The Next Chapter of the Internet and the Arts

My annual December blog post aims to help us understand what mattered most in the world of technology over the past year. And, I take a look ahead to where technology is going — and how this will affect the arts.  

This year feels different from the past few years. In my more recent previous year-end posts, the changes felt incremental. This year it seems as if we’ve arrived at the end of a big and important chapter in the history of the internet, and we’re just now turning the page and taking a glance at what’s to come.

The chapter-ending signals are many. To start with, we’re essentially finished with the adoption phase of the internet. For the past decade, we’ve been tracking the arts audience’s usage of the internet to get a clearer understanding of what portion of our audience is online — and how many of these patrons we could effectively build digital relationships with.

That story is basically told. Everyone is online, and pretty much everyone has a smartphone. And by everyone, I mean 85-95 percent of your audience. Even older patrons are online, and they are behaving just like everyone else. While they may not be on Snapchat, they do have fast internet, so they are checking their email and buying products and services online, and their expectations of speed and service are just as high as anyone else’s.

This year’s story also includes a big black cloud of data breaches. We’re in a new reality where professional crooks don’t rob banks; they rob data. Last year I warned about the shift from “data as an asset” to “data as a liability,” and this year proves that point. Very recently there was yet another significant hack — a mega-breach at Marriott’s Starwood brand where as many as 500 million guest records apparently were compromised. It’s now obvious that every organization that collects patron data has an important responsibility to protect it. As a refresher, you may want to read my post from June 2015, “Executive Data Security Wake-up Call: Don’t Become a Target.”

We’ve seen social media mature in a profound way this year. Facebook has been the unrivaled leader in social media and continues to be so. However, its growth in the United States has slowed, and its flagship product,, has lost its luster, yielding to its acquired product Instagram, which is now having its moment in the sun. No matter what you think of Facebook’s leadership, politics, or lack of transparency, the platform is still a force to be reckoned with and there are no signs it’s going to be any less important in the coming years.

The customer online experience is maturing as selling tickets online has become ubiquitous — and by now you probably know that some ticket-buying user experiences are better than others. But the discussion isn’t simply about selling online anymore. It’s now about the overall customer experience and what’s become known as the “customer journey,” which ties together their entire experience from their first click to the quality of your follow-up weeks or months after the event.  

That customer journey is the very premise that PatronManager was built upon — that every arts organization must have a bona fide customer relationship management (CRM) system. At a minimum, it’s clear every organization needs a place to house all its customer data about ticketing, fundraising, and marketing — a single “system of record.” But a CRM system is much more than a repository. Once you have it, you can accelerate your operation with automation and workflows that enable you to run your organization more efficiently — wresting endless hours of drudgery from your staff and shifting their time to more value-added work.

Thus, as this chapter of the history of the internet ends, we can tie a bow around the major themes: cloud computing, websites, email and video marketing, data security, social media marketing, and CRM. These are the building blocks of the modern web and will certainly continue to be refined and polished.

As I mentioned, this year also revealed a lot about the internet’s next chapter, which is where all the innovation is actually taking place. Today a significant amount of investment dollars from companies we know, and some that will become household names, are around the most fundamental change we will see in the next few years: the internet experience will no longer be tethered to a screen.

We already know that more than 20 million households talk to the internet via Alexa or other smart speakers. And we can expect that we’ll be talking with nearly every kind of object in the near future. Voice commands in your car or in a store will be commonplace. And this is happening for customer service as well, as I wrote about a few months ago. Over a year ago the PatronManager team built an Alexa app to let managers speak a request to PatronManager, such as “Tell me how many tickets we have left to sell for tonight’s show.” And soon enough, consumers from their homes will be able to buy tickets with their voice only.

The next chapter will also be about what is known as “immersive technology.” Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are going to create entirely new industries, some of which are emerging already. Enterprise businesses have embraced AR to help better train staff or guide workers on complex repair projects in the field, or in a hospital. Even Ikea offers an AR-based tool to help you build a desk.

On the entertainment side is esports, which, if you’re not that familiar, is a multiplayer video game competition that attracts both professional gamers and spectators. This is an explosive new industry worth over $100 billion today (yes, billion) based on the technology and the live stadium group experience. And VR gaming is another industry taking off.

At some point in the future, (experts aren’t able to predict whether this will be two to three years or more like a decade) when a lightweight headset (or glasses) becomes mainstream, we’ll be in a world in which “online” will be delivered directly to your eyes without the hassle of looking down at a mobile device.  

The use of augmented reality promises to change the live experience or create an entirely new genre of live art events. We see evidence of this already at an exhibition in San Francisco called the Unreal Garden, which the creators describe as a “labyrinth of immersive exhibits & installations — a high tech sculpture garden.”

Sports teams are experimenting with enabling you to attend live games in VR. Facebook’s Oculus headset offers this today. There are even waterslides where you are given a VR headset that you wear while sliding — a new form of entertainment that combines the analog world and technology.

Data will be different in this chapter as well. The sci-fi concept of artificial reality where a humanoid computer speaks with you in a way that’s indistinguishable from a person is probably quite a ways off. But a subset of AI is “machine learning,” which we experience every day when, for example, airline tickets are re-priced by the minute, or when Amazon notices that we bought fertilizer last April and automatically suggests we buy it again at precisely the right time this year.

As we turn the page to this new chapter of technology for the arts, I hope this essay helps you step back and see how far we’ve come as an industry, measure your own progress against my predictions, and determine how much time and effort to spend over the next year continuing to building relationships with your patrons. Whether we’re talking this chapter of the internet or the next, the arts must continue to keep pace with the rest of the world.

The future is already here. So now, it’s just a matter of how and when you embrace it.

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