It’s hard to believe, but as of as five years ago, the festival landscape was a radically different place. Sure, some of the same acts made appearances (everyone from Tegan and Sara to MGMT) and the trend had already broken the mainstream, but it was lacking one crucial piece of today’s festival-going experience.
It was missing the smartphone.
The mere presence of the smartphone may be counter-intuitive to the free-living, grungy scene of the summer festival, but proprietary apps have not only replaced the need for paper line-up booklets and flyers, but also helped festival planners enhance the real-time experience of attendees in a variety of ways, including social connections, breaking news and vendor information. The smartphone has opened up a new side of the festival experience to create a better informed crowd, but there are even more exciting opportunities on the horizon as festivals continue to think about mobile capabilities during large-scale events.
But let’s rewind and go behind the scenes to understand why these apps work, and how you’ll never want to attend a festival without one.
First: The Lineup
The highest priority for festival app development is fulfilling a practical need. And nothing is more practical than providing the event’s schedule.
Superfly Presents, the marketing and app development company responsible for the mobile offerings of Bonnaroo as well as Outside Lands, Life is Good and Great GoogaMooga, makes the lineup of each event the anchor of the app offerings.
“In the beginning, we went for the sort-of lowest hanging fruit,” explains Rick Farman, co-founder of Superfly Presents. “The easiest one at the beginning is the idea that people would be psyched to pick their own schedule and have it on their phone.”
It’s a given for an app developer to pay particular attention to the lineup when crafting a mobile offering for a festival, particularly because it takes an absolutely necessary festival tool—the set times—and gives it a digital home. With just a few lines of programming and minimal variables, developers can produce working, handy schedule that helps attendees plan out their day amidst the festival’s sprawling locale.
“With all of our events, we always want to be on the cutting edge of making our fan experience as progressive as possible,” Farman says. “Using smartphone technology to better help people navigate our events is certainly a no-brainer.”
The lineup alone is the main reason many attendees turn to their smartphone during the festival, and, at least at Bonnaroo, that seems to happen quite often. During the weekend of last year’s Bonnaroo, there were 1,617,273 individual sessions of the app over both iPhone and Android. With a little rough math, that means that the 80,000 Bonnaroo festival-goers opened the app an average of 20 times. In a more general sense, it’s clear that users spent a lot of time revisiting the app, checking plans and keeping up with their ambitious music schedules.
Now: The Services
As mobile apps have become commonplace among the country’s greatest festivals, including Coachella, ULTRA Music Festival and Sasquatch!, each event’s features are becoming more tailored to help attendees have a better time at shows and show off a little bit of personality in the process.
For Superfly Presents, a major feature is building and executing a real-time news feed that not only provides updates of ongoing features related to the event but also pushes important notifications, like a set delay or an act rescheduling, directly to the phones of attendees. This feature, Farman says, helps the attendees stay more informed throughout the festival and prevents mix-ups day-of.
“If we have a time swap or changes, we can message people directly through the app,” Farman explains. “Any other situation where we need to get fans information, that’s another resource for us.”
But festival apps provide more than standard information for attendees. Bonnaroo alone provides tons of services to get users engaging with the app before they even set foot on the campsite. One prominent feature is a user suggestion program called “Roadtrip” that helps festival-goers get recommendations from each other on routes, stops and food available on the way to the festival’s woodsy area. Another is Bonnaroo Radio, which gives users a chance to sample music before the shows. All of it is right in line with Bonnaroo’s overall personality, aimed to hype attendees and convince those on the fence to spring for a ticket.
“Our audience wants more curatorial [content] and information from us because we’re a trusted source,” Farman says. “The app is a way to get that voice out and to give our audience an ongoing experience.”
The final piece to many festival apps is increasingly becoming the most important: social media. At the end of the day (or the weekend), festivals are brands, building an identity to attract more attendees every year and solidify places as cornerstones in the music world. Riding the wave of word-of-mouth buzz is ideal, and festival apps are equipped with full social sharing through Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram to encourage attendees to broadcast their experiences. Farman says that one specific feature, stage check-ins, opened up an opportunity for the event to interact with fans specifically through social media.
“Last year, we had 20 different check-spots at stages and other areas,” Farman says. “We had a partnership with Spotify that let the user get a playlist of the set list for the artist. So this year, if you go to see Mumford & Sons, we’ll send you all the songs they’ll play.”
Festival apps already sport a bevy of features, but there are still more on the horizon to get excited about, particularly when different technologies begin working together. We’re still a few years out from some ambitious progress, but Farman and his team are working hard on the off-time to bring new features to apps down the road.
“Once cellphones evolve to have NFC and similar technology, more opportunities open up to bring richer experiences to the phone.” Farman says.
One particular field of interest for the folks at Superfly Presents is a more comprehensive tracking of RFID technology on-site, and providing attendees services with special geolocating features. Bonnaroo already takes advantage of RFID bracelets as tickets to prevent counterfeit admissions, and each individual chip has its own code. Farman says that ideally, the mobile app would be able to read and register that RFID chip to not only help users check in to shows, but also to keep track of wayward friends that have separated from the pack.
“Being able to locate your friends at the event is a huge feature. If you check into a band, your friends will be able to see where you are and where you checked in.” Farman says.
Another door that may open up sometime soon in festival tech is the opportunity for greater e-commerce options. Attendees could have the option of buying festival merch, food and drink right from the mobile phone, while a running purchase history keeps track of all the damage. Even better, Farman says that friends following a festival-goer from home could have the opportunity to follow along with the experience and buy their friend a beer or a t-shirt right from home.
“All of the sudden, you’re allowing people who are watching the event to participate with people who are at the event,” Farman says. “The sky’s the limit.”
For all of the technology infiltrating the festival grounds, Farman and team are focused on retaining that earthy, laid-back vibe of festival life. But a little progress is a good thing.
“We want to be progressive and not rest on our laurels,” Farman says. “This is something we’re passionate about making deeper, because there is so much potential on how to evolve the experience.”