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People say second screen is an awesome opportunity. Some even say it's the future. But there's no handbook out there on how to do it right.
This year, we developed a second-screen app for popular documentary show Dispatches as part of a 26-episode pilot with Channel 4 and production company Standing Stone. It was an interesting experience, and was even nominated for a British Journalism Award.
Here are a few of the things we learned from the experience.
Content over conversation
Everyone likes talking about TV, right? But does your TV show need its own private space?
The great thing about something like Twitter or Facebook is that you've effectively got millions of users floating around, intermittently latching onto things. So while a second-screen app should absolutely facilitate chat and sharing in some form, it's naïve to expect users to be peeled off from a festival to go to your house party.
In February this year, Dispatches ran an expose into ticket touting called The Great Ticket Scandal. 12,000 tweets featuring the hashtag #ticketscandal popped up in 24 hours. This alerted news outlets that it was a story that had caught the public's imagination.
Would it have received as much attention if all this buzz had taken place on a more closed app?
However, an app can be very helpful in filtering specific information. One reason that people turn to their phone during a gripping show is to search for added detail or facts, and you can spend hours wandering the vast plains of the internet looking for answers. A decent second screen app can provide you with targeted and relevant information, helping you to understand an issue better and learn a little extra.
The Distraction Factor
How much information is too much? Do people want a second screen experience that explains the issue with a few words and pictures, or that links them to a library full of extra reading?
During its run, Dispatches covered a range of topics, from the politics of school dinners to the misdeeds of banks.
It's fair to say that the subject plays a major role in dictating what that audience is, and some audiences have more appetite for data than others.
However, it's worth bearing in mind that if your amazingly-researched, detailed content takes 20 minutes to read, that's 20 minutes they wouldn't be spending watching the show. And it also probably won't be read. Sorry.
Static or interactive?
Did you ever sit next to someone while they were fixing something? It's a lot easier to take stuff in when you're hands-on.
People spend most of their day wading through messages, from billboards and news articles to signs, videos and flyers. They've become very good at skimming information. However, if you're encouraged to get interactive, remembering and thinking about what you're reading is a lot easier.
There's no reason a second-screen app can't feature some "static" content, like a handy fact or a decent visualisation, but it's also helpful if you challenge the viewer as well.
Live polling was something that featured more heavily in the experience as the pilot went on. At the start it wasn't really included, but by the end the experience featured four or five polls a show. Viewers like being able to express their opinion, and immediately see how that vote has changed the overall total. Plus it's a very speedy way for broadcasters to get valuable feedback from their audience.
People want to share
While the first question is "Why would a viewer use our app?", it's also important to think about what they want to do with your information once they've seen it.
If I'm in an app, and I've just been slapped in the face with a really interesting fact or revelation, I'm probably going to want to tell my friends. If I have to go out of the app to do that, there's a chance I'm going to get distracted (and not come back). So it's pretty helpful to be able to reach your networks in the app itself. Likewise, a decent infographic or fact-sheet from the app itself should be shareable. It makes the experience more natural for users, and might get a few others to check out the app as well.
Extending the show
The job of a second screen experience isn't done when the show's not on. The app should be able to provide information during the programme, but also act as a trailer for the upcoming episode.
It's also not the sort of thing you switch off when the credits roll. People want to read additional content in a variety of ways, and they're not all going to do it within the window of the show. Some may want to bookmark a piece of information mentally (or physically) and come back to it later. Services like Instapaper took off when people found they couldn't juggle all the information they were served every second, and needed to file things away. When your TV presenter is laying out allegations at a hectic pace, it's safe to assume that many of your viewers will feel the same.
That's also why features like polling should stay open a little after the show. Not only does it allow people a chance to make their views known when the dust has settled, it also gives those who are catching up using services like 4OD to have their say.
What have you learned from your second screen projects? What do you want from an experience, or an app? What's the future of second screen? We'd love to hear what you think…