Companion App, Second Screen App: What’s the Difference?

Companion app? Second screen app?Are they different? Are they the same? These two terms are seemingly used interchangeably. Tech blogs certainly treat them as equivalent and even industry veterans seem to regard them as synonymous. Yet I submit that there is a difference in meaning and while all companion apps are second screen apps, not every second screen app is a companion app. Two years ago, publications such as Variety lumped the terms together:

The companion app isn’t an entirely new notion. Before apps were even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, there was a similar rush about a decade ago among many of the same networks experimenting today to turn laptop and desktop computers into a viable second screen....

What’s driving the second screen this time is that devices like the iPad are becoming living-room fixtures. Nielsen found that 70% of tablet owners and 68% of smartphone owners used their devices in the first quarter of the year while watching TV, far more than they did with other activities including commuting. [Emphasis added – RB]

Even Wikipedia’s definition regards them as the same. True, the two terms may have started as two sides to the same coin, but much has changed as the smartphone and the tablet have evolved and gain ubiquity. Now, nearly two years later, the whole app phenomenon has moved light years beyond where it was in 2011. Apps are mainstream. Television channels are releasing their own apps to complement their entire programming schedule and individual shows are publishing apps to engage, inspire and interest their audiences. MESA’s 2nd Screen Society provides a good definition of a ‘second screen’ in their helpful Lexicon page: “A companion experience in which a consumer engages in relevant content on a second device, such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop while watching something on the “first screen” (typically a television but not limited to the living room).” [Emphasis added – RB]

Credit: 2nd Screen Society
Credit: 2nd Screen Society
A true 2nd screen experience is one in which a viewer engages concurrently with the primary experience. There are a number of companies which are engaged in building profitable and engaging second screen apps, a rapidly evolving and highly competitive space which Chuck Parker covers thoroughly in his 2nd Screen Blog. On the other hand, I believe a useful definition of a companion app is a second screen app which is related to the program, channel, film — the content — but is not bound by a simultaneity of experience. The key difference is the incorporation of Automatic Content Recognition technology “…synchronization via audio fingerprints and audio watermarks via a microphone on the second screen, via an network operations center performing the activity and communicating the trigger to the device, via “OS level” recognition of the video timecode, and via visual recognition (fingerprinting or watermarking)and visual content analysis of the first screen via a camera from the second screen device.” Thus all companion app are a second screen apps, but the converse isn’t true. A companion app is one that can be enjoyed and remains useful separate from the broadcast experience. A strong companion app goes above and beyond apps like those offered by many content distributors (i.e.: History Channel, Lifetime or truTV) which allow independent viewing of program episodes. A strong companion app is one which delivers more than the primary screen does, building on the common experience to create an individual one, operating independently and delivering untethered utility and enjoyment. This is the space where content creators/distributors can really have an impact in the minds of viewers, moving the engagement experience out of the living room and into the viewers daily lives. What will that look like? What will a successful companion app do or look like? I’m looking forward to discovering myself. What do you think? What’s your take?

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