In the early 2000s, I worked in the box office of a small theatre in my hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was a vibrant, grassroots organization that punched way above its weight artistically but not so much technologically. We wrote out telephone orders on paper, scratching out the credit card numbers after they were processed. Talk about personal data management. Our box office software was ancient and so buggy that it was really only useful as a ticket printer.  Ah, the good old days.

So when Warren brought back a book of papers from the Museums and the Web conference in Vancouver, it was this paper on ticketing that caught my eye. Jointly presented by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), and detailing their respective in-house online ticketing projects, it got me thinking about how much has changed since my box office days. Yeah, a lot.

Take control of your ticketing

What stood out to me in that paper was both institutions’ desire to take greater control over their respective ticketing systems, and their commitment to making the experience work better, both for the themselves and for their patrons. While each project had different goals, they both sought to create a system that responded to their particular business priorities, while offering a user experience that was smooth, clear, and mobile-friendly — all qualities that users have come to expect in the age of the smartphone. 

Last fall, I attended Capacity Interactive’s Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts. My most memorable moment from the conference was when a presenter asked the audience to put up their hands if they were happy with their organization’s mobile ticketing experience. Out of a room of about 300 people, ONE HAND went up. So why is this so hard? 

Why so complicated?

Well, there are numerous factors involved, like seat-selection, pricing structures, memberships, add-ons, etc. Payments have to be made securely, and the site needs to be able to handle high-demand situations. While most ticketing platforms tend to be good at dealing with the complex rules and systems, they don’t always consider the user experience, and their complex paths can cause a frustrated user to give up. It’s a generally accepted principle in e-commerce that each decision the user has to make is a moment where they may instead abandon the purchase.

Often, that moment is the dreaded login. An account-based ticketing system ties purchases to a user record in a CRM and use that information to deliver tailored marketing materials, discounts, or promotions to that user. This is super helpful to organizations, but is it as helpful to users? Going through the process of resetting a forgotten password pretty much negates any benefit of storing your payment and delivery details, especially with the advent of auto-fill.

No more logins

ACMI decided to eschew the login entirely and create a mobile-first, 3-step process to purchase. This goal was rooted in user feedback (read: complaints) backed up by the high number of hits to their password reset page. They decided that it would be easier for their users to enter their info every time they made a purchase than go through the frustration of trying to remember an only-occasionally-used password. 

As a user, I would happily bid farewell to logging in to purchase. As a marketer, well, that’s another story. Account information is obviously valuable in understanding your users’ preferences and gives you the opportunity to create more tailored experiences. But it’s important to weigh that opportunity carefully against the potential loss of ticket sales from frustrated users. If you’re actively trying to reach out to new visitors, then you really want to make things as simple as possible.

Mobile-first puts users first

Increasingly, the internet IS mobile. For some, it’s mobile-mostly, for others still, it’s mobile-only (about 20% of Americans, according to Pew Research). This means you should always be approaching design with a mobile-first mindset. A study of ticket-buyers from Wolf Brown and Capacity Interactive shows that while 79% of people prefer to buy tickets online, only 37% are doing it on their smartphone. That doesn’t excuse you from providing a good experience on mobile. What is suggests is that mobile ticketing experiences are so difficult to navigate that people prefer to wait until they’re on desktop to make a purchase. That’s a big missed opportunity.

Remove the barriers

Colleen Dilenschneider of IMPACTS Research calls on data to explain the importance of offsite technology for visitor-serving cultural organizations in this post. She argues that unfriendly online ticketing experiences (not to mention added “convenience” fees) create a significant barrier to potential audiences and that failing to provide a simple, mobile-friendly pathway hinders an organization’s ability to attract new visitors. 

People are fickle, and they’re distracted. Even your biggest fans are fickle. This I learnt over and over again working in that low-tech box office years ago. They forget to buy tickets, they leave it to the last minute and something else comes up, or they show up and see the long lineup and decide to do something else nearby. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed myself for forgetting to attend a show or exhibit that I REALLY WANTED TO SEE! There’s a lot clamouring for our attention these days. Make it really easy to buy a ticket when it’s in someone’s little goldfish brain to do so. And know that they’re probably on the bus, or cooking supper, or walking down the street when they’re doing it.

Demand more

My gut (and my arts background) tells me that there’s sometimes a feeling of helplessness when it comes to ticketing services. Technology upgrades can be expensive, and with sunk costs comes a sense of beholdenness and resignation. But I think it’s time that organizations demand more from 3rd party ticketing services. Ask your provider how you can gain more control over the purchase path, and look to others in your industry for best practices and recommendations. If you don’t have an in-house team, choose a digital partner who understands the user experience, and who can work with your ticketing provider to make a seamless path to purchase.  

Keep improving

To conclude, I want to encourage arts organizations to stop budgeting for technology upgrades as a capital expenditure, and think of them as standard operational costs. Gone are the days of a massive redesign every 5 years (or more). Here are the days of taking an iterative approach, making incremental and constant improvements based on real-time data and feedback from your users. Weigh your priorities as an organization and tackle them in order of importance. Mobile ticketing may not be your #1 concern, but it should be up there. If you don’t keep up with the needs of your users, they will go elsewhere.