Expert roundup: 9 do's & don'ts in online ticketing
What should you do—and make sure to avoid—to deliver fair and successful onsales? How do you create a stellar customer experience? We talked with six online ticketing experts who share their 9 secrets for success.
Where’s a more exciting place to be than the ticketing industry?
The global ticketing market is ballooning. Global online event ticketing, which covers live music, sports, and movies, is projected to reach $67.99 billion by 2025 with annual growth of 4.8%.
But the dynamic nature of ticketing means it’s critical to keep up to speed on where ticketing experience trends, your customers, and your competition are headed.
And how do you learn about the latest trends and connect with industry leaders? Tradeshows.
We just got back from a whirlwind of an INTIX conference in New York City. The conference brings together all aspects of ticketing: venues, event managers, and technology providers. All these professionals have unique perspectives into questions like:
- What factors go into making successful and fair onsales?
- How do ticketing organizations create a stellar online customer experience?
- What’s the biggest myth in ticketing and live entertainment?
- How does the push towards an “experience economy” impact ticketing?
So, while everyone was gathered in the Big Apple, we took advantage of the opportunity and spoke to several industry experts to get their insights. We’ve boiled them down into 9 do’s and don’ts in online ticketing.
1. Do understand how you define a stellar experience
“As you look to improve the online purchase process, you have to begin by understanding what the goal is,” says Dave Wakeman, Principal at Wakeman Consulting Group. “What do you hope to achieve? Do you want to shorten or eliminate wait time? Do you want to make it fair so like you limit involvement of the secondary market?”
“You end up with a lot of questions,” he continues. “But that’s just sort of the way I think you have to approach how you want to be successful in giving people a better buying experience. It comes back to design thinking. Who’s it for? What’s it for? Designing your process around what you want the person to see, to feel, and to experience when they’re buying a ticket.”
And relying on historical precedent isn’t necessarily helpful, says Wakeman. “The wrong answer is always ‘Well this is just the way we’ve always done it’. I think if you put the customer first and think through that process, it’ll lead you to some really interesting decisions.”
“If your bias is towards ‘I want to do what’s right for the person at the end of this transaction that’s going to be dealing with this experience' then I think you’re going to do alright.”
2. Do talk to your customers
One of Tessitura’s themes for the conference was a different kind of CRM: not just customer relationship management but customer relationship mastery. “How do you move beyond management into real customer relationship mastery, of knowing your customers and providing them with the experience that they want?” asks Mara Hazzard-Wallingford, VP of Business Development and Marketing at Tessitura Network.
Delivering a stellar experience “begins by not being afraid to talk to the customer,” says Wakeman. “Understand, ‘What are they experiencing in the buying process? What does the decision process look like? What do I want them to experience from start to finish?’ And really being willing to understand people.”
“It has become easy over the last decade to just manage things based on data. Everything’s a number. Everything’s a data-point. If we’re not careful—and I love the technology, so I don’t want to sound like a Luddite—but we have to remember that it’s all about people and making them have a better experience. If we lose sight of that, ‘At the end of the day everything I’m trying to do is help another person have a once-in-a-lifetime experience’, you’re missing something. And I don’t know people spend enough time on that.”
“I often get told I’m too customer-focused, and I go ‘I don’t understand that. That’s crazy to me’. Because if you don’t have a customer, you don’t have anything. And if you don’t understand your customers, you don’t have anything.”
“The big missing piece is empathy,” says Wakeman. “Being able, as somebody who’s designing an experience, to look at it not through my eyes but look at it through your eyes or anybody’s eyes and go ‘This is what I want you to see, and feel, and take away’ and then design it in that way—that’s missing. And it’s hard. But it’s essential. If you try to outsource and use technology for all these things, you miss being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
A starting point is to also run through the purchase path yourself, says INTIX CEO Maureen Andersen, and ask yourself how you feel. “Are you frustrated? Confused?” she asks. “Are you using technology and policies as an inviting enhancement to your business or are you trying to lock it down so much that the experience is unworkable and frustrating?” If you come out of the process feeling frustrated and confused, it’s likely your customers will too.
3. Do still leverage data in business decision-making
While talking, understanding, and empathizing with your customers is critical, it’s still important to use data to inform business decision-making. It starts with testing, says Andersen. “Quality testing is so important to do, and often. Do A/B testing on your websites and online ordering processes. Be your own customer and test your sites, then fix and clean them up. Then test again.”
Data to understand your customers and their personas at a more fundamental level is equally important. Collecting this data isn’t easy, but it’s an expected part of today’s business environment. As Hazzard-Wallingford says, “the puzzle we’re all trying to solve right now is that every single customer is connected to so many different inputs and outputs across all aspects of their life. And how do you—as an entertainment, arts, or cultural organization—really tap into those so you know who your customer is, so you can give them the experience they’re expecting? A few years ago, we all thought targeted ads were creepy. And now we get annoyed when the personalization is wrong and they’re not targeted enough. That pivot in expectation puts a big burden on arts and cultural organizations to bring that to bear in the purchase process.”
Collecting the data itself isn’t enough. The hardest part about using data is to analyze it and boil it down to actionable insights, to get the insight into fan behavior and preferences and tie it back into the experience. The degree to which organizations do this, says Tessitura Network President Andrew Recinos, should depend on their capabilities and goals.
“I’ve become really enamored with Connected Strategies written by two Wharton professors. They talk about a connected customer relationship. There are some types of admission-based organizations that really are what they would call a ‘respond-to-desire’. Respond-to-desire is, ‘I want to go see a Broadway show’. That is the typical one we all think of.”
“Then there is the next level of connection, which you need more data to do, which they call a ‘curated offering’, which is like the Amazon thing. ‘Based on what we know about you probably want to see Phantom of the Opera or Wicked. Some organizations don’t want to do that or have the inventory to allow for that sort of thing.”
“The next is called “coaching behavior”, which is ‘We think this is what you should do’. Imagine an aquarium. There’s 15 different options, you have two kids, and you have no idea.’ So they say ‘Here’s plan your visit’.”
“The last piece of it is the “automated”. It’s like the HP toner program where if your toner is running out HP automatically sends you a new toner without you ever realizing you’ve run out. It could be membership or subscription renewals in our industry. That’s the automated experience.”
Each of these customer relationship strategies require differing degrees of data collection and analysis. But it’s important to remember the upside of tying data into the customer experience and leveraging it for those key business decisions.
4. Do understand what online experience you deliver
Once you understand the kind of online experience your customers expect, you can’t assume that it’s actually what gets delivered, says Source Defense’s Matt McGuirk.
“There is a misconception that once you build and protect and finalize your website, you have total control over it inside your organization. The website you’ve built doesn’t just live at your company. Visitors don’t just look into your servers to experience what you’ve built. A lot of it gets delivered to the visitor’s web browser…and that’s where the actual action happens as far as a purchase or conversion or customer satisfaction.”
“It’s important to get a handle on what happens in the browser, in addition to everything else you’re doing to make sure that that sale is successful,” he says. “When you go to a website, you don’t just get the website. You also get all the 3rd parties it uses, like Google Analytics and Twitter. All of them come in when you visit the web page, and all those tools get to run their own code in your browser. They also call in their fourth parties or fifth parties. If any of those parties are compromised, they can mess with you as a visitor.”
Understanding how customers are using the product is crucial, and the customers’ browser is a huge determiner of their online experience.
5. Do overcommunicate
For most fans, as McGuirk says, “the thing that’s most important for someone who’s purchasing a ticket online is that they can do it, they can go to the event, and they can have a good time.” The ticket is the means to the end.
Fans are buying tickets to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it’s important to have empathy for the mentality this brings. As Ticketsolve CEO Sean Hanly has told us, “tickets are emotive, people have a connection to the product. Very often, it’s something they have been planning to buy and waiting for the onsale to happen.” INTIX’s Andersen echoes the sentiment, saying “you aren’t just buying tickets to The Nutcracker or to Frozen but buying the ‘anticipation’ of joy, family, kids, Christmas, the perfect family outing.” Expectations among fans are high. “It’s all that FOMO [fear of missing out],” says Recinos. “How do you make something good out of that, that anticipation?”
For Kristin Darrow, Senior VP of Product at Tessitura Network, being empathetically attuned to the customer means realizing the need for communication. “To me, it comes back to really basic things,” she says. “It’s about transparency and communication.”
“Get your communications strategy down, make sure you have your social media team ready. Make a plan for how you will communicate in a variety of scenarios so your team isn’t scrambling,” says Darrow.
It’s critical to communicate both before and during the onsale. Set expectations with early communication. What will the onsale process look like exactly? Will it run differently than previous onsales? How should fans reach out if they experience issues? What communication channels will you be using during the onsale? “Every onsale is different, and that’s okay,” says Andersen. But it’s up to “transparency, fairness, and open communication to augment the experience.”
“If you plan well for all contingencies before the onsale, even if some issue comes up, you’re ready,” says Darrow. “To me, having a virtual waiting room is a good customer experience because it gives the customer an orderly way to make sense of the onsale frenzy. They know their place in line and have communication in front of them.”
“What I notice during onsales is there is this culture that gets built that is like setting up camp, mentally,” she says. “It’s a mini-community that comes together around that moment and event. And if you can keep ahead of that culture and nurture the good vibes, even if the customer doesn’t get tickets they still feel like they’ve participated. That they were part of it.” Communication is key to managing expectations and shaping the resulting experience.
“After the hundreds of onsales we have hosted,” Darrow continues, “the thing that comes up time and again is this simple truth of how transparency and clear communications build trust with the public. So when people are on social media, they’re propagating that type of vibe.”
We have to remember that “people’s time is valuable,” says Darrow. “That’s one of the things we coach our organizations to do, is to say, ‘These performances have limited seating left but try these instead’ and save the customer some time. Being an ally for your customers will make the onsale more successful for everyone.”
6. Don’t forget fairness is key & perception is reality
“Perception and reality are two different things,” says Darrow. “An onsale can be perceived as good or bad depending on how the organization masters maintaining and building momentum in the community. Even if things hit a snag, effective prep and management of the onsale can minimize it.”
Besides not communicating transparently, fairness is a crucial determiner of how fans perceive onsales. Back in the day, the universal ticket purchase process was familiar to all. A sale was announced to start at a certain time. A line formed outside the box office or record store. Fans could estimate the size of the line, how long it would take, and how likely they were to get tickets. They could guard against line-cutters, and would be served in a first-come, first-served order. The process is less transparent online, however.
“If you imagine a physical queue,” says Tessitura’s Hazzard-Wallingford. “You go, 'There’s this party atmosphere, and everyone’s camping out, and it’s really fun.' And then you walk away and you don’t get tickets, it’s okay. But if you did that, and five minutes before it was your turn a bus pulled up and 65 people got off and bought up the tickets and then you didn’t get tickets, it’s a totally different experience.”
“And I think with technology, without that transparency, people feel like that’s what’s happened,” says Hazzard-Wallingford. “There’s that skepticism. That’s why you have to be overtly transparent and overtly proactive about it,” says Darrow.
“How do you level the playing field when you have bots who are infinitely faster than humans?” asks Darrow. “How Queue-it scrambles the queue is really brilliant because it means people have a fair shake at getting tickets. But that perception will always be there, so how do you get in front of it? It’s certainly the communication and transparency,” Darrow says. When customers are provided information about the process and the wait, they can judge fairness and value.
Ultimately, says McGuirk, the question online ticketing organizations need to be asking is “’How do I instill in my customer that they’re getting the same chance at an experience? Are we doing right by them?’”
7. Don’t treat your customers like they’re clueless
In the age of social media, fans have greater access to information than ever. By pooling their experiences and publicly sharing them on the internet, they are increasingly in-the-know about everything that takes place during an onsale. “People are very educated now… with the internet and social media,” says Dave Wakeman.
So, when promoters claim a sellout in seconds, or venues claim sold out crowds, people know if that’s transparent. “People know your stadium is only a third full. That has implications. We’ve trained customers that not only are we going to treat you like you’re an idiot because we’re going to lie to you about how many people are here and how much demand there is, but then we’re also going to price everything in an abusive manner,” says Wakeman. This all stems from a business-centric mindset, Wakeman says, “focusing on what’s best for ‘us’ not what’s best for the customer. This attitude of disdain for customers is harming the industry.”
Tessitura’s Kristin Darrow agrees that when communication isn’t fully transparent, fans’ moods can quickly turn. “The public wants you to succeed as the ticket provider or venue,” she says. “They want it to go well. But they’re very quick to become distrustful at any hint that it’s not in their favor.”
8. Don’t take the “experience economy” for granted
“With people’s buying decisions, you know that the experience economy is a real thing, it’s not a made-up marketing thing,” says Wakeman.
Indeed, a report by McKinsey found U.S. consumers of all ages are opting for experiences, with experience-related services spending growing 4 times faster than spending on goods. This is a huge opportunity for the online ticketing industry.
As Wakeman asks rhetorically: “Who does [the experience economy] better than concerts and theater and sports?” Live entertainment has always been about the experience, says INTIX’s Andersen. “We kind of invented it and the rest of the world has caught up to us.”
But that said, Wakeman cites ticketing expert Stephen Glickman’s findings that about 40% of ticketing inventory is left unsold across the board. “This is telling me you’ve got to focus on the customer a lot more,” says Wakeman.
Assuming organizations can focus on themselves instead of the customer and that the customer “is going to be happy to take it is just not true, because there is so much competition,” says Wakeman. Taking the example of a sports venue, he points to competition in the form of “breweries right down the block from the stadium…restaurants, bars, other sports, concerts, theaters, outdoor activities, indoor activities…you’re fighting against your living room.”
9. Don’t forget tickets are a unique product
Although there are similarities between ticketing onsales and retail sales for product launches and collection releases, ticketing remains unique. “The thing that’s different about ticketing is that—let’s use shoes as an example—it would be like you were selling shoes but you only had one pair in each size,” says Hazzard-Wallingford. “Each piece of inventory is unique.”
This dynamic, paired with fans’ expectations and FOMO, makes running successful onsales uniquely difficult. “That’s where the real challenge comes in, of how to manage it,” she says. “Even if you have a 2,000-2,500 seats, you know an average-size venue, each of those seats is a unique commodity that someone wants. I think it’s a unique challenge, I don’t know that there’s anything else that’s the same.”
“The other big challenge is that the behavior around so many other things is you can get whatever you want,” says Recinos. “Netflix releases Stranger Things Season 3 and anyone can watch it at any time, it’s infinitely scalable. People are used to that,” he says. “But that’s what’s compelling about the [ticketing] industry,” adds Darrow.
Tickets aren’t just a unique product in themselves—the events they give access to are too. “The truth is that every one of these experiences that any of us are helping sell tickets to or putting on or promoting or involved in is once-in-a-lifetime,” says Wakeman. “It doesn’t matter if you go to Broadway, right, it’s still once-in-a-lifetime because you’re never going to get that same group of people, in the same room, at the same time, with the same audience, ever again. It’s live. Anything can happen. It’s not going to be perfect. And that’s the beauty of it. That’s magic.”
As Andersen has said elsewhere, “ticketing professionals make people’s lives better through magically turning hours and hours of hard work into memorable events that are enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people the world over.”
Our experts had even more to say on these topics and more, but we just couldn’t get to it all. Even still, it can be a lot to take in. So we’ve summarized the key points below.
After reviewing this expert list of dos and don’ts, you should be on your way to delivering fair, successful onsales and creating a stellar customer experience.
- Do understand how you define a stellar experience
- You need to understand and define your goal in order to reach it. Don’t rely on what you’ve historically done. Ask “Who’s it for? What’s it for”, and use the idea of ‘doing right by the customer’ as your guiding star.
- Do talk to your customers
- Qualitative research is crucial to get insights into how your customer experiences what you offer. Keep an empathetic perspective by not only relying on quantitative data. Start by running through the purchase path yourself and being honest with how it made you feel.
- Do still leverage data in business decision-making
- Quantitative data like A/B testing is also key to understanding consumer behavior. Collecting the data itself isn’t enough. The hardest part about using data is to analyze it, boil it down to actionable insights, and tie the lessons learned back into your customer experience. Accurate data opens doors to advanced business strategies like creating curated offerings, coaching your customers, and automating the experience.
- Do understand what online experience you deliver
- You can’t assume the website you build is the one customers experience. Get a handle on what happens in your visitors’ browsers when they’re on your website.
- Do overcommunicate
- For fans, the ticket represents something emotional and highly anticipated, which means frustration and disappointment quickly follow any onsale hiccups. Get your communication strategy down, have contingencies for different scenarios, and always remember that overcommunication and transparency are your friends.
- Don’t forget fairness is key & perception is reality
- An onsale can go smoothly from a business standpoint, but if it’s perceived as unfair it can result in ill will and a bad reputation. Realize that when onsales moved online, people lost some transparency into how the onsale goes down. Let your customers judge fairness and value by communicating and using technology that increases transparency.
- Don’t treat your customers like they’re clueless
- With access to social media, fans have access to greater information than ever, and will know if you’re not being straightforward and honest. Treating customers like they’re clueless stems from a business-centric as opposed to customer-centric mindset and will only engender distrust and resentment among customers.
- Don’t take the “experience economy” for granted
- The experience economy is real, and ticketing should be well-poised to reap the benefits. Still, competition in the experience economy is fierce, so a focus on the customer must remain central.
- Don’t forget tickets are a unique product
- Tickets differ from the on-demand, scalable consumption of other goods. Ticketing is special because each ticket is unique and gives access to once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This presents a huge opportunity to tap into the experience economy, but also presents challenges in running technically complex onsales while managing fans’ expectations.