Ticketmaster is killing the bar code and choosing which fans can buy tickets in fight against bots and scalpers

Courtesy of the Financial Post:

As the war intensifies between users and bots, Ticketmaster wants to change the nature of the battle by controlling the pace of ticket sales

Not too long ago, people used to line up at record stores early in the morning to make sure they could get tickets to their favourite act or a hot show. The resulting human-to-human transaction was relatively orderly, limited only by the number of tickets on sale and the speed of the person behind the counter.

Once people began using computers and mobile devices to order tickets, the process inevitably turned to chaos as queue lines blurred and fans had to scramble before all the tickets disappeared within a couple of minutes.

Humans were no longer just competing with other humans for coveted tickets, but also automated bots that try to cheat the system on behalf of scalpers wanting to make a quick buck.

One ticketing company has finally had enough of consumers’ complaints and wants to reinvent the process by using technology to create a new and secure way to sell that puts more tickets in the hands of actual fans, make the experience more personable and kill the use of bar codes.

“We have this first-come, first-served model that is archaic and tied to a competing model that allows that access to happen at lightning speed,” said David Marcus, Ticketmaster Entertainment Inc.’s Los Angeles-based executive vice-president and head of music.

“It’s created an environment that’s ripe for exploitation and what that exploitation has taken the form of is bots who are faster than any human can possibly be and who operate at scales hard to compete with.”

Ticketmaster stopped roughly five billion bots in 2016 through pattern recognition and other methods while “spending millions in dollars and blood” to do so, Marcus said, adding the company saw multiples of that number in 2017.

As the war intensifies between users and bots — and even fans and Ticketmaster since it often bears the brunt of complaints about scalpers — the company wants to change the nature of the battle.

Ticketmaster believes the key is controlling the pace of sales. To that end, the company recently introduced a technology called Verified Fan.

Fans have to register their interest in an event and then Ticketmaster’s machine learning analyzes each person to see who is most likely to attend based on how many times they have followed through on events in the past.

Those selected receive a code and specified purchase window, throwing out the previous notion of one general on-sale time.

“What we are trying to do is slow down the process, but, also knowing that demand inevitably outpaces the supply sometimes, the question is how do we try to predict the propensity of that fan to actually go to the event as opposed to reselling that ticket for an opportunity of arbitrage, using the data science both us and the artist have,” said Patti-Anne Tarlton, Ticketmaster Canada’s chief operating officer.

Verified Fan was used on 65 tours in 2017 and Ticketmaster found the technology was right in selecting fans 95 per cent of the time, meaning those people actually used the tickets instead of reselling them.

The big test for the company has been Bruce Springsteen’s intimate stint on Broadway, which started at the end of 2017 and extends through to June 2018.

“The beautiful thing about Springsteen is that if we had not done Verified Fan, 100 per cent of the tickets would have gone to secondary market sites,” Marcus said. “There would have been no chance for consumers to get tickets, because the bots would have overwhelmed (the system) as it was too scarce a ticket, too valuable and too huge of an experience for brokers to let it go.”

Not everyone seems convinced the process is working. Some fans were quick to take to social media blogs to point out they weren’t able to score tickets despite having gone to shows in the past.

Other people have written on music blogs that they know people who signed up for a Ticketmaster account for the first time and scored tickets whereas long-time fans did not. Meanwhile, others have started theorizing that scalpers may be creating new accounts with fresh histories just for big events with high payouts.

But Marcus said fewer than three per cent of Springsteen on Broadway tickets showed up on the secondary market, which is a huge victory since the stakes are always high when anyone works with Springsteen.

“If you screw that up, it’s not good,” he said.

In addition to Verified Fan, Ticketmaster is using technology to make it easier for fans to access and buy tickets.

The company has integrated with platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Google Assistant and others to help users find events, which has resulted in 10 million tickets being sold.

Meanwhile, mobile ticket sales have grown 34 per cent in 2017 and the company said its app has more than 33 million installs.

But Ticketmaster wants to take the whole ticket-buying process one step further by overhauling the outdated method of getting in and out of venues while also personalizing the experience.

The company is rolling out a technology-infused ticket called Ticketmaster Presence, which is a digital pass that exists on a mobile device instead of a paper ticket.

Bar codes — which are easily duplicated — have been dropped in favour of a digital tokenized system that’s secure and unique to the purchaser.

Fans can still email a ticket to a friend or family member, since the token can be reassigned, but it’s designed to help stop scalpers from easily flipping or copying bar codes. The only way to get into a venue is tapping the device on an entry system — no scanning required.

Ticketmaster Presence seems like more work upfront for fans — and it is compared to simply handing a ticket to a friend in the parking lot — but the company argues that it’s worth the payoff.

Since the token is individualized to each fan, the technology can allow an artist or venue to create a more intimate experience by using real-time recommendations or alerts.

For example, the technology could tell someone not to use a certain off-ramp or parking area because of construction, go to a different entry gate because the lineup is shorter, or even where to get a preferred beverage if it isn’t at the concession stand currently in front of them.

“We as a company create these incredible live events and experiences to connect fans with content they really care about … but what we weren’t doing a great job of was giving those people an opportunity to engage,” said Justin Burleigh, Ticketmaster’s executive vice-president of product.

“It’s a combination of taking what we know about people who really love live events and leveraging that to give them a frictionless journey.”

Venue personnel will also see a seating map light up in real time as people enter, which gives promoters and artists the ability to communicate with fans once they are inside.

Ticketmaster Presence is currently in more than 60 venues across North America and its first large stadium test was the 25,500-person capacity Orlando City Stadium.

The Orlando City Soccer Club said it has more than tripled the number of new fan names in its customer database and increased mobile entry to 61 per cent from 11 per cent.

Overall, nearly 10 million fans have entered venues using Ticketmaster Presence, and the company said it has experienced zero instances of fraud.

“We partnered with Apple and Google to leverage the Apple Pay and Android Pay protocols to create a new kind of ticket that we treat with the same kind of reverence we treat your credit card in a digital wallet, but it just becomes more fluid, manageable and organic,” Burleigh said.

“You have a tap-and-go experience as opposed to managing multiple pieces of paper and losing the opportunity to give the fans a connection to the content.”

If fans don’t want all the extra personalized content or bells and whistles, they can still simply buy a digital ticket and attend the event, Burleigh added.

“It’s not Big Brother and it’s not like it’s an all-or-nothing thing, or you have no choice,” he said. “There always is an opt out.”

So far, just one Canadian venue uses Ticketmaster Presence — the Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg — but more will be using the technology in 2018 as the rollout expands.

“(Clients) are really looking to us because of our tech,” Tarlton said. “The pace of change is extraordinary and our scale helps us continue to invest in that.”