September 9, 2016:Ticketmaster opens up: ‘It’s scary, but this is the future’

Ticketmaster opens up: ‘It’s scary, but this is the future’

“Imagine: a couple of days after you go to see Christine and the Queens live, the chatbot messages you to ask how was it? Did you enjoy the show? You’re building this artificial, almost friendship between you and the bot, as it asks you for feedback and recommends other acts you can go to see.”

As VP of open platform and innovation at Ticketmaster, Ismail Elshareef’s job isn’t so much about dreaming up future scenarios for concert ticketing – chatbots included – as it is laying the groundwork for developers to create them.

Having joined the ticketing giant in July 2015, Elshareef’s role has focused on opening up Ticketmaster’s platform to external developers, and launching a series of “devjam” events to see what they come up with.

The company has been running one devjam a month, initially in the US before expanding to Quebec City in Canada and then London in the UK last weekend, which is when Music Ally sat down with him to talk about how Ticketmaster’s plans are progressing.

Oh, and to find out what developers have been creating in those devjams, with chatbots looming large thanks in part to another big tech company opening up its platform recently: Facebook Messenger.

We’ve had a bunch of ideas come out at the devjams related to chatbots: these smart bots integrating with you as a fan and trying to figure out what your interests are, and what you want to go to see,” says Elshareef.

“They’ve been a really big theme: sometimes it’s a Facebook Messenger chatbot, sometimes it’s a Slack chatbot, sometimes it’s SMS. But it’s huge.”

He sketches out one scenario for how a chatbot might be used in Ticketmaster’s sphere, where it is analysing a music fan’s Facebook likes and/or favourite Spotify artists.

“All of a sudden you wake up one morning and get a message from the bot saying ‘Hey, do you know Adele or Christine and the Queens are going to be playing in your city next month? If you want tickets reply ‘yes’,” explains Elshareef.

“And then if you say yes, it’ll ask you what kind of tickets you like: GA [general admission] or mezzanine? And you’ll get more options relating to that all the way through to buying a ticket. There’s the delight of discovering an event for one of your favourite bands without you going and seeking it out. It got pushed to you through that bot.”

Ismail Elshareef

The same bot that then follows up after the gig to see what you thought. Elshareef is enthusiastic about the potential for natural-language machine-intelligence – whether chatbots or voice-assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are the front-end – to make ticket-buying a more conversational relationship.

It will not be a contrived conversation between you and the bot: it will feel super-natural and super-easy. Although of course you have to be careful when to engage with customers and when not to engage. You don’t want to be too overwhelming,” he says.

“That’s the beauty of the open platform: you make things, test them, you see what fans engage with the most, and that’s the one you focus on the most and roll out. And Ticketmaster doesn’t have to do all of that: developers can do it. There’s a lot of R&D that gets offset by making the platform open, and these ideas can be tested and validated by the larger community.”

Ticketing has often been seen as a closed environment by developers outside the big players in the sector. And, indeed, it’s been seen as a sector slow to respond to some digital trends, as anyone who tried to buy tickets from a mobile-unfriendly ticketing website on their smartphone in the last decade will know.

Elshareef doesn’t shy away from the topic. “Ticketmaster has been around for 40 years, right, and doing business in one particular way. So it’s hard to go from a closed system to an open system,” he says.

“However, the leadership mindset of the company is that we are going to win by embracing the creativity and innovation that exists in the marketplace, with entrepreneurs and startups, that know what certain segments of fans want better than anyone else.”

“So how do we tap into that innovation? We cannot hire all the smart people in the world, right? But we can reach them and engage with them with our APIs, and in order to do that, we have to open the platform. And truly open it.”

Truly? When a company as big as Ticketmaster talks bullishly about opening up, it will inevitably face a degree of scepticism from observers wondering just how open it will really be.

Running its own devjams rather than throwing its weight behind, say, the existing Music Hack Day initiative may spark comment, although the riposte to that is that there is no barrier to Music Hack Day attendees using Ticketmaster’s API in their hacks.

I think Ticketmaster is the only ticketing company out there that has a truly open API where you can get an API key and go to our discovery API and commerce API and engage with it,” says Elshareef.

“All the other commerce platforms out there, you have to contact somebody and tell them why you need access to the API. We’re truly open in that sense, although obviously we manage the usage via quotas and all that stuff to make sure the user experience is good. And there’s some quality-control there, but we’re open.”

He adds that the devjams have been crucial in helping Ticketmaster improve its API at a rapid pace over the last year, claiming that the API used by developers at the London event this week was “not even way better, but night-and-day better” than the one used by developers at January’s devjam in Phoenix, Arizona.

My metric is how long does it take for a developer to get an API key and start digging into the API? For the first couple of devjams, that process took an hour: ‘Oh, they’re getting an error’ or ‘I don’t have that field, I can’t register because of x, y and z’. Now that process takes less than 30 seconds,” says Elshareef.

“That’s the feedback we’ve been getting: that the API is super-easy to use. And that’s the most critical part: for developers, the hardest part is to build something that fans want to engage with. So I want them to focus on that, as opposed to how the API works. I’m going to take care of the APIs, so they just worry about how they’re going to build the most amazing experience.”

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One question about any initiative like this is how far up the company backing for it goes. Some past efforts by music labels to engage with developers were driven by digital-savvy staff lower down the corporate food chain, for example, and for all their good intentions, it wasn’t clear whether the company’s management truly backed them.

Elshareef says this is not the case with Ticketmaster.

“It really is a testament to Michael Rapino, Mark Yovich and Jared Smith [Live Nation president and CEO, Ticketmaster International president and Ticketmaster North America president respectively]. I know it [opening up] is scary for everybody to a certain level, but at the same time they know this is the future, and they’re not in denial of it,” he says.

“You know how in some industries they can see it bright as day, and they put their head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening? Not with Ticketmaster: they see this is the future, this is happening.”

It is scary, but building diverse types of experiences on the solid, robust platform is the future: the only way we’re going to be serving fans, our customers. Yes, we’re not going from zero to 100 in one day, but we’re opening, we’re learning, we’re adjusting. And we’re lucky to have the leadership that believes in that.”

Besides chatbots, what kinds of experiences have developers been creating in the devjams? Elshareef says that the internet of things is looming large, particularly with Amazon’s Echo speakers and Alexa assistant, with several developers exploring how that can interface with the Ticketmaster API.

One example: a student at the University of Southern California (USC) who in 30 hours created an Alexa integration where fans could ask their Echo for events nearby, then choose one and schedule an Uber to take them to the venue. Elshareef says Ticketmaster was so impressed, it is looking at turning it into a product.

That hints at a path from devjams to commercial partnerships (or in the case of individual developers, perhaps job offers) with Ticketmaster. And it turns out that Elshareef has plans to build on this path.

Next year what we’re planning on doing is creating an incubator or accelerator program for three months, where we’ll get to work closely with some of these guys with great ideas, bringing them in and figuring out how we can actually make them happen,” he says.

“How do we figure out a product/market fit? How do we figure out if the idea has legs? We’re thinking about different ways of launching this incubator or accelerator program next year, to build on top of the devjams that we have today.”

The London devjam’s top projects offer an illustration of other ideas springing out of the initiative. First place at the event went to a smart TV app developed by the founders of ticketing search-engine TickX. They built an HTML5 app for TVs that identified nearby gigs and played the artists’ most popular songs from Spotify.

Second place went to a tool that pushed details of live events to fans’ calendars, allowing them to add or decline invites to ensure they didn’t miss out on tickets. Third place, meanwhile, went to a developer who created a Siri-like voice-to-text tool for getting lists of events in response to spoken queries.

There was also a People’s Choice award voted for by the devjam participants, which went to an app called Tindermaster: listen to music, and swipe right on the good stuff to find event details and ticketing links.

“We’ve seen a lot of mash-ups between different APIs: between Airbnb and Ticketmaster, between Expedia and Ticketmaster, Spotify, Uber. And when I speak at the beginning of the event, I encourage people to think about building a comprehensive experience using multiple APIs,” says Elshareef. “The mash-up experience is so much better than the singular experience where it’s everything driven by Ticketmaster.”

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The devjams will continue, as will the iterative improvements to Ticketmaster’s API. Elshareef also points to a knock-on effect on the company’s own developers, for whom the events serve as inspiration to come up with their own experiments, which in turn will generate feedback to help the API become more robust.

“Right now we’re just trying to evolve the APIs that we have. The goal is to make sure we’re opening up the marketplace: we want to make sure it’s easy for other publishers to publish their inventory into the Ticketmaster marketplace, and that data and content can be easily accessed through our APIs,” he says.

“It’s similar to the Amazon marketplace. My goal is to become what Amazon.com is for consumer goods, for live events. Whether it’s a club show or Adele at Wembley Stadium, I want people by default to think of Ticketmaster. And this goes beyond the ticket too: my goal is to be the platform that powers every fan-engaging experience out there, in the next five to 10 years.”

Stuart Dredge
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