E-marketing E-ssentials: The New Curtain Raiser - Online Ticketing

June 2010
Eugene Carr, President
Michelle Paul, Product Manager

I got a lot of e-mails and calls after last month’s article about dynamic pricing, so this month Michelle and I are going to continue down this path. Today we’re covering the ticket-buying process itself.

Once you’ve got your pricing right, the ticket purchase is the moment when all of the cumulative effects of your marketing come together. It’s what you’ve been striving for and working towards—to get patrons to transact with you and buy a ticket.

We want to hone in specifically on online ticketing, since a quick survey of our clients reveals that their websites have become the point of sale for about a third of all their tickets, and some of our clients report that they sell up to 70 percent online.

The ticket-purchase page is one of the most important aspects of your website, because it is the moment when a patron begins a relationship with you on their way to your cultural experience.

Consider the following question: When does a cultural event begin, and when does it end? For the traditionalists, the answer may be simple. When the curtain goes up, it starts, and when the curtain comes down, it’s over.

But here’s another way of looking at it: the cultural event starts the moment a potential patron decides to attend. Once her decision is made, she takes action by making a call or a visit to the box office, or going to your website. Each of these experiences results (theoretically) in a transaction—a ticket sale—which is the start of the cultural event.

If you accept this definition, then the website visit is part of the arts experience. The ticket purchase becomes the first (and most interactive) contact that your patron is likely to have with your organization until her eyes or ears rest upon what you’re offering onstage or on your walls.

Therefore, the online ticket-buying experience itself needs to be simple, professional, and smooth. The quality, tone, and manner of that e-commerce transaction set the tone for everything that follows. If you get this right, it sets up an expectation that everything else your organization has to offer will be good—and of course, the opposite is also true.

Before you continue reading, take a moment to go to JetBlue.com and begin to buy a ticket. In our view, JetBlue does an excellent job of this, compared to most other airlines. The site is clean, clear, and pleasant to use. It’s this initial interaction that indicates what we can expect at the airport and on the plane. Clearly JetBlue understands that the beginning of your flight takes place on their website. In contrast, go to American Airlines and try to do the same thing. You’ll quickly see that the AA site must have been built by the legal department and engineers. It’s overly complicated, drab, and frustrating.

Given the upscale demographics of arts patrons, it stands to reason that your patrons have many online shopping experiences each month, visiting websites where millions of dollars have been spent to perfect the process. These are people who expect quality—and you don’t get a pass because you’re a nonprofit organization.

So, what do we mean by a good buying experience? Here are a few guidelines:

Clarity: One of the most important aspects of any e-commerce experience is to make sure a buyer can be absolutely clear about where she is in the process. If your ticket purchase requires three screens, make sure there’s some indication on each page telling them what step they are on, either with simple numbers (e.g., “Page 1 of 3”) or with a graphic, such as a progress bar. The more your patrons understand what’s going on, the more comfortable they will be, and the more likely they’ll be to complete the transaction.

Transparency: Make sure your patrons know what they are buying, how much it costs, and whether there are any additional fees, taxes, or add-ons. This information should all be visible right on the shopping cart page. Before you ask people to enter credit card information, all the fees and add-ons should be disclosed. Too much information here will be forgiven, but extras that are thrown in at the very end of a transaction will surely enrage even the most easy-going buyer.

Streamlining: Only ask for as much info as you need, and no more. Many arts marketers believe that requiring an online login is a better idea than an anonymous purchase. It sounds great in theory: “Wouldn’t it be great to let patrons sign in and manage all their ticket purchases?”

However, there is a downside. Nothing is more irritating than being forced to create a username and password, and possibly even store credit card information with an arts organization that you’ve never attended before. I was in San Francisco for one day a month ago and wanted to go to a single concert—and completing that one transaction was like applying for a credit card!

There is a direct relationship between the practicality of having an online login and the frequency with which your patrons attend your organization. If you are selling mostly single tickets spread out through the year, a login requirement just creates an extra barrier for your patrons to purchase. While we’re all in favor of collecting information about your patrons, you have to weigh the pros and cons.

Certainty: If someone makes an e-commerce transaction with you, whether she bought a ticket or made a donation, sending a confirmation e-mail immediately is essential. There are few e-commerce websites that don’t confirm the purchase that you have just made. By leaving out this crucial step you will create a sense of confusion and concern amongst your buyers. When a confirmation comes instantly, the message your buyer gets is that you run a tight operation.

Maintain the Brand Experience: Integrate your online ticket buying with the rest of your website. Do not banish your ticket buyers to Siberia, sending them off to a ticket vendor’s site that looks nothing like yours. Maintaining your brand means extending the colors, language, and personality of your site into the ticket buying experience. This is your opportunity to show what it is like to be in a relationship with your organization.

Offer Every Kind of Transaction Online: Patrons want to transact with you online for nearly everything. They want to buy single tickets, make reservations, buy subscriptions, renew their subscriptions, exchange tickets, upgrade tickets, and donate the tickets or send the tickets to others. Our own research demonstrates the gap between what arts patrons want and what arts organizations currently provide: 73 percent of the arts patrons we surveyed said they were interested in buying and/or renewing their subscriptions online, but only 36 percent indicated that they actually HAVE bought or renewed a subscription online in the past year. It seems that the more online options you offer to your patrons, the happier they will be. (And the added benefit is that by offering more online, you also cut down on staff time handling phone calls.)

We realize that many of the things we’re talking about are sometimes not within your control. Most organizations work with outside vendors that provide web-based ticketing technology, and often in that case cannot control all of the things described above.

However, more and more, vendors do understand the need for all of these things and are working towards making them possible for you, and you should demand it. If they resist, think long and hard about whether that vendor is there to help you build your business, or their own.

The days of ticketing companies controlling your relationships with your patrons are coming to an end. We are in an era when building a relationship with your patrons is vitally important, and your vendor should be working for you in service of that objective. If they are not, make a change. Your patrons are yours, not theirs.

Let me conclude by sending you to an arts website that does all of these things exceptionally well: www.nyphil.org. (For disclosure purposes, the New York Philharmonic is a client.)

I’m also a subscriber personally. Recently I needed to exchange tickets a day before an upcoming subscription event. I logged on (in this case, I have a five-concert series, and I do have a log-in) and I was able to swap my tickets instantly, pick my seats for the next performance, all in about four minutes.

I already felt like my experience with the Phil was a joy. And I hadn’t even heard a note of music yet.

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