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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.

Supercool is fourteen

Categories: Learning things, Silly, Useful/interesting

Fourteen years ago Supercool officially launched as a partnership between James and Kris. Fast-forward to today, and we’re a hands-on team of five doing some pretty awesome work with some definitely awesome clients. (And we’re delighted that founding-father Kris is over from Norway to celebrate the milestone with us.)

For all you fans of number-related trivia out there, fourteen is:

  • represented as E in hexadecimal
  • the atomic number of silicon
  • the number of pounds in a stone
  • the minimum age at which one can work, with parent's consent, in most Australian states, apparently 
  • the number of Enigma Variations composed by Edward Elgar
  • the number of lines in a sonnet
  • the number of years Greyfriars Bobby spent guarding the grave of his master; until his own death in 1872

And finally, a 14th anniversary's traditional gift is ivory which, as a gift is gross – so here’s a much better use of ivory (and handy representation of great team work):

Go team! \o/

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.”

An anniversary and a love letter

Categories: Jewellery Quarter, Silly, Useful/interesting

Supercool officially formed on this day in 2004, when fresh-faced graduates James and Kris opened the company’s first business bank account.

This was back in the day when it was pretty-much unheard of to start an agency straight out of uni. Those crazy kids! But, after lots of hard work, lateral thinking, grit and determination, it panned-out well.

Thirteen years on, Supercool’s going strong – we even made an award-winning website recently. Go team!

And until the start of this month, we were still based in the very same building we first called home; 8a Legge Lane in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

Although we’re now a distributed team, our JQ headquarters served us well, and I couldn’t leave without penning something of a love letter to the old neighbourhood …

Sunset on the JQ

View along Legge Lane, Jewellery Quarter, at sunset

When we first moved there, the Jewellery Quarter wasn’t the cool, hipster hangout it is today.

Nope; our immediate local area was made up of abandoned, crumbling and derelict former factories. This allowed for almost endless discovery of amazing old typography and signage; but also meant a long walk to find a pint of milk.

And it wasn’t the most welcoming – or well-lit – of places after dark.

Bernard C Lowe building, Spencer Street, Jewellery Quarter
Spencer Street, Jewellery Quarter, 2013

Legge Lane, 2005
Legge Lane, c. 2005

Legge Lane itself was the epitome of cool, urban decay, particularly in the mid-late 2000s.

Interesting shells of old buildings? Check. Overgrown courtyard? Check. Hard-edged railings? Check. So, every few weeks (during university term time) small groups of photography students would arrive to make use of that edgy, gritty backdrop – then beat a hasty retreat.

(There must've been some collaboration with fashion students too as some of the models' outfits were … avant garde.)

Legge Lane, 2013
Legge Lane, 2013

Legge crane, 2016
Legge crane, 2016

Over the last 13 years, I’ve witnessed the Jewellery Quarter evolve from a long-neglected area of beautiful but decrepit buildings into a smart, bustling quarter full of live/work spaces, independent bars, restaurants, cafés – and coffee shops.

Nowadays it’s fair to say you won’t have trouble finding a cup o’ Joe in the Quarter. But imagine the local buzz in 2008 when the area got its very first, actual, proper coffee shop.

Although Saint Caffè is no more, it will always hold a special place in my heart – not only did it pave-the-way for the area’s increasingly popular café culture, it was also the venue for Likemind, a coffee morning/gentle networking event we ran until 2012.

We made new friends, and work contacts! We learned loads of interesting Jewellery Quarter facts from Brian! We raised money for charity! We drank more coffee than was probably good for our insides!

Collage of images from our coffee morning, 2007-2012

In the main, the Jewellery Quarter has been – and continues to be – developed in a thoughtful and considerate way.

Preserving all the good stuff is helping to retain the area’s distinctive character, and avoiding it becoming just an extension of the city centre. This is A Good Thing.

It seems weird now to think barely anyone lived here when we first arrived – the JQ’s now an increasingly popular and desirable residential area, which has almost certainly helped it to maintain its friendly, almost villagey feel.

So far, so gushy – I did say this was a love letter – but what won’t I miss?

The commute of course; the perpetual, occasionally disruptive but always noisy construction work; and the even louder gulls.

I will miss the area though – the proximity to excellent sandwiches, film sets, and my favourite Indian restaurant – and the office itself wasn’t half bad. But there comes a time to shake things up; to move on. And I’m sure I’ll be back for a visit.

So, farewell Jewellery Quarter –  you’ve been lovely.

Thirteen years of Supercool

Having a birthday in the same month as Leggexit (Legge Lane Exit) seemed a decent enough excuse for me to dig-out some old, mostly office-based, photos:


James and Kris in the then-new office, of the then-newly-formed Supercool – c. 2004


Me (Katie) and Kris en-route to a printing show at the NEC, where we got ourselves a mega map …


Arty. We reckon from the Mac OS X Tiger box in the foreground this must’ve been 2005


Different room, same white desks, no more Kris, but our first Josh


Superintern Kamilla taught us all the most useful Danish words


The wooden desk era – classy


A couple of Joshes doing the thing (all?) Joshes do best


Pulling funny faces. Filming model trains/chickens.


And so to late 2016 – we welcomed Naveed, said adieu to Angell and the office, and proved without question that we’re AMAZING at problem-solving.