Tickets sold out? Debunking the "instant sellout" onsale myth
Headlines regularly proclaim sellouts in minutes, or even seconds. But what's really going on during the onsale? We'll take a look at why the 2-minute sellout isn’t possible, what it means for ticketing organizations, and how onsales can be configured to run smoother and to give fans a fair, transparent experience.
*Are you a fan currently trying to buy tickets? If you're getting a notification that all tickets are sold out, it could be that all tickets are currently reserved in people's carts, but not necessarily sold. See The event prematurely appears sold out section below.*
The time needed to sell out an event has become shorthand for success. The quicker the sellout, the more popular the event. Headlines regularly proclaim sellouts in minutes, or even seconds.
We’ve helped the biggest names in ticketing run onsales for the past decade, and we’ve arrived at a conclusion: It’s just not possible to sell out in something like 2 minutes.
This myth hides important nuances to the onsale process. It signals a fundamental misunderstanding of how onsales work. These misunderstandings can lead to poor customer experiences.
The term “sold out” seems self-evident. But if the definition is changed, it could be claimed that an instant sellout can happen. For our purposes, for an event to be considered "sold out", it means that:
- All announced tickets are sold
- To real users
- With a verified payment behind each transaction
Some examples that do not meet this commonsense definition:
- During the ticket onsale, some tickets are "reallocated" or withheld for insiders (a report by the New York Attorney General found that less than 50% of tickets are made available to the general public)
- Tickets are sold to bots, which can buy massive amounts of tickets with superhuman speed
- All tickets are reserved, or locked (i.e. in the shopping cart) but not all are purchased
Given this description of selling out, the conclusion is simple:
It’s not possible to sell out a concert in less than double the cart timeout time, normally around 20 minutes.
To help explain why, first consider that the ticket-buying process usually consists of four main stages:
- Choosing the event
- Viewing the seat selection for the event
- Reviewing the tickets in the shopping cart
- Entering personal and payment information to buy the tickets
During this process, there is a cart timeout clock running. Let’s assume it’s 10 minutes. If the whole process takes longer than 10 minutes, the user is kicked out of the flow and needs to start over again.
The fact is, 100% of tickets are never sold by the first cart timeout. Actually, it can be closer to 50%.
If you think about your own experience purchasing tickets to a sought-after event, you already know the answer.
It could be that the tickets available are at the wrong seating or pricing level. The user might select the tickets just to have something in the cart, but then bail before purchasing them.
More commonly, though, users will open the ticketing process in multiple browsers, or on multiple devices. Or, if they’re in a group with family or friends, everyone could enter the ticketing flow from their own device, coordinating their action plan over the phone or with online messaging.
The goal with using 2 devices or 3 browsers or 4 individuals isn’t to buy 2 or 3 or 4 times as many tickets.
The goal is to have several seating and pricing options to choose from. The users select their best option and abandon the other carts.
When a user selects the tickets and adds them to his or her cart, the ticketing system will lock them, take those tickets off the table for everyone else.
This is crucial. The tickets a user sees as available depends on how many tickets have been purchased PLUS how many tickets are temporarily locked until their timeout period expires.
Let’s say an onsale begins at 10am, with a cart timeout period of 10 minutes.
In the minutes immediately after 10am, all the available tickets will quickly be locked by users, with their multiple browsers or coordinated friend groups, etc.
This means that if you were to enter at, say, 10:08am, you’d be shown a message saying that there are no tickets available.
However, many carts containing tickets will be left to expire. So, at about 10:10am, all those expired tickets will be made available again for purchase, starting the second generation of ticket buying.
This process repeats itself until the event is actually sold out.
Let’s say Pat and Anna are trying to go together to a concert.
Pat logs on to his laptop and reaches the seat selection page at 10:08am. He’s met with a message stating, “no tickets available”. Dismayed, he gives up.
Anna, on the other hand, doesn’t get to the seat selection page until 10:12am, 4 minutes after Pat. BUT, because all the previously locked tickets are now released again, she is able to choose seats.
Although Pat is glad he’s going to the concert, he’s at best confused, and at worst exasperated. He feels lied to! How could the show be sold out at 10:08am, but his friend Anna could buy tickets at 10:12am?
Pat and Anna come out of the process feeling like it was rigged and totally unfair, and they turn to social media to vent their frustrations with the artist and ticketing platform.
As we’ve just seen in the example with Pat and Anna, the onsale process can seem downright unfair to users. This doesn’t bode well for your organization’s reputation.
What’s worse, scalpers exploit the false sense of a sell out to lure fans to secondary markets.
Scalpers know some fans will see the “no tickets available” messaging and will want to go to the event so badly they’ll pay whatever just to get their hands on a ticket.
So, the scalpers, often with the help of bots, purposely lock tickets to make them unavailable for others. Before they’ve even bought a ticket, they’ll offer tickets at vastly inflated prices on secondary platforms.
When the fans buy at the outrageously inflated prices, the scalper will, only then, buy the ticket, pocketing a huge profit in the process.
Confusion surrounding the onsale process underpins the “instant sellout” myth. This same confusion leads to poor fan experiences and plays into the hands of scalpers, damaging your reputation as a ticketing organization.
We just can’t say it enough.
Be transparent as possible with fans about the process, both before and during the onsale.
If possible, consider modifying the message users see if all tickets are locked, but not yet sold.
Stop scalpers from using bots to deny inventory to legitimate users.
We’ve put together a free guide that exposes the worst next-gen bots, reveals how they target online ticketing, and shares best practices on beating bad bots.
A 3-minute timeout period will stress your users out. Plus, it will result in lots of fans being kicked out of the ticketing flow before they even have their tickets.
But, a 20-minute timeout period is a lot more than users need. This would unnecessarily extend the onsale and would result in longer periods where all tickets are locked and thus unavailable for purchase.
The length of the total cart timeout will depend on the complexity of the ticket buying purchase. If the event only has general admission tickets, a normal user really shouldn’t need more than a few minutes to complete the purchase. Ticket flows that require seating selection, on the other hand, will need a longer time to be completed.
Cart timeouts in the range of 5-10 minutes strike a good balance.
A double timeout function means there is an overall time limit during which the whole flow must happen (e.g. 7 minutes), but there are also timers for the different pages.
For example, there could be 3 minutes to select tickets, 5 minutes to enter personal information, 3 minutes to enter payment information.
Having a shorter overall timeout than the sum of the individual steps helps push people through the process. It also makes it harder to game the system by those who want to keep the tickets locked just so that other people can’t purchase them.
By having several points at which the cart times out and locked tickets are released, it is less likely that there are temporary gaps in ticket availability. A huge block of tickets won’t be released 10 minutes after the start of the onsale.
It’s great if your site has high capacity. But if you open the flood gates and allow far more people than there are tickets, you’re setting users up for disappointment.
Let's take an example. Assume the below scenario holds for your onsale:
- Selling 20,000 tickets
- Site can handle 1,000 users per minute
- Average cart includes 4 purchased tickets
- Cart timeout is 10 minutes
- 80% of tickets that are reserved end up being purchased
At 0—10 min of the onsale:
- At 4 tickets per user, 5,000 users will reserve all 20,000 tickets
- Over a 10min span, you only need to let in 500 users per minute—or half your capacity—to achieve this
- At 80% purchase rate, 4,000 tickets will be made available again
At 10—20 min of the onsale:
- At 4 tickets per user, 1,000 users will reserve (and hopefully purchase) all remaining tickets
- Over a 10min span, you only need to let in 100 users per minute—or 10% of your capacity—to achieve this
With a virtual waiting room, you can set the speed at which users enter the onsale process. Users waiting in line don’t have the same expectation of being able to purchase tickets as those who are already in the onsale flow.
By controlling the inflow speed, you can create a linear flow in the onsale journey, and slowly reduce the inflow as fewer unsold tickets remain. All along, you can provide real-time updates to users in the virtual waiting room regarding the remaining ticket inventory.
Standard onsales timeline:
Recommended onsale timeline: