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Let’s Play - what I learnt at this year’s AMA conference

Categories: Events, Inspiration, Learning things

This year’s AMA conference saw hundreds of art marketers from across the UK converge in Liverpool for two days. The theme for this year was ‘The Power of Play’. As someone who loves to use games and play in team building and decision making, I was looking forward to hearing stories from across the sector on how people are using play to drive change forwards and experiment with new ideas.

One key theme everyone kept coming back to was how quickly we forget how to play as adults, and how the fear of failure becomes a blocker to playing, having fun and experimenting.

Why playful work cultures are great

The closing keynote on day one was presented by Emma Rice, Artistic Director at Wise Children. Emma spoke about how she uses play to build trust and confidence in her teams. By getting the cast and production team together to play ball, take a moment to clear the mind with yoga and come together to sing before rehearsals, Emma’s teams become more confident and she can get to know them better. This time is well spent and crucial for Emma to get the very best out of her team.

Day two opened with a keynote from Tom Rainsford, Founder at giffgaff. Tom’s keynote, titled ‘Putting Play at the Heart of Your Brand’ looked at how you can innovate and engage people with a playful approach. But, more than putting play at the heart of a brand, Tom spoke about the importance of putting play at the heart of your organisation’s culture - you can’t have a playful brand if your team hate working there.

Both Tom and Emma spoke about the responsibility leaders have at their organisations to embrace play and encourage experimentation. This means giving people the space and time to have fun, and celebrating when new ideas are tried out, even if they don’t work out at first.


You can’t experiment and innovate without being playful

The link between experimentation, innovation, creativity and play was spoken about throughout the conference. Tom Rainsford told us that ‘children are smart!’ When playing they find ways to navigate the rules and quickly change tactics to get the best outcome. This ability to adapt to changes, be open to trying new things and experiment is a key skill we learn in game play.

During her talk on Liverpool Philharmonic’s Leap Into Live Music programme, Elizabeth Heague told us how being open to change and experimentation was vital to the success of the project, which works with various communities in Liverpool to introduce new people to classical music. The project began with a five year plan, but changes and adaptations had to be made along the way to ensure its success. Elizabeth used data to inform the change, but the openness to change is what ensured the project could move forward successfully.


Take play seriously

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp (Director, Africa Centre) spoke about taking play seriously during the opening keynote, reminding us that even children take their games seriously (don’t try to interrupt a child mid game!). Kenneth spoke of his time working with young dancers and how they learnt key skills such as creativity, motivation, critical thinking and resilience through learning to play with purpose.

Play was certainly taken seriously by Paul Kaynes, Chief Executive at National Dance Company Wales. In his session ‘Roots, Robots and Riots — revolutionising dance across Wales’, Paul spoke about how they were using data and audience development goals to inform how they played with new ideas. It was great to hear how playing with ideas was becoming part of the NDCWales’ culture, from giving the dancers freedom to be playful and share their fun on social media, to using play to inform new work, including their production of a 1917 piece called Parade. And whilst Paul was honest about things that hadn’t worked (some work wasn’t attracting new audiences), embracing play and experimentation was transforming the culture within the organisation and helping bring new audiences to the company’s work.


So what did I learn?

Although it’s unlikely we’ll be setting up a Supercool Choir anytime soon, I came away from this year’s AMA Conference inspired to be a bit more playful and not be so scared of failing. Whilst losing a game of Monopoly to your little brother is annoying, it certainly doesn’t stop you starting a game and we should all take this approach to giving things a go at work. It’s when we give things a go we truly tap into our creativity and innovation can happen. As Tatiana Oliveira Simonian said in her closing keynote - ‘give that hobby you think you might suck at a go, and suck at it’. We can only find the things we’re good at, and the brilliant new ideas by giving stuff a go. You never know, maybe you won’t suck at that new hobby!

Of course, as well as all the great sessions, the AMA had the usual social events and plenty of time to catch up with old friends and make a few new ones. Next year’s conference at NewcastleGateshead is already in the diary - see you there!

Preparing for your next big on-sale

Categories: Events, Learning things, Our work, Useful/interesting

Last Thursday I did a talk at the Ticketing Professionals Conference 2018 with Caroline Aston, Audience Insight Manager at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Our talk was about lessons learned the hard way when managing a (new) website during a big online on-sale. Here're our notes:

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JAMES: 3 years ago we undertook a project to redevelop Chichester Festival Theatre's website, to coincide with the launch of both a new CRM system (Spektrix) and their 2015 Winter Season.

We’ll take you through that process – the on-sale, what we learnt from it, and what’s been put in place since.

CAROLINE: Chichester Festival Theatre is one of the UK’s flagship regional theatres.

  • Capacity: 1,621
  • Performances in 2016/17 seasons: 508
  • Number of tickets available in 2016/17: 405,820
  • Annual turnover: £14.2m

We have two venues (Chichester Festival Theatre and the Minerva), and two distinct seasons per year – the spring/summer Festival Season, during which our own productions are staged, and the shorter Winter Season, primarily featuring touring productions and one-nighters.

Each season has two big on-sale dates – first for Friends, then a general on-sale. Over those four on-sale days we take around 29% of our box office for the year. And 42% of box office revenue is taken over the first two weeks of each on-sale.

Our project to change to new a CRM (Spektrix) started in April 2015, and it quickly became apparent we’d need a new website before the Winter Season launch in September, when Spektrix was due to go live. (We opted to launch at this point rather than the Spring season as web traffic is lower, plus there was a reduced Winter programme in 2015 due to refurbishment of the Minerva.) We began working with Supercool in June 2015.

We had a very small window – 4 days, during which there were no performances – to migrate all data from the old CRM into Spektrix, and make the website live. With 4 shows left in the Festival season, downtime had to be kept to a minimum.

 

JAMES: By that point we already had a decent amount of experience designing and developing these types of sites – but not dealing with huge traffic spikes.

Our primary concerns:

  • Limited time to design and build the site*
  • No soft launch
  • Unknown demand - other than we knew it’d be high
  • Load testing
  • Season launch - so load testing was difficult
  • Using Amazon AWS (then new for us)

*So, we decided on a 2-phase approach – loosely meaning we’d build a ‘minimum viable product’ ready for launch, with secondary development planned-in after the initial launch.

We put together a (very) comprehensive risk assessment – aka The Disaster Plan – listing everything that could possibly go wrong, with back-up plans for various scenarios:


 

CAROLINE: We meticulously plan activity around our on-sales; from when flags will be hoisted on site, to when we contact the audience through various channels.

Tickets are available online only for the first few days, so we provide additional support for customers. Before any on-sale we encourage customers to go to the website to check their login details.

In 2015, for the first on-sale with the new systems, we increased this effort and contacted all customers who’d booked online over the previous 3 years, and encouraged them to create a password (their details weren’t migrated to the new system). It paid off with 27% of all those contacted visiting the login page.

We also produce user-guides in PDF format to take people through the booking process. Links to these were circulated in the week between go live and on-sale. Preparing the audience on these straightforward things means we can focus on any issues that come up during the on-sale itself.

Frontline staff are also well-prepared – they’re taken through the common issues that customers may ask about (password resets, cookies, out of date browser), and have an ever-expanding list of FAQs to refer to. This pools knowledge from across the organisation, so we’re all able to answer questions.

 

JAMES: Design and development went smoothly, and the new website went live as scheduled on 9 September 2015, along with Spektrix; with the Winter season announced the next day.

The initial launch and season announcement went pretty smoothly and, based on traffic from the announcement day, we had a good idea of the traffic expected for the big on-sale.

The Friends on-sale happened at 10am on 14 September 2015, and was the website’s first big test. The site lasted for about 30 minutes … before it came crashing down. Worst. Nightmare.

We scaled-up the server and rebooted it – but it crashed again. We scaled-up even more – but another crash. Third time lucky? No. After about 30 minutes we reverted to the back-up plan, pointing the load-balancer directly at Spektrix’s iframes, so people could at least still buy tickets.

But we still had to diagnose the problem, fix it, and get the website back up and running.

After a *very* long-seeming 2 hours, we’d fixed the issue, and the website was working fine again. (For anyone interested, the issue had been with the Varnish config; we weren’t caching query parameters from marketing email links.)

 

CAROLINE: During the downtime we couldn’t inform customers what the issue was, as our main tool for communication – the website – was down. To manage complaints and questions, different staff were assigned different platforms.

Communication between us and Supercool was over the phone which wasn’t ideal as it took James away from working on the problem with the developers.

 

JAMES: We learnt a lot that day; once the site was stable again we immediately started the post-mortem.

The specific critical issue fell into the category of ‘unknown unknowns’, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. It would've taken a lot of testing and blue sky thinking for us to spot this before it happened. Having said that, there were certainly areas of process we could improve for the future, including:

  • Using instant chat between teams at Supercool, CFT and Spektrix – we use Slack.
  • More testing of the season programme before on-sale.
  • Monitoring of social media to highlight as-yet-unreported issues.

We’ve since added a number of features to the site to cope well with sharp spikes in traffic.

One of my favourites is the ability to update certain elements of the page without breaking page caches. Sitewide-notifications and ticket buttons update through javascript, without pages even needing to be refreshed, which means pages update instantly – even under heavy load.

And each subsequent on-sale has gone smoothly; in fact we’ve made improvements to the process season-on-season.

CFT like to keep us on our toes, changing something for each on-sale e.g. advertising the time of announcements/on-sales, ticket purchase queuing, adding a new ‘advance priority’ on-sale level.

And we’re always looking at ways to make the booking process quicker and easier for people …

 

CAROLINE: Because it was a new website we’d installed a Feedback button – and had some choice responses once the website was back online! But also some useful points which we actioned:

User guides – we developed more user-guides, including a video. The more we prepare people in advance, the easier it is for us to address concerns voiced on the day.

Notifications – we have worst-case-scenario messaging planned in advance and ready to go live, on Spektrix, the website, and other platforms; it’s easier to construct the wording when you’re not under pressure.

Customer response – staff are assigned specific platforms (social, email) to monitor during the peak period, so responses are quick.

Marketing/social – Details of planned emails and social posts during the on-sale are shared with Supercool beforehand, so they can predict and prepare for traffic spikes.

The benefits of a well planned on-sale are:

  • Calmer, more effective staff
  • Happier customers
  • Higher sales
  • More donations (253% increase in donations on Friends first day of booking since our first Festival on-sale with the new systems)
  • Positive social responses …

JAMES: In summary, for a successful big online on-sale you need:

  • Thorough planning (including disaster planning)
  • Good communication (internally, between all external teams, and with your audience/customers)
  • No complacency
  • Carbs and caffeine
  • Debrief / lessons learned … ready for next time


Here’s a link to the full set of slides from the talk, which might not make much sense by themselves – if you want more detail, pop me an email: james@supercooldesign.co.uk

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As an aside; one of the main reasons this became a useful, rather than disastrous, experience is the good relationship we have with the team at Chichester.

We’d built a strong and trusting relationship during the design and build process so, despite the crash, how we then handled the situation (plus our stellar and extensive Disaster Plan) gave the CFT team confidence in our ability to cope under pressure. And it's quite possibly made for an even stronger working relationship now.

Not that it’s an experience we ever intend to repeat with either CFT or anyone else.

We’ve since put what we learnt to good use for other clients too, managing huge – and hugely successful – on-sales for Kraftwerk, London Grammar, Gary Barlow, and Sir Cliff for THSH, and the monumentally popular ticket ballot and on-sale for RADA’s production of Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Tom Hiddleston.

Fun for all the family?

Categories: Events, Learning things, Useful/interesting

Supercool postcard – sponsors fo Family Arts Conference 2017

Last Wednesday we went along to the bi-annual Family Arts Conference, this year held at St George’s Bristol and sponsored by our good selves along with Spektrix.

Billed as an exploration of age, diversity and inclusion in Family Arts, it seemed a good fit for us, as for many of our clients their family-focused activity is an important way of expanding audiences.

I guess it's a similar principle to MacDonald’s having Happy Meals, minus any grease or guilt – introducing people to something (in this case 'the arts', rather than salty, extruded potato) at a young age helps build a habit; engraining cultural activity as a regular part of everyday life, and so encouraging a lifelong love of – and support for – the arts.

The conference's opening keynote was great – Estella Tincknel, Deputy Mayor of Bristol and an enviably strong advocate for arts and culture in the city, told us all about Bristol (without glossing over its less impressive side, which was refreshing) and the huge role the arts plays within it.

She proposed that art and culture are important catalysts for change, for challenging what needs to be challenged, and for renewing social cohesion; with families cited as being a key part of this.

Further reinforcing the importance of family audiences, members of the Bristol Family Arts Network relayed some research showing that, although turnout for specifically-labelled ‘family’ events can be lower (initially), engagement is consistently much deeper.

Another stand-out talk was from Kate Organ, who referenced a comment someone had made about – I’m paraphrasing here – local arts attendance being made up of a lot of old, grey-haired people … and their parents.

Rather than this being seen as a problem to be overcome, Kate suggested that arts organisations should be embracing older people. Within the next 20 years 1 in 3 adults will be ‘an older person’, so there are economic – as well as ethical – reasons to engage with all ages.

Thinking about this as a designer, appealing to something as wide as a ‘family audience’ is a challenge – there’s a tendency for briefs about family events to automatically assume promotions should look very child-focused when, in fact, it’s parents who’ll be planning a trip or buying the ticket, not the kids. And mightn't child-like styling be putting off families who don’t include younger people but would still be able to enjoy an event? There’s no easy answer.

In terms of making digital things family-friendly, however, it’s a lot simpler as this essentially means making sure everything’s built to be as accessible as possible (i.e. well-built).

Websites need to be quick to load and to navigate, and work on any device – whether it's being used by a busy parent trying to browse a mobile web page on a rubbish 3G connection with one hand while wrangling an irritable infant with the other; or a Baby Boomer looking for an event that’ll be suitable both for their grandchildren and an elderly parent.

Much of the discussion at the conference centred around what actually constitutes a ‘family’ – with the conclusion being that it covers myriad relationships and age-groups.

We have, however, noticed one common thread that runs through all family-focused arts and cultural events – and that's a very clear and unmistakable focus on encouraging people to experience the arts with others; conveying the arts as a sociable activity which creates shared experiences – and shared memories.

As poet, essayist and visual artist Etel Adnan told the conference – via a recorded message stood in front of a big screen, which was then projected onto another a big screen; INCEPTION! – "The need for human company is and shall continue to be essential. Theatre [indeed, the arts in general] can play a significant role in this area.”

AMA keynote notes: Andy Jasper, Eden Project

Categories: Events, Inspiration, Learning things, Useful/interesting

The importance of continuous experimentation was the theme from Head of Evaluation & Research at the Eden Project, Andy Jasper.

In basic terms, this seems to follow something of a cycle:

Stage 1: Flex your product to meet your customer/audience's needs.
Stage 2: Evaluate the changes you made.
Stage 3: Make changes based on evaluation findings.
Stage 4: Do not rest! Go back to Stage 1.

By means of example, Andy discussed Eden's collaboration with NoFit State, a contemporary circus company, during the summers of 2011 and 2012.

The thinking behind the collaboration being that Eden would be an amazing backdrop for NoFit State to create and then show a brand new production, expanding Eden's audience and giving previous visitors (including locals) a reason to come back to experience something new.

That was Stage 1: Flex your product. On to Stage 2: Evaluation. And the findings were … interesting.

In 2011 NoFit State performances of Labyrinth were a sell-out; despite happening on week nights rather than weekends. There was a whopping 35% increase in new visitors while the circus was in town – and annual visits were up 7% that year. So they did it again the following year.

Where the Bianco company lived in Eden – by Emily Morgan (Producer, NoFit State)

In 2012, during the Bianco show, having the circus there actually resulted in a loss of revenue for the venue. There were several reasons for this, none of which are related to the quality or popularity of the show itself …

a. As a contrast to the previous year, 2012's performances happened on Friday nights and weekends – because more people go out at the weekend, right? In this case; wrong.

Tourist's changeover days are more-often-than-not on a weekend therefore, more-often-than-not, people holidaying in the area – the mainstay of Eden's income – choose to visit attractions during the week (perhaps also mistakenly assuming it'll be quieter then). Likewise, the locals assume the place will be chock-full of tourists at the weekend so're more likely to attend during the week.

b. The second thing that Andy suggested was a major factor in the drop in visitors/revenue was that Bianco tickets were sold separately from regular Eden Project tickets; meaning that anyone buying tickets for the show couldn't explore the gardens without paying extra, and vice-versa. The result was more people buying tickets for the show … to the detriment of regular ticket sales.

c. With this drop-off in regular day ticket sales, related sales such as food, drink and merchandise also decreased dramatically. (After an evening of circus, it seems people don't want to buy plants or a sandwich.)

So with the evaluation complete, time for Stage 3: Make change. The biggest thing Andy feels they've learnt from this is to allow people to buy a single ticket for entrance to Eden and 'Event XYZ'. (Adding just a few pounds to the price of tickets would cover costs for shows such as Labyrinth or Bianco.)

Another nod towards keeping it simple: a single ticket is easier for everyone – and should ultimately be more profitable. WIN!

The Eden Project is clearly adaptable to change, willing to take risks, and right from its inception the place has had, as Andy puts it, a spirit of experimentation.

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As an aside – completely unrelated to the 'continuously experiment' theme – it was fantastic to hear what an enormous impact the NoFit State residency (literally, as they lived on-site) had on Eden Project staff. Andy was so enthusiastic talking about the strong bonds formed between NoFit State and Eden's staff. It's clear he genuinely cares very much about this. And a place which values its staff, and truly cares about their experience just as much as that of customers/audience? That's a place to admire.