Gene Carr: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

gene-headshot-250x275With all the news of government monitoring of cell phone and Internet records, I thought it opportune to ask Gene Carr, the founder and CEO of Patron Technology to share his thoughts on the implications to the arts & cultural sector of innovations in technology, databases and more.

  • The adage that “with great power comes great responsibility” seems appropriate for all sorts of companies that gather and manage patron databases. What advice would you offer to an arts & cultural organization leader who needs to make sure s/he recognizes the full scope of those responsibilities?

Leaders must recognize that the same care and attention they give to managing and securing their money should be applied to their data. In the world of finance, banks provide society with an acceptable level of risk and security, both physical and technological. However, the commonly accepted levels of security and repositories for data are far less well developed.

Many organizations do the equivalent of leaving their data “under the mattress” in an unprotected, unsecure place. And what’s worse is that their data is not only not secure, it’s often not backed up properly either.

The number of organizations that have a written data protection policy (much less make sure that everyone on their staff knows what that policy is) is uncomfortably low. Sadly, data security is often “out of sight out of mind”… until there’s a problem, and then it’s a crisis. There’s no need for that to be the case.

Managers have to take data security more seriously and that starts with having someone on their staff in charge of it; maybe someone already on their in-house staff is sufficiently proficient in this regard, or maybe they ought to engage a third party and/or additional technology to help.

  • Not just among arts & cultural organizations, but throughout society, people’s preferences and behaviors are being tracked by increasingly sophisticated technologies. How would you describe the “holy grail” that all this effort pursues?

I’ll give this a positive spin. Smart marketers that collect data with permission and then use it to intelligently target the right messages to the right people at the right time are simply employing smart business practices, and there are plenty of case studies to prove this. To my way of thinking, sending an e-mail to your entire list inviting them to “tunes for tots” instead of sending to only the people who you know actually have kids — is backwards, wasteful and disregards people’s time and their goodwill.

If there room for abuse? Sure. But let’s not banish the concept of smart data mining just because of the few that do the wrong thing.

  • Might you share any predictions for how the functions of marketing & patron service might look different in arts & cultural organizations, say 10 years from now?

Given the pace of technology development, ten years is too far for anyone to predict. Let’s recall that only a few years ago, before Obama was elected, the iPhone didn’t exist! I think the best we can say is that service and marketing are becoming more and more personal and targeted. We are moving away from a “mass consumption” approach to everything, and more towards a personalized and customized approach. That will have to happen in our industry as well – and if it’s done well, it bodes well for increased philanthropic giving, since if you personalize your approach to people, you’ll win their emotions. If you do that, they’ll give more, since people give from their heart.

  • As with most tools, a database is only productive when it is well used. In your experience, what distinguishes those arts & cultural organizations that use their database tools most successfully?

To some, a database is a repository – a place to store information, like a warehouse. To others it’s a library – a place filled with rich information to be retrieved, analyzed and reported upon. Those who see their database as a starting point for improved marketing and service, who take advantage of the power of reporting and dashboards, and who drive their business against measurable goals tend to be successful.

  • Gene, for more than 15 years, you’ve been at the entrepreneurial forefront of the arts & cultural sector’s technological edge. On the one hand, I know that you are an accomplished cellist and your passion for the arts is deeply personal – but on the other hand, I wonder it’s ever frustrating to be driving innovation in a field that (at best) strains for financial capacity or (at worst) is constrained by tradition. What is the opportunity that you see that continues to excite you?

Frustration results from expecting a certain result in a certain way at a certain time, and then not getting it. Is it ever frustrating to try to innovate in our industry? Sure. But on the other hand, though it’s true that some managers in our industry are often resistant to change, saying that the industry as a whole is unable to change is painting with too broad a brush. Just like any industry (or the market for any new product), there are early adopters, and late adopters. The challenge for us is to seek out and embrace the early adopters who are forward-thinking, and use them as examples for those who are more risk averse.

  • What do you recommend reading (books, blogs, etc.) for arts & cultural leaders who want to keep pace with the fast-evolving technologies? Where do YOU go (conferences, etc.) to keep your eye on the leading edge of innovation?

I’ve received Seth Godin’s daily e-mail for years. He offers a dose of creative and business insight that never fails to be relevant. Then Techcrunch.com and Engadget.com provide different sides of the tech world – from investment activity to new products. I wish I had more time to go to technology conferences, but as we’re a business partner with Salesforce.com and the Salesforce Foundation, I attend their annual conference, Dreamforce, in San Francisco each year. Last year about 80,000 people come for four days of classes and keynote sessions. Richard Branson was a speaker, if you want to be inspired about innovation, he’s hard to beat. Dreamforce is the technology equivalent of the Super Bowl.

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