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Let’s Drag Arts Ticketing into the Digital Age

Technology has transformed how we run our professional and personal lives. Everything is digital, everything is faster, everything is measured, everything is personalised and convenient, except when it comes to buying a theatre ticket. Before the first iPhone launched ten years ago, I would never have thought to book a night out at the theatre from my mobile. Now I expect to be able to make any purchase wherever I happen to be with a few taps and swipes, and I know I’m not alone.

Today’s audiences are increasingly defined by people who are digital first. They do their food shopping online, pay bills online, stream music and TV from the internet and, increasingly, buy their theatre tickets there as well. Across our client base at Spektrix, we see more than 50% of ticket sales happening online and that trend is increasing. Some venues do more than 90% of sales via their digital channels.

Yet despite this obvious shift in consumer behaviour, the way we transact with customers in the arts is painfully bogged down in bad technology, bad websites and a dearth of imagination in how we sell. With a few notable exceptions, the UK arts industry needs to have a word with itself about ticketing, and soon. When it comes to digital, the arts industry is still dragging its feet. Arts professionals are simply not embracing digital as their primary sales medium. While it’s unfeasible to staff your box office round the clock, and austerity has put a squeeze on staffing generally, your website is there 24/7. It should be the hardest-working member of your box office team.

Online is the least expensive way to sell. I don’t see enough organisations really thinking about the online purchase path in a serious way, or approaching the experience from the perspective of either a customer or a retailer. I understand that what we sell can be more complex than retail – Tesco doesn’t have to worry about reserved seating, limited availability, membership discounts, triggered benefits, series and subscriptions. Technology, however, means we can’t hide behind complexity as a barrier any more. The cost of digital is coming down and in 2017 there is no excuse for presenting a clunky website to the world.

The solution is to be smart about the customer journey. More than 90% of tickets sold last year were for a single performance. So why aren’t we making a push to drive up the average basket size with multi-bookings and upsells? This is the norm in other areas of online purchase, whether you’re buying a book, groceries or booking a flight. The ticketing journey you create online has to be smart enough to proactively make customers aware of the other great events in your programme. Cross-selling relevant shows means customers get more of what they like, rather than, say, offering a return booking discount on a family show to someone who’s just taken in a Greek tragedy.

Theatre is expensive enough to be seen by many people as an investment, so we can’t just expect customers to buy another show simply because we’ve given them a visual prompt. Make sure you offer them the context needed, particularly reviews by other customers, a la Amazon or TripAdvisor, along with representative content such as videos, photos, synopses and cast lists to seal the deal. Upselling also works online, but you need to justify why any incremental spend is good value. I find it surprising that venues forget to justify why I should add another £10 to my basket at checkout. Why not remind me that, actually, it can be a bit busy at the bar during the interval, so it makes sense to pre-book my mid-performance drink?

Of course, there is still the other 50% to think of: those customers who prefer the experience of calling in, or visiting the venue and buying tickets in person. But how do you reconcile the growing horde of digital users with the shrinking group of traditional buyers? On one hand you want to make the ticketing path as quick and easy for a customer to buy and check out as possible. On the other, you want to seize any opportunity to immerse the customer in your programme, cross-selling them other products, upselling their purchase path, asking for donations, and using it as an opportunity to build a deeper, more meaningful relationship.

In essence, you need to provide your customers with the quick, self-service option but also provide a full-service option that meets that group’s more extensive needs. We call this bilateral customer service. To do this you need to strategically address the customer purchase path, establishing two approaches: the self-service option and the full-service option. The self-service option should necessarily be short and sweet; a fast solution for people who know what they want. Digital technologies enable us to make sure the process is incredibly quick and easy to complete. Your system should recognise if they’re coming from a mobile or a laptop/desktop, and provide the best-available option (but with the option to select your own seat).

The full-service option is really about making everything available that people need to know in order to make a decision. As a minimum, provide critic and customer reviews; or if the show hasn’t yet gone live, provide reviews for the director’s, the writer’s, the actors’ or the company’s previous work. Sharing production photos and rehearsal or production videos can round out the picture for a prospective customer. Getting the purchase journey right for both self-service and full-service customers is going to be essential as the arts industry continues to transition towards more self-reliance. We need to create good experiences worthy of the creative sector, and work hard to maximise every opportunity to encourage more sales.

Arts organisations can learn a lot by observing how retailers and travel companies have adapted to the digital-first wave. We shouldn’t be afraid to nick good ideas from the commercial sector when they make sense. These businesses have money to invest in researching and testing the perfect purchase path, and they’ve not been shy about using ideas from the arts world to showcase their products. We should all take a regular look at how Amazon cross-sells you other products – from the imagery and page layout to the messaging they use to do it. We should also make it easy for customers to find the event they want, add the ticket to the basket and check out quickly. Consider how travel companies offer a ‘select your destination and dates widget’ on the homepage, for example, but also give customers the option to find out more, or to validate their choice.

Finally, arts organisations should use the ticket purchase experience as an opportunity to really sell the programme, the venue and the organisation. Tell your story, explain why you need donations, immerse them in your programme. Give your customer access to all the information they might need, while making sure your box office team are fully equipped with quick visibility of customer profiles.

Believe it or not, we all need to get better at storytelling in the arts, using our own stories as cultural organisations and unique providers of the art our customers love. Better ticketing is an essential way to start the conversation.