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Raising Our Game

We shouldn’t be afraid to replicate ideas from the commercial sector in our arts organizations when they make sense.

Before the first smartphone would any of us have thought to buy a theatre ticket on a phone? Now we expect to do it quickly with a few taps and swipes, wherever we happen to be. And we are not alone. Across our client base we see more than 50% of ticket sales happening online - and that proportion is increasing. Some venues do more than 90% of sales via their digital channels. Audiences include a huge wave of 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 theater tickets there as well.

Despite these shifts in behavior, the arts industry is still behind the curve in the way we transact with customers. There is too much bad technology, too many bad websites and a lack of imagination in how we sell. With a few notable exceptions, the arts industry as a whole needs to raise its online game. It needs to make mobile a core part of a selling strategy. Forget for a moment that online is the least expensive way to sell. I don’t see enough organizations 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. What we sell can be more complex than retail. A supermarket, for example, doesn’t have to worry about reserved seating, limited availability, membership discounts, triggered benefits, multibuys, series and subscriptions. But technology means we can’t hide behind complexity as a barrier any more. The cost of digital is coming down and, at a minimum, theater and venue websites should be mobile-friendly. Your seating plan should absolutely work on a mobile, with the option of ‘best available’ displayed first for speed and convenience.

More than 90% of tickets purchased last year were for a single performance. So there needs to be a push to drive up the average shopping cart size with multi-bookings and upsells. This is completely the norm in other areas of online purchase, whether you’re buying a book, groceries or booking a flight. Theatre is expensive enough to be seen by many people as an investment, so upselling takes more than just a visual prompt. Relevance is crucial: if they’re adding a Greek tragedy to the basket, it might not be wise to offer these same customers a discount on a family show. Also, justify why any incremental spend is good value. Why not, for example, remind customers that it can be a bit busy at the bar during the interval, so it would be beneficial to pre-book a mid-performance drink? 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 firsts with the shrinking group of traditional buyers? Embrace the idea of bilateral customer service. Provide customers with the quick, self-service option as well as a full-service option that meets more extensive needs.

  • Self-service option: This option should 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 recognize if they’re coming from a mobile device or a laptop/desktop, and present the best available option (but with the option to select your own seat).
  • Full-service option: This option is really about making available everything that people need to know in order to make a decision, at a minimum providing critic and customer reviews. If the show hasn’t yet gone live, provide reviews for the director, the writer, 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.

Arts organizations can learn a lot by observing how retailers and travel companies have adapted to the digital-first wave. We shouldn’t be afraid to borrow good ideas from the commercial sector when they make sense. We should all take a regular look at how Amazon cross-sells to other products, from the imagery and page layout to the messaging it uses 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 home page, but also give customers the option to find out more.

Finally, arts organizations should use the ticket purchase as an opportunity to really sell the program, the venue and the organization. Tell your story, explain why you need donations and immerse them in your program. Give your customers access to all the information they might need to know, while making sure your box office team is fully equipped with quick visibility of customer profiles. In the online realm, the arts industry needs to get better at storytelling – our own stories as cultural organisations and unique providers of the art our customers love.

This article was originally published on ArtsProfessional