Today, more than 77% of the US population owns smartphones, and 70.1% of adults scroll online when they are watching television. It’s called second screen usage. The rise of two-screen usage may undermine the attention paid to quality content, as viewers divide their capacity to focus between their cellphones and the TV. But it also creates a monetization opportunity for streaming platforms—viewers can shop through their phones or laptops while watching their shows, a situation that advertisers should mine.
In the last five years, the cord-cutting revolution has spread. Viewers have slowly abandoned traditional TV for online streaming platforms like Netflix, HBO, Hulu or Amazon Prime. A PwC study revealed that total pay-TV subscriptions declined from 73% to 67% in 2018. At the same time, Netflix surpassed cable and satellite usage—76% versus 67%. The obvious conclusion is that viewers want and expect on-demand content. They can play, pause or rewind any shows whenever they want from wherever they want—both in terms of devices (cell phones, laptops, smart TVs), and locations (subway, living room.) As David Snyder, a former executive at Disney, told IESE a few months ago for the report “Media Landscape: from showtime to screen time”: “Audiences demand the ability to access, binge-watch, multiple-repeat-watch, and demand decreased production time of content delivery.”
The viewership of traditional broadcast television (Linear TV) has, unsurprisingly, declined but not disappeared. There are still programs, like the Super Bowl, the last episode of Game of Thrones or a political debate, that require programming and that viewers watch together. However, this type of public viewing is down. “Audience viewing and screen consumption used to be communal,” explained Sharon Parker, a former executive at Showtime, to IESE. “This has morphed into personal screens and individual experiences. There are some shared experiences, such as interactive multi-user gaming, but those individual players are probably alone in their basement.”
The notion of second-screen usage as ‘doing something else while watching TV’ is not new. With linear TV, some people would iron clothes with the latest soap opera on and others would have lunch while watching the news. Distraction (and attention) is media and entertainment’s sauce.
But the rise of second screen usage points to two trends: one, users share, buy or research online while they watch a show; two, we are more distracted than ever. According to eMarketer, 180.8 million people in the United States use a second screen to browse online but only 48% of viewers do so if their favorite show is on. From that 48%, 7% actually engage with content related to the program on their screens. This is a tiny but valuable percentage. Those who research content while watching their favorite show are the perfect advertising target—they are fans.
On the one hand, streaming platforms should engage in advertising strategies to target viewers who have a second screen at hand. For example, the ad-based version of Hulu could play with its ads to bait viewers into buying or at least sharing and researching on their phones. Other ad-free platforms like Netflix could use product placement to lure that 7% of fans into buying content. What they need is the data: did this person buy something while watching the show on Sunday evening? Did this other viewer open the merchandising site with Game of Thrones still playing on their HBO account?
On the other hand, for linear-TV, second screen usage may harm more than it helps, except in large events broadcasted through their channels. Linear-TV companies cannot track down what the user is doing. For that reason, two screens mean that the viewer is distracted and not paying enough attention to the content. But communal events are a different story. Having the audience use a second screen during the Super Bowl means social engagement and sales. Viewers do not change the channel and they are used to the ads in this context. For example, the Volvo interception campaign during the 2015 Super Bowl lured users to engage constantly with the brand. Volvo did not invest in expensive TV ads. On the contrary, it did not advertise at all. Instead, the company encouraged viewers to participate in a contest tweeting about Volvo (#volvocontest) every time another car ad showed up. Users were engaging with the brand through their second screens. The result? Volvo dominated the public conversation and got a sales bump in one single day.
For advertisers, second-screen usage is an opportunity. For online streaming platforms, two screens mean divided attention to their content and the chance to bait viewers into buying if they get the data right. For linear-TV, two screens create the perfect opportunity to launch campaigns during communal broadcasted events. But for all, second-screen usage is another sign of our inability to focus and that, although a sales opportunity, is a loss for general quality content.