Mobile apps and the arts: where we are and where we're going

Expressway at Night by the Pug Father
Expressway at night by The Pug Father (from flickr.)

2009 saw many new technologies first start up (like Google Wave), slowly emerge (mobile apps), or explode with popularity (Twitter). In the past year, we at Technology in the Arts have been writing a lot about the emergence of mobile technologies in the performing arts, particularly the emergence of mobile apps. We’ve highlighted disagreements between artistic and administration staff about the role of phones in the audience, as well as the new and unique ways orgs are promoting the arts through apps. We featured a short video of mobile marketing guru Ron Evans of Groupofminds demonstrating new apps as part of a webinar hosted by the Center for Arts Management and Technology on “Mobile Applications for the Arts: Where Are We” (more on webinars at the freshly made-over CAMT site.) I caught up with Ron again around New Year's to discuss where mobile technology is now and how we might expect it to develop in 2010 and beyond. Amelia: What do you think arts patrons want in a cell phone app? What are the most successful examples that you’ve seen at giving the intended audience what they want?

Ron Evans: In a study I recently completed for the Artsopolis Network (who is considering building a mobile application to allow patrons to access their arts calendaring portal), of patrons aged 48-64, surprisingly one of the top results to your question is "Parking." People really want to know what parking options are available to them before the event, how much the parking costs, etc. This is a perfect example of some of the answers one might overlook when focusing on the arts organization's presentation of "the art" and is really very practical and useful information to know. Other responses that score high include restaurant information for pre/post show activities, availability of events near the users location (and the event start times), getting directions to the event, and being able to purchase tickets through the app (hopefully with discounts). These are all practical responses, and that's ok right now -- we're in a phase of early adoption, and outside of these functions that they are already familiar with (using Yelp to find restaurants, or using the iPhone's maps to get directions to a location) people don't really know what they want yet. They will be attracted to new phone technologies/capabilities that are cool as they develop.

iPhone Transparent Screen by edans
iPhone Transparent Screen by edans (from flickr.)

A: In the current marketplace, what are these apps useful for? Is it simply audience engagement and a connection with the organization? Is it selling tickets? Or do you think that at this point they serve more as publicity devices—the organization that comes up with a cool app gets written up in papers, and gets a reputation for being forward-thinking?

RE: I feel that it is all of the above. If your arts organization creates a mobile app, it still feels like magic. Since many groups are local or regional and not national in scope, it doesn't really matter if an arts group in Boston creates an app similar to the one you just created in San Diego -- to your local community, you're cool. You're looked at as a forward-thinking organization with resources to spend on research and development, and I've seen several funders interested in funding new technology like this. Now, there aren't many examples of financial return on investment for the creation of an app. But similar to social networking, there are many examples of a visibility return on investment, and that's of course quite useful in many cases. But some people have to be the pioneers, who build things because they are fun and cool and give a new spin on the experience -- those people are the ones that eventually find the ROI. But to finish your question, apps can be designed to serve a variety of purposes, from deepening audience engagement to simply helping people find events to attend in the first place.

A: Back in the 90’s, there was a big “everyone needs a website” push for all commercial and non-profit orgs. Now everyone wants their website to be mobile-accessible. Is the next step that everyone needs a mobile app for their organization? In short, are apps right for everyone?

RE: Let's draw a quick distinction between mobile accessibility and mobile apps. The former is simply having a website that looks good when viewed in a mobile browser, and this is an absolute must-have. The latter is the creation of a new software program that people can download from places like the Apple AppStore, and is not a requirement, but is certainly cool. For a mobile-accessible site, your web designer should create a mobile-friendly version of your site, and you should try it out on various phones. If you use a content management system such as Wordpress or Drupal, there are free plugins that will do this for you automatically -- it's quite easy, and has the advantage of working for any phone with web-browsing capability. Mobile applications however, only work on the phone they were designed for, so you need different applications for the iPhone, the Droid, Blackberrys, Nokia's, etc. New tools are looking to make this a bit easier: for example, there are software coding environments that allow you to code your app in a general way, and then spit out "flavors" of apps that work on different phones. New technologies like this should bring down the cost of creating apps significantly.

iPhone sunset in the Andes by Gonzalo Baeza Hernández
iPhone sunset in the Andes by Gonzalo Baeza Hernández (from flickr.)

A: What type of organization could benefit the most from creating a mobile app? How do you suggest an organization research and decide if a mobile app is right for them?

RE: I don't think the use of an app would be better or worse for a specific arts genre. If you're doing interesting things, an app would offer a new medium to communicate that information. Before deciding to move forward on any development, I'd do two things. 1. Research what's out there already -- do some searches in the app store of your smartphone for organizations like yours, and see if apps exist already, what they do, and how you might use them if you were to contact the org that made them. 2. Ask your patrons -- send them a survey and tell them you're considering creating mobile access to the arts experience, and ask them what they would like to see, with an open-ended comment option. I've taken arts organizations through this process and answer analysis, and the information received is fantastic in focusing your development, saving you money, and ultimately increasing your chance of "success" in however you define it for your creation.

A: I’ve been researching streaming video in arts organizations and I have been finding there are many performing arts organizations that are having trouble obtaining the rights to stream video. Similarly, there are many modern museums and galleries that cannot obtain permission from artists to put a photograph of their art on their website, much less a mobile app. Do you see this as a significant barrier to arts organizations developing apps?

RE: Yes, it is a huge barrier. People that own the rights need to lighten up and realize that capturing the likeness of a piece or an event to share the act of participation isn't the same as being there in person and participating. But this is really only a barrier to apps that are designed to display this sort of content. There millions of other ways an app could augment my arts-attending experience, and many organizations are focusing on those ideas right now.

Samsung mobile phone by Milica Sekulic (from flickr)
Samsung mobile phone by Milica Sekulic (from flickr.)

A: Do you foresee a huge demand for on-demand video on smartphones? How do you think the market reconciles the hi-def video craze with viewing performances on a low-def platform (i.e. tiny screen, tinny sound quality)? What sort of apps do you see emerging in the future, based on current trends?

RE: Actually, on-demand video, no. You can do it already and that will just become easier. The next big thing is going to be live streaming video -- sharing the experience you're at right now, with yo friends who aren't there with you. The iphone already has this capability (although you can't use it unless you break your contract with Apple and "jailbreak" your phone). AT&T also doesn't want you to have this capability right now, as it will be a huge drain on their mobile network resources. But as 4G speed and more becomes standard in the next couple of years, you're going to see this capability emerge, and instead of asking people not to take pictures, many arts groups will be asking people to not stream capture the entire event on their phones. This is going to be a big battle. But again, I point out that watching a show through a cell phone camera is not the same thing as attending the show in person in all its glory. One should be a "taste" of the other, intended to drive interest and participation. But many rights holders and arts organizations aren't going to see it like that for a long time.

I also think there will be more and more location-based apps, that know where you are in relation to everybody else, and your friends. For example, it is going to be easy and precise for you to be able to find your friends in a crowded 1800 seat concert hall -- you'll be able to point your phone like a compass to find them, as well as see them represented on a map that includes the walls etc. of the physical space you're in. There are already apps being worked on that help you find friends to attend with, identifying people of similar interests and tastes. And apps will start asking you for permission to do the things you do most -- do you usually go out to dinner before shows? Your phone will know that, and ask you "should I make a reservation at X restaurant for you?" You just give the ok -- the default will be that the phone asks for your approval, not the other way around with you hunting for a restaurant and trying to tell the phone you want to make a reservation. Sound like the stuff from science fiction movies? It's closer than you think, and it will all be based on the continued constant recording of your preferences and actions, in order to try to predict your future behavior. Getting your DNA examined to know your physical traits is pretty commonplace today -- getting your behavioral preferences mapped will be the goal of tomorrow. Sounds potentially Orwellian, I know. But if you can get beyond that, it's pretty exciting stuff, and we are just starting to play around with ways to enhance the arts experience itself using these technologies -- interesting stuff to come!

Ron Evans of GroupofMinds.comRon Evans is the founder of Arts Consultants, and is a leading developer and researcher of arts marketing and audience development using technology. His firm assists arts groups to explore emerging technologies and measure their impact on patron behavior in expanding arts audiences. He can be reached at