Why performing arts organizations are not app-ropriate

Let me start with a simple question: How many of you have opened an arts organization’s mobile app lately? And no, it doesn’t count if you were just looking to see what your competitors were doing.

Even more generally: How many apps have you used in your personal life just this last week? Email, news and Facebook. That’s about it for me. Maybe Instagram, Yelp, Fandango, LinkedIn and Google Maps. The average user has about 65 apps installed, but only uses about 15 apps per week (source).

What am I trying to tell you? Don’t waste your money developing an app for your arts organization.

Yes, the debate is still raging on whether the future lies in the World Wide Web or in apps. The Pew Internet Project invited experts to predict where things might be by the end of the decade. The results: 59% believe the web will dominate; 35% believe apps will dominate.

But many challenged the idea of the apps vs. web framing and considered the question to be a false dichotomy: “Apps are generally better for narrowly defined repetitive tasks,” as Tony Smith of the Open Source Developers Club in Melbourne, Australia wrote. “The Web will remain better for asynchronous exploring and continue its gateway role.”

Another, anonymous writer, states: “Apps will continue, as will app stores, but they’ll continue to be mass-market outlets for lightweight products on the one hand, and very narrow vertical outlets for very specific platform-dependent professional tools on the other, while the entire middle-ground will continue to belong to the Web.”

And that’s exactly why I don’t see apps as a viable option for most arts organizations. They live in this middle-ground; they don’t have the mass-market appeal and they are not a tool for a narrowly defined repetitive task.

Only a handful of large performing arts organizations will have a large enough following to keep a sustained audience for their app.  And then only if they can keep the audience engaged with fresh content, or say lets the audience stream an entire catalog of music.

Looking at current performing arts organizations apps, they mostly follow the same functionality: browsing snippets of content, some entertainment and info, and buying tickets.

Interestingly, as this simple infographic from MDG Advertising shows: users prefer mobile browsers for shopping, search, and entertainment. The key functions of most arts organizations apps! Users prefer mobile apps for managing data and connecting with others.

Well, so it’s decided, let’s go with a mobile website! Not so fast. There are some important pros when it comes to apps, and to make things more complicated, there’s a third option: responsive design.

What is responsive design? It is a development method that allows you to create a single website that will adapt to the device on which it’s being viewed, whether it’s a desktop, a smartphone or a tablet. A site built with responsive design will automatically resize, and can customize content or options, for different devices.

So I decided to put together a little matrix to outline the strengths and weaknesses of each option:

Of course, cost and time to develop apps or sites will differ greatly depending on your wants and needs: you can have a cheap out-of-the-box mobile app developed and an expensive responsive design site; or you can go all out on a mobile app and spend less than $100 on a responsive WordPress theme for your site. A mobile site will consistently be the least expensive to develop.

While I would put my money on responsive design, sometimes it might not be immediately attainable. A site overhaul can be expensive too, and that’s probably when you’d have the best opportunity to make your site responsive. At the Austin Lyric Opera, we made a huge stride forward by going from a Flash-based website that could not load on any mobile device to a WordPress site that loaded just fine on mobile devices. Yet it wasn’t a fully responsive design, so we opted to develop a low-budget, purpose driven mobile site that focused on elements such as key event information, program notes and traffic and parking info. All it took was an installation of a mobile specific WordPress theme on a sub directory (see ALOontheGO.org).

Another complicating factor is the fact that a lot of organizations will depend on a third-party, hosted ticketing solution. Unless you have the budget to work with a ticketing solution’s API (if they even offer it in the first place) in your design, you’ll likely develop a website with responsive design and you’ll get stuck with a third-party ticketing site that is not optimized for all devices. Even a mobile specific ticketing site will make a much smoother transition and some ticketing systems will offer at least that.

In developing a mobile app, you will be all but forced to use an API if you want box office functionality. The affordable, standardized apps offered by Instant Encore offer integration with Tessitura, but typically only larger arts organizations can afford Tessitura in the first place.

So when would you use a mobile app? If you have the resources and the audience for sustained engagement, a mobile app will offer the best user experience. But the keywords are resources, audience and sustained. You’ll have to measure and judge for yourself if the return is worth the initial and continued investment. I suspect for most organizations it is not.

But considering that, for the Austin Lyric Opera, more than 20% of traffic came from mobile devices, yet it only delivered 10% of revenue, and considering that mobile traffic has grown with the dawn of tablets and will continue to grow, you must address your mobile device traffic.

What you opt for will ultimately depend on your objectives and your budget. Just don’t neglect it.

Here’s my advice: forget about mobile apps, and aim for responsive design when you’re ready. You can use a mobile site as an intermediate option or for a very specific set of objectives and uses.



Perhaps it would make more sense to create a Fandango-like app for the performing arts. It has a narrow function and a mass-market appeal. Fandango, as you may know, sells movie tickets to most theaters in the country. But even this idea would be tremendously hard to implement: you’d need agreements with different arts organizations to sell tickets through a central point, and ticketing for the arts is much more complex than for movie theaters. Not to mention that the app would likely focus on a specific metropolitan area, rather than an entire country, so would you have a large enough pool to draw from?

Some Suggested Reading

Mobile Sites vs. Apps: The Coming Strategy Shift

Google How To Go Mo | Test Your Site

Drew McManus on responsive design

4 thoughts on “Why performing arts organizations are not app-ropriate”

  1. I was disappointed recently when I tried to go to a big arts org’s website on my phone to look up a performance date in the next season (which had already been announced). This seemed to me like a very basic thing to do.

    Unfortunately, I was re-directed to a mobile site, where I couldn’t see anything at all in next season, because the mobile site could only show events for which tickets were already on sale. I had to request that my mobile Chrome browser load the full website so that I could see the future calendar for events that were not yet on sale. Rather disappointing.

    • That’s exactly a scenario where responsive design would be the best solution. Obviously, they didn’t have the resources, or simply neglected, to update the mobile site content.

      Or perhaps the mobile site structure didn’t leave room for that particular info. And that’s exactly why I didn’t have an auto-redirect for the opera’s mobile site. It served a particular use and users were directed there for those specific uses, not general uses, hence the “on the go” branding.

      • I think it was the structure, not resources nor neglect to update.

        The mobile site seems to be run with off a popular third-party mobile ticket sales service. Obviously that third-party can only serve up info on what they know about, and what they know about is going to be what’s been offered for sale on their service by the cultural organization. So, like you say, redirecting mobile users to such a limited function site is just inadequate for everybody’s needs.

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