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Theatre Website Design: Don't Think Out-Of-The-Box

Chris Marr is an alumnus of Spektrix.

Designing and developing a theatre website is no easy feat. It’s no longer enough to create a website that’s capable of selling tickets and providing some helpful information about the venue; regardless of a theatre’s size, its website should be its number one sales channel, with the highest return and the lowest cost of sale. A theatre’s website needs to offer a self-service ticket-buying platform to customers that drives revenue and loyalty by being simple and intuitive to use. It needs to do all of this whilst shouting about what makes the theatre unique and exciting, creating an online extension of the theatre’s history and programme by positioning its brand with clarity and finesse. And it needs to tell people where to park, too.

Exploring some of these issues with digital consultancy One Further, Southbank Centre have been unusually frank about their thoughts on web development in the arts. Their dedicated digital blog looks at some of the issues in this area, sharing some of their metrics around big onsales and mobile traffic as well as their thoughts on different user profiles for their site.

Of course, not everyone has the resource of Southbank Centre to develop a digital strategy like this, evaluating their unique needs from the ground up and creating an entirely bespoke website to meet them. For a smaller theatre on a limited budget, it’s easy to see how a pre-designed, out-of-the-box website solution could be tempting. If it’ll sell tickets and tell people how to get there, surely that’ll do? I want to explore what the options are for theatres and arts organisations, and explain why investing time and money in a unique website is worth it.

Need a new website? Bespoke is best.


What are other sectors doing?

There are plenty of enterprise solutions for businesses who want to get going online quickly and cheaply. Wix and Moonfruit offer out-of-the-box website solutions that are well-suited to new or small businesses; both boast a ‘Free Website Builder’ with (limited) customisable templates and operate on a monthly subscription model, offering a workable website for around £10 a month. Shopify’s increasingly popular ‘e-commerce as a service’ model is a similar offer, geared towards businesses who need to sell their wares online but have ambitions greater than eBay. All of these tools offer a way to create a low-cost site with a functional sales interface, that’s branded to look like any business and may even be optimised for mobile.


So what’s available to theatres?

There are comparable options available for theatres, too. As part of a package deal, a ticketing and customer relationship management (CRM) provider might give the option of a new website to go hand-in-hand with their system, hosted by them and with their customer sales interface fully integrated from the get-go. This can be skinned to look like a theatre’s website and contain all of the content needed to start selling tickets online. However, the limitations of going down this route soon out-weigh the benefits; by working within the restrictions of a general-purpose content management system, theatres sacrifice control over what they can achieve with their own website.

Granted, theatres can still make a site like this look like their own. Although it requires working within pre-set parameters, the images, backgrounds, fonts, colours, etc. on these sites can be customised or skinned to match a theatre’s branding, meaning that anyone visiting will know which theatre they’re looking at and what’s on. What they won’t be able to achieve, however, is something which exactly suits their needs; bold and personalised landing pages for example, like the Unicorn Theatre’s or the Royal Court’s. Ultimately, restricting the ability to achieve anything like these results in a website that looks pre-designed and canned, and equates to a dilution of a theatre’s brand.

Having a website that’s hosted by a ticketing vendor carries other risks with it too. As with single system enterprise solutions (see my previous blog for more on this) heading down this route means completely relying on one supplier; by having a booking system that hosts the pages on your website too, you’re putting all of your eggs in one basket. If you want to change your ticketing system, therefore, your website will go with it. You’ll have no choice but to completely redesign your website before you can get going with a new ticketing system.


Or… third party e-commerce providers

This isn’t the only out-of-the-box solution out there for theatres, however. Separately hosted e-commerce solutions offer a different, third-party solution to selling tickets online. Going down this route allows theatres to have their own www.theatrewebsite.com that can suit their brand and avoid looking canned or pre-designed. Everything on the sales side (so all the pages that follow when a customer clicks on a ‘Buy Tickets’ button) will then be dealt with over on www.thirdpartysite.com, that may or may not be skinned to look like the original theatre website. A different page design and a different URL means a break in the customer journey and could cause the customer to lose trust in the transaction, increasing the risk of customers abandoning their purchase at this crucial point. For customers, finding themselves on a third party site like this can be a confusing and inconsistent experience, particularly if they navigate back through their sales journey before completing the transaction. In this instance, they may find themselves on a page advertising all events currently being sold by that third party e-commerce provider, and not just those at the theatre they’re interested in. This is likely to result in a disjointed booking experience for the customer and a lost opportunity for the theatre to communicate with their own audience.

In addition to this, sending customers off to a third-party site means that theatres could be limited in the data they can capture. If they’re able to capture any information from their customers at all, this is likely to be limited in its scope and will come with the caveat that it must be shared with this e-commerce partner, who will then use it for their own marketing (and not just on behalf of the theatre the customers booked with).

I should add here that these kinds of third party e-commerce solutions are not the same as online ticket agencies, although the process may seem similar. It’s common for theatres (and particularly in the West End) to sell allocations of seats for their events to ticket agencies, who then re-sell those tickets themselves through their own websites at competitive prices. This needn’t dilute a theatre’s brand however, as it should be clear to customers throughout the process that they’re not buying from the theatre directly.


Don’t settle for less

Out-of-the-box solutions like pre-designed sites or third party e-commerce providers can offer a quicker way to get selling tickets online. The sacrifices theatres must make to do this, however, may cost them much more in the longer term. By working with web developers, designing their own site to meet their needs, managing the hosting of that site and having a ticketing supplier that integrates directly into it (using iframes or an API for instance) theatres have much more freedom, retain ownership of their own customer data and don’t create a confusing or inconsistent customer experience. This allows theatres to take an iterative approach to their web development, always adjusting and refreshing their online presence in response to their business goals and the feedback they receive. For many theatres, the time and resource needed to create and develop their own bespoke website is a necessary expense, and an investment that pays dividends.


Struggling to begin the process of designing a new website for your venue (or finding it difficult to get buy-in higher up)? Have a look at some of these resources for some inspiration:


Jack Harris, Digital Manager at The Globe – Effective website development

In this series of screencasts, Jack talks through the processes of developing a new website and the strategic approach required to make the most of this valuable asset.


Marilena Reina, Marketing Manager of Brighton Dome – Developing a new website

This case study explores some of the objectives and processes involved in the redevelopment of the Brighton Dome site, including some key statistics.


Explore good examples on awwwards.com

In terms of web design and user experience, this site showcases some of the best examples out there. For great websites that are worthy of recognition (and might just fuel that brilliant idea behind your website redesign) then awwwards.com is a great place to look.