts, or even “leisure” multitasking like scrolling through social media. Time focusing on TV is wasted unless you can maximize productivity in another way at the same time. 

The numbers supporting this phenomenon are staggering. In 2016, 80.3% of Internet users were active on the Internet while watching TV—a figure that was expected to grow to 91.6% by 2018 and is almost certainly higher than that today. Most of those people are using smartphones to browse content that is not related to what they’re watching on TV, but there are exceptions. The number of people who are interacting with TV-related content on other devices is increasing annually. 

What does this mean for advertisers?

Audiences have been exhibiting these behaviors for years. Today, though, advertisers are increasingly characterizing this secondary use as a way to continue to engage audiences rather than seeing the second screen as an interruption to the primary content. Today’s second screens usually fit both of these molds—they interrupt the primary content, and they add another dimension to the experience on another device. These concepts aren’t as mutually exclusive as they might have previously been assumed. 

The bottom line? For better or for worse, TV content isn’t a singular experience anymore, and brands have taken note. What brands and advertisers might have initially considered a distraction to TV is now seen as a golden opportunity to create an omnichannel experience and expand a concept beyond the TV screen. 

What are some examples of second screen media use?

One example of TV-adjacent content is the concept of live-Tweeting. If you’re not already familiar, live-Tweeting is what happens when someone follows along with a piece of content with moment-by-moment updates on Twitter. This can be done by a show’s creators, cast, or just super-engaged viewers. In each case, live-Tweeting has seen proven success in terms of increasing the conversation around a piece of content and generating a more significant following.

Twitter itself studied this and found that shows which had cast members live-Tweeting throughout the program had 64% more Tweets during the course of the day than programs without live Tweets. Check out some of their related findings in the graphic below.

Other examples of second screen media include branded companion apps, sponsored content on social networks during a live broadcast, or even just executing normal branded content in a way that references a show’s culture or impact. So, what does this mean for brands?

How can brands capitalize on second screen media?

Use second screen media to create a second touchpoint

The overarching theme here is that it makes sense to push relevant, timely content surrounding the content that people are likely consuming at any given moment. Covering digital spaces and social networks with related conversations, promotions, and information is a savvy strategy. 

One caveat: Be careful not to overdo it. Audiences are sensitive to authenticity and seek out brands that genuinely have their best interests in mind. A brand that supplies a relevant offer or piece of trivia during a TV show serves that purpose; a brand that floods news feeds with useless, self-serving content does not.

For brands that go this route, Twitter is an obvious first choice. There’s a reason that live-Tweeting has become a recognizable verb, while live-Facebooking or live-Instagramming haven’t. Consider contributing to a TV-driven conversation with quippy text posts, relatable memes, timely gifs, or other interactive tools. 

Second screen content can also involve video—and it should—but know that this video will almost always be played on mute since audiences are focusing most of their attention on the primary content. Make sure to use captions, disable autoplay audio if possible, and keep second screen videos short to maximize their impact.

Use second screen media to amplify your original touchpoint

In addition to creating an opportunity for additional brand touchpoints, second screen media’s habitual scrolling also serves advertisers during their first screen ads. When a commercial plays mid-content, consumers are still engaging with their phones. While this might mean that they absorb a less holistic view of your ad, it also means that you can facilitate a more significant interaction. 

By getting viewers to immediately take action (ex. search for something about the ad, go to your website, react to the content on social media, etc.) you continue to build a relationship beyond the scope of the original ad. Suddenly, the ability to bridge the gap between watching the ad and taking action is much shorter, making it more likely to occur. 

Ultimately, second screen media is both a challenge and an opportunity for marketers and advertisers. The challenge is that on both first and second screens, you don’t have a viewer’s full attention and the multitasking that they’re engaging in is often completely unrelated to the primary content. 

The opportunity, on the other hand, is that you have more chances to drive engagement and encourage consumers to take timely actions.

Best practices for executing a second screen approach

Now that we’ve talked about how you can execute a second screen approach, we’ll cover some key points to keep in mind as you craft your strategy. 

Understand your audience

First? Understand. Your. Audience. This is critical to so many marketing efforts, but it stands out for second screen media especially. It’s essential that you have a clear understanding of how your customers are engaging with their first screens and second screens and what their relevant digital habits look like.

Consider the difference between someone who is live-Tweeting an episode of The Bachelor vs. someone who is Googling historical facts about the documentary they’re watching on Netflix. Very different engagement patterns, very different motives, and very different marketing strategies. If you don’t understand how your audience is spending their time while they watch TV, it’s really just a shot in the dark to try to reach them. 

Be timely and precise

Similarly, once you have your audience information, target those people very specifically. If you know your audience is likely to live-Tweet The Bachelor, promote Bachelor-related content during the episode. Your audience engagement data is worthless if you don’t make choices that align with the insights your data provides. 

Have a holistic approach

Finally, have a holistic approach. There are countless opportunities to cover digital spaces with second screen content, and the beauty of the digital era is that you don’t have to pick one. Keep in mind your priorities of being timely and precise, but if multiple platforms or approaches are likely to resonate with your audience, why not use both? 

Your budget and internal resources will likely dictate how far you can take this, but the idea is that the more touchpoints you have for consumers to interact with, the more likely they are to engage with your brand. 


Second screen media can be a lot to take in, so here are our key takeaways to review:

  • Audiences are engaging with another device while they watch content on a first device.
  • Second screen habits are often not related to the first screen content, although related engagement is increasing. 
  • Live-Tweeting is an effective example of a second screen approach.
  • Second screen media can either create a second touchpoint to supplement your first screen strategy, or it can focus on increasing the effectiveness of your first screen strategy. 
  • If video is involved in your second screen strategy (hint: it should be!), keep videos short, mute the sound, and include captions. 
  • Know your audience’s online habits before you plan a strategy, and then make sure your strategy reflects your data-driven insights. 
  • Use an omnichannel strategy, reaching consumers in multiple ways to maximize your message and increase the likelihood of engagement. 
  • Get started! Test your strategies, monitor results, and adjust accordingly over time.