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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.

2017 – A year in review

Categories: Our work

When looking back over 12 months of work it always (pleasantly) surprises me just how much got done. I’d thought it’d been a quiet year but …

Early on we collaborated with ace paper-cut illustrator Sam Pierpoint to create the season campaign look for the CBSO, with layered shapes inspired by Birmingham landmarks, sitting within instrument cut-outs.

We launched new ticketing websites for Eastern Angles, Buxton Opera House (both Spektrix) and The Stables (Tickets.com), and Culture Central approached us to create their brand identity and website. The minimalist look is centred around the idea of clear, joined-up thinking – with black and white colour palette and a pared-back editorial style putting the focus squarely on content.

Other launches included a light, bright and simple site for Artsreach, the rural touring organisation for Dorset, and a deceptively simple-looking website for Windsor Festival (with tickets sold via Monad).

Added to the brand new stuff, March saw the next phase of work with Chichester Festival Theatre – with application of their refreshed brand identity, and subtle but useful improvements to the ticket-booking process (launching in tandem with their new season announcement), which the audience certainly appreciated:

@ChichesterFT Bravo for your efficient ticketing system that allowed me to get two tickets to see King Lear with little hassle.

And we’ve designed two season brochures for Arena Theatre, and a season programme for Longborough Festival Opera (also a digital client).

In the summer we worked with Spektrix as a Technology Partner for the hugely in-demand RADA fundraising production of Hamlet; with RADA president Kenneth Branagh directing former student Tom Hiddleston in the title role.

A ballot system allowed tickets to be sold as fairly as possible – even theatre critics had to enter for their seats. This approach also allowed RADA to gather email addresses from a whopping number of ballot entrants who were vying for fewer than 4,000 tickets. 

More recently we’ve created a revamped brand identity for long-term digital client Midlands Arts Centre, with a newly-designed website in-the-works.

“[Supercool’s] ability to listen to – and then interpret – our needs makes this a stress-free and highly-valued working relationship.” – Lindsey Cook, Head of Sales & Marketing

And getting us into the festive spirit nice and early, in September we launched a fundraising microsite for Scottish Ballet’s revival of The Nutcracker – based on the production’s distinctive bauble backdrop. People have left some lovely, heart-warming dedications and messages – worth a browse to warm the cockles. (And you can still donate too!)

Added to all this, we successfully managed sell-out Gary Barlow and Cliff Richard concerts for THSH, and James spoke at UK Theatre’s Box Office 2017 Conference about best practice for online booking as well as attending the Family Arts Conference in Bristol, and AMA's Conference in Belfast and their Digital Marketing Day in London. Phew!

And finally, we welcomed fantastic new clients Bristol Old Vic, New Adventures, and Welsh National Opera into the Supercool family.

So, bring on 2018! In the meantime, warmest winter wishes – from everyone at Supercool.

How to go remote

Categories: Inspiration, Our work, Useful/interesting

Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland. Photo by Peter Alder
Jungfrau, Switzerland – by Peter Alder

Firstly I should clear-up a language thing – we aren't actually, strictly a ‘remote’ team. We all work from our respective homes in and around Birmingham, rather than on a beach in Goa, up a Swiss mountain, or from a Portland coffee shop.

‘Remote’ just seems more immediately understandable than calling it telecommuting which sounds super '80s but is technically correct, or saying we're a ‘distributed team’. Again that’s an accurate description but the phrase isn’t that widely understood – at the moment at least.

So, for the time-being, ‘remote’ is decent shorthand.


Supercool's former HQ – bye-bye!

Having explained the reasons why we were considering ditching the office, how did we make the decision once-and-for-all to do this thing, and then turn a business that’d been based in the same building for nigh-on 13 years into a more lightweight and flexible entity?

Here's how we approached the change – minus the overly-obvious stuff like "we packed-up the office", "we made sure everyone had a chair" etc.

1: Make it a team decision

This was one of the main considerations for us. Work’s a big part of people’s lives, and every Supercooler has an input not only into their specific role, but the work we do as a company, and how we do it.

No longer having a central office would be a big change for everyone, so we discussed the possibility openly and at length – what we thought would work, what’d need to change, the things that worried us …

And right from the start we agreed that if we weren’t all happy with the change, we wouldn’t do it. Simple.

2. Research and plan

We researched as much as humanly possible; which primarily involved reading about the various types of central-office-less working that other companies had already tried-out; the benefits, the potential pitfalls, and the practicalities. (Links to some of these are listed below.)

An added complication in our case was that, alongside potentially ditching the office, we were hiring a new team member. Ruh-roh!

So, as well as trying to find a new person with the right skills, who was the right fit for the team in general, we were looking for someone who was okay – at least in principle – with working from home. We were open about our plans during the recruitment process and, happily, found Naveed who fitted the bill on every count. WIN!

Back to planning – all each of us really needs to do our job is a decent computer and a decent internet connection. But added to this are the nuts-and-bolts that make communicating with each other quick and easy. Most online tools that're useful for remote/distributed teams we’d been using for ages – Slack, Trello, Hangouts etc. – so were already ingrained in day-to-day processes, but other stuff was new and needed setting up.

The most useful thing we put in place fairly early-on was a VOIP phone system. Even if we didn’t end up ditching the office, it made sense to have VOIP rather than a traditional phone line – the same phone number, with a bunch of added functionality, for a lower cost? No brainer.

3: Beta test

We applied some of the same principles we use to run digital projects to going remote, specifically that meant getting the bare bones of what we needed set up quickly – a minimum viable product if you will – and giving it a go.

We ended up doing several week-or-so-long trial runs.

Perhaps it was that we'd all discussed it openly and thoroughly. Perhaps it was the prior planning and preparation. Perhaps it was because we were using most of the tools already, so the change in how we work was actually fairly minimal. Whatever the reasons, the trial runs went brilliantly and – crucially (see point 1) – everyone was up for making it a permanent change.

Farewell cumbersome desktop computers; laptops all round!

4: Be clever with communication

Rather than one big meeting a week, we now all get together in a Google Hangout first thing every morning.

It’s a good chance to catch-up with each other and go over what work needs doing that day – as well as reminding ourselves that we work in a team. This was one of the things all our research suggested was a good idea, and it really is important. I’d go so far as to say it's vital.

During the trial runs Josh found, and got us into using, Appear.in; a mega-simple screen sharing service which we’ve since adopted to talk-through designs. It’s great – so much easier and more efficient than doing the same thing face-to-face, all gathered around a single screen.

And it wasn’t just the screen-sharing; we’re now working together more efficiently in general. I guess having to be more structured about when and how we talk to each other has forced us to make better use of that time. Nice side effect.

Our communication isn’t all about work though.

We've been sure to keep-up the little niceties which are important to human interaction but could easily get cut-out when people aren't actually in the same room.

Tiny things like saying “Hi” and “Bye” every day, and nonsense chat about this and that over Slack – with added emojis/animated gifs, obvs – are a a bit of human interaction and help punctuate the day. It seems to do a similar job to tea breaks IRL.

We also still get together in person; the next meeting conveniently coinciding with Supercool’s 13th birthday \o/

5: Cause zero disruption to clients

Last but by no means least …

From the trial runs – which no clients noticed were happening; schmoooooooth! – to the timing of The Big Move (over the Christmas break), we made it a priority that this change wouldn’t affect clients. No delay in projects. No change to the way people contact us. No change in working hours. Nothing. Nowt. Nada.

I’m really proud we succeeded in making a change that, although a big thing for each of us, hasn’t impacted our client work at all. Not negatively anyway – as I said, if anything we work better together now.

We’d mentioned the potential move to a few clients over the decision-making and planning period but, once we knew the change was definite, we told everyone our plans ahead of the move; explaining our reasons, and of course giving folks the chance to ask questions or raise any concerns. I was quite concerned that people might think Supercool was somehow less professional, or less hard working, or less real without a central office.

I’d been worrying needlessly as the main feedback was “Does this mean you all get to work in your pyjamas?” Ha! In answer to that question – it hasn't happened yet, and the frequent video chats make it unlikely …

But never say never.

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From the early, tentative conversations to actually ditching the office took us about 8 months.

We didn’t rush into it – making sure we knew what we were doing, and that it'd work for us and our clients – but equally, we didn’t dilly-dally once we knew the change was happening.

Nimbleness – one of the benefits of being a lean team.

It remains to be seen if there’ll be any negative feedback about our set-up from potential new clients which, I have to be honest, is a lingering concern for me.

Only time will tell if not having a central office will hold us back, however, I’m optimistic that new clients’ll be likeminded sorts who'll see the benefits of working with a flexible, productive and happy team of designers and developers.

Incidentally, other folks who famously work(ed) from home include:
Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Benjamin Britten, Barbara Hepworth, and The Queen.

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Resources

Some of our favourite tools and services:

Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, Dropbox, Appear.in, VOIP (through Dial 9, who’re ace), Tracking Time, Zendesk, Basecamp, Github

Useful links:

2016 – A year in review

Categories: Our work

What ended up being … let’s call it a ‘strange’ year in terms of national and global politics, started off perfectly nicely in the world of digital design.

We launched a newly-Spektrix-integrated website for boutique opera house Longborough Festival Opera, allowing them to sell tickets online for the first time ever.

“We commissioned Supercool to create our new website alongside the integration of a new box office system - we were concerned that as an understaffed and not technically savvy organisation we would soon be out of our depth, but Supercool took our brief and created a website that exceeded our expectations both in terms of design and capability, along with a user-friendly and intuitive CMS.”

We also designed LFO’s beautiful-if-we-do-say-so-ourselves 100-page perfect-bound season programme, giving each production its own distinctive personality – and audience members a lasting keepsake.

"We've created several pieces of print with them and have been impressed by their imaginative design."

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The second iteration of our e-commerce website for haberdashery friends Guthrie & Ghani has a revamped design and a whole bunch of functionality improvements – for both website visitors and administrators.

“The team of web designers and developers at Supercool have done a tremendous job at not only designing and creating a lovely looking site, but also making it work behind the scenes for us.”

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To coincide with their 25th anniversary, we launched a simplified and easy-to-search new website for one of the world’s finest concert halls – Symphony Hall Birmingham – along with its smaller but equally impressive sister venue Town Hall.

The site was put to the test in September with an on-sale for Kraftwerk tickets, which it passed with flying colours; selling-out within about 10 minutes.

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One of our most exciting launches this year was a fashion-led, Tessitura-integrated website for Scotland's national dance company, Scottish Ballet.

The website’s been a big hit not only with Scottish Ballet and their audiences, but with the judges of the Lovie Awards. The site was awarded bronze in the Best Website: Art category of this pan-European contest which 'honours online excellence’. Safe to say that we and Scottish Ballet were pretty chuffed. Go team!

"It has been a real pleasure to work with Supercool on Scottish Ballet’s new website. The process felt like a partnership with enthusiastic people that have flair, technical solutions and cared as much as we did about the final product. Most importantly, we are delighted with the result: an easy to manage and striking website that delivers results (higher engagement, lower bounce rates, and higher conversions)."

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So, what's next?

In 2017 we’re looking forward to launching new websites for: a small-but-perfectly-formed theatre, a rural touring company, a Frank Matcham-designed opera house, and a renowned jazz venue – as well as new branding and websites for a passionate and pragmatic arts consultancy, and “the collective voice for culture in Birmingham”.

We’re also sponsoring the next Family Arts Conference, so look out for more about that early next year.

Speaking of which, here’s an early New Year’s Resolution – MOAR BLOG POSTS!!11!!1! We’ll see how that goes, eh …

In the meantime, warmest winter wishes and all the best for 2017 – from Supercool.


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