Smartphones and Live Events — Friends, Enemies, or Frenemies?

A conversation between Gene Carr, Founder and Paul Miller, VP Sales – Non-Profit Ticketing, PatronManager:

Gene: I think we’ve reached a tipping point with the use of digital technology in live event settings where there’s no longer a consensus about what a good outcome is. Some organizations are pushing to find more and more innovative uses, and others are screaming at patrons to not touch their devices during the performance. 

And yet, as a society, the average person spends almost 3 hours a day on their smartphone according to eMarketer. And app developers are using techniques used in gaming to make sure people are continually checking our phones (things like pop-ups, notifications, push messages, etc.) which deliver a small dopamine hit each time they arrive.

I’ve noticed that even in shows where everyone turns off their phones at the start of the performance, nearly everyone immediately turns on their phone at intermission. So what’s a producer to do? Are we fighting an uphill battle, that’s never to be won?  

Paul: That battle is basically over. I think we can accept that the “always connected” nature of our lives isn’t going to change anytime soon. And when you couple that with the fact that 85% of people over 50 have smartphones, most of our current and long-time arts patrons are just as much part of the problem as the younger audiences we’re trying to recruit. Dopamine doesn’t discriminate! 

One solution here is to make a few sections of the house “device-friendly,” and allow those who want to take photos, read program notes, or live tweet their experiences to do so without disturbing other patrons who might want a more uninterrupted experience. Naturally, they need to be reminded to turn their phones on silent, but by providing a separate space, it allows us to see if there’s really a demand, and a benefit, to encouraging this kind of active engagement. My question is, what things can organizations offer that would make patrons want to remain connected? Is it more than just live-streamed subtitles at the opera?

Gene: That’s an interesting question. Before I answer, let me go back to one of my pet peeves about how most theaters manage (or don’t manage) their patrons. Today, we expect to hear, (and often ignore) the pleasantly recorded message to turn off our phones before the performance. Some pay attention, but not all, which is why inevitably the show is interrupted by a ringtone going off. 

What if we went the other way? Rather than telling people what they can’t do — why not tell them what they can do? Last week you mentioned you heard that an orchestra posed for photos at a certain point during or before their performance? Cool. What if the actors came out after the show and posed on set? What if the message from the organization was “we don’t want you using your phone during the show — but here are three times tonight when we encourage you to take out your phones and use them.” That sets up a different dynamic with the audience where they are given a set of guidelines that are not simply a “no.” 

As for what organizations can do with a “mobile phone permission zone” — that’s wide open, but I’d say that the onus is on the producers to figure that out creatively. For instance, what if you had a web-cam backstage showing the soloist or conductor before they came out onstage and directly after the show? Same with the theatre, or a ballet company with dancers waiting in the wings? People always want an “insiders” view. 

Paul: That’s a great way to bring this all together. In the short term, producers can get the best of both worlds by making the ceremonial device warning an event unto itself. First, get everyone on their devices with pre-show content like backstage video and program notes. You can also push concession promotions and info about your sponsors, maybe even thank a particular donor in the process. At that point, they’re all doing something together, which is a great time to follow the example of the orchestra where you encourage them to take their selfies or photos of the orchestra (or whatever), share it on social, and then… TURN THE DEVICE OFF! I think they’ll have a higher success rate by making it more of an event than an announcement. 

Then you do something during intermission to re-engage them and go through the process again. Now that I think about it, I hear more accidental cell phone rings AFTER intermission than before… because we’re not reminded to turn them off again! 

Here’s something else I experienced recently. At an arena rock concert, the artist implored everyone, for just one song, to put away their phones and engage directly with her in the moment. The song had a message, and she wanted everyone to witness that moment NOT from behind the lens, but through their eyes. You know what? I didn’t see any phones for the next 4 minutes. 

Gene: That’s exactly it! It has to do with the artist (or the organization) taking control and guiding the audience in a firm but respectful way to achieve a specific behavior. In this case, the artist did it, but I think organizations themselves can have a lot of influence over their audience. 

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve moved past the point where mobile devices are yet a new thing to be “dealt with.” Looking at it differently, there’s an opportunity here, but the involvement has to be creative and deliberate.

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