Choosing Systems

Selecting Ticketing and Marketing Systems

When choosing a new ticketing and marketing system, generally speaking, the choice is between similar ‘out-of-the-box’ systems, in the sense that these are already developed solutions, though these can be at very different prices/costs.  Perhaps the analogy is with buying a car, in which all the basic requirements are met, with a few variations, and there some limited opportunities for customer-chosen options, and some big differences in costs.  It is important to understand this, since, similar to cars, there are significant differences of detail between systems.  And The Cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS) is changing the road that car runs on.

There are five main factors which will help determine the choice:

Functionality and Fitness-for-Purpose

The variety of business procedures for selling tickets and running a ticket sales operation is remarkable.  It is therefore very important to identify what you do and how you do it, in order to assure that the system will meet your current needs.  You then need to identify what you would like to do, to ‘future-proof’ your choice.

A quick over-view of systems can lead you to think that most systems do everything.  However, there are significant differences in important areas.  Some examples:

  • for speed of sale in a venue with a large number of events on sale, the method of drilling down into events/performances and the number of mouse clicks in a sale will be important factors – fewer, quicker being better.
  • for venues which have packages of events or subscriptions, how these are compiled, how they can be sold, especially rover or accumulator packages, how prices are set-up (calculation of percentage discounts), how they are renewed, will all be important factors.
  • for organisations with membership and loyalty schemes, especially reward schemes, the options offered by systems will affect what you can do, especially redeeming loyalty points or membership benefits
  • integration with websites, databases, social media and networks, optimising for smartphones and tablets, are important factors for organisations seeking to build relationships with their attenders

When an organisation is converting to a computerised system for the first time, it will be necessary to consider changes to the business procedures to ‘fit’ marketing and sales to the new opportunities.  However, when an organisation has already been marketing and selling on a computerised system, then it is essential to identify any areas where selection of a particular system may require changes to the established business procedures.  Reconciliation, accounting and audit practices are changing on systems where payment is largely electronic.  Pay-as-you-go or commission-based mechanisms to pay for systems have significant impacts.

Database and Customer Records

A few systems still come with their own proprietary database – this means the database is not necessarily ‘open’ or easy to share data between databases in a standard format.  This is now important since many organisations ‘interface’ their software with other in-house systems and especially their website, and an open database such as the near ubiquitous SQL (Structured Query Language) makes a significant difference.  It also makes future migration between systems easier.

In the database, customer records are important, especially the available fields and their character.  Quick addressing, multiple phone numbers, email addresses, and data protection, privacy and electronic communications options for different contact methods, are all important.  Check how systems handle transactions from the web – some seem to duplicate customer records when people buy on the web.  Check to see if records at the same address – home or business – can be grouped together.    Check how customer preferences and transaction history are separately recorded so you can understand interests and behaviours.

While the database is important for what it contains, the extracting and reporting mechanisms are crucial in enabling effective analysis and marketing.  There are considerable variations in what systems do, beyond the basic ticket sales reports.  Some data extraction software is now available, which offers valuable data processing and direct marketing tools, and the ability to import and export the data, but most systems aim to provide a one-stop-shop to meet all the needs.  Many organisations rely on the reports and tools inside their system, and it is important to be able to specify what you use at present and what you need (this is a key part of the Functionality Specification).

On-line Ticketing

Cost, functionality, and integration with websites are all involved here.  Some system suppliers charge for tickets sold on the web by per ticket or per transaction fees; other suppliers offer the option of a one-off life-time license fee; others offer annual license fees, sometimes according to the volume of web sales.  Most organisations will want to avoid per ticket fees and avoid charges imposed on ticket purchasers.

After cost, the crucial factor is ease of use and functionality for Internet ticket purchase: is this user-friendly with understandable, ergonomically laid out, screens and process flow?  This can increase the volume of completed sales, especially by allowing purchasers to select their own seats.  An effective Internet Ticketing engine can be mission critical for organisations which expect to sell a majority of their tickets on the web.

Is this optimised for the multiple formats of the devices ticket purchasers might use for their online transactions?  There is now huge variation in screen sizes across smartphones and tablets, let alone laptops and desktop PCs.

What other functionality is offered on the web: a shopping basket; renewal of packages and subscriptions; purchase of memberships (with automatic pricing) and participation in loyalty schemes; sale of gift vouchers; use of promotional codes; editing of customer records and viewing of transaction history; payment by gift vouchers?

Most Internet Ticketing engines now integrate directly into your website, some offering a complete Content Management System to run your web presence.  There is still some Internet Ticketing as a service of the supplier: you connect to their pages; do they collect payment or does it use your acquirer; who acknowledges the ticket purchase?  The solution could be hosted by the supplier or by your own server host.  How do you want your website and the Internet Ticketing engine to integrate?  This is a significant factor:

  • Content management systems need to be compatible.
  • Are there xml feeds for websites or an Application Programming Interface?
  • What (and when) are the registration and log-in options?
  • How does e-marketing work in relation to the system?  Does the system build e-mail lists?
  • How much can the website be configured to meet your needs and optimised for form factors?
  • Are micro-sites/landing pages possible according to links, customer types, or promotional codes?

Installation, commissioning and on-going support

The kind of training and support you need can limit your choice of systems.  How knowledgeable are you and your staff about the business procedures for ticket sales?  This could significantly affect costs and be very demanding during the commissioning phase.  Systems offer many options and alternatives and during set-up and configuration you will be asked many questions about your detailed operational requirements, with many crucial decisions to be made.

With open database systems, the application of what you want to do with the system, and others it can interface with, is very important.  Suppliers offer specialist staff to assist you, but they do not always understand your business requirements in detail.  This is equally important when you and your staff are first being trained.

On-going training and support can be make or break for most venues in their successful use of the system.  However, both training and support is changing on both the basis on which it is supplied and how it is charged for.  Some suppliers operate on the basis that they will not provide ‘attended support’ – so you will only ever be visited on site at the time of initial training and commissioning.

Strictly, most suppliers of ticketing and marketing systems supply ‘software support’ and any support requirements for hardware, peripherals and tele-communications needs to be sourced separately (and if possible, locally).  This is very different from some of the long established suppliers who, traditionally, have offered a ‘one-stop-shop’ for equipment; such practices have largely ceased.  Additionally, most suppliers have answered ‘how do I do such and such?’  questions, which are strictly training issues; some now would be willing to answer such questions but charge, as these are not seen as ‘software support’ issues.

Whether you get to put your question to a person on the phone is a moot point, since sometimes training is offered as a ‘webinar’ – a guided training session conducted over the web – and support involves either logging in a support request or sending an email.  And there is an increased expectation of reliance on ‘networking’ with other users or user groups.

Some suppliers are also concerned about the internal competence of the sales team, and expect staff to be kept properly trained, especially if there are staff changes.  Additionally, some will not even supply their system unless there are competent staff to manage the database.

Cost

In most cases, cost is the least issue in selecting systems, since the main suppliers are usually willing to offer a competitive supply solution.  The challenge for some arts organisations is affording an appropriate solution in the first place, since there are few inexpensive systems which actually offer the necessary functionality required.  There are a variety of supply solutions:

  • Leasing – still a useful method for some organisations, spreading the cost
  • Pay-as-you-Go – usually involves some form of charging by volume or value over time, and can include ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) models where a hosted service is provided, often a ‘single iteration, multi-tenanted’ solution.
  • Life-time license – usually a one-off payment obtains the life-time license and there are then some recurrent charges for the support and/or maintenance – the latter involves keeping the software up to date
  • Annual license – this model is quite common and often has a higher ‘first year license charge and then lower fees in subsequent years.  Some charge based on the number of users, either installed or simultaneously logged-in.  Charges may vary according to the ‘first user’ with lower charges for subsequent users.  Some suppliers charge different fee levels for different types of user – ticketing, marketing, administration – and some charge per terminal installed and some per the number of simultaneous users
  • Multiple year license based on volume of tickets – this can be charged in various ways but usually involves an agreed length of time period, a relatively low cost per ticket, and a pre-set volume of sales.  It introduces some flexibility and can reduce the up-front cost.

Most suppliers charge separately from the supply cost for everything from project management, through installation and commissioning, to training, usually by the person per day, plus expenses.  And watch out for additional costs for peripherals such as ticket printers, credit card and barcode readers, cash drawers, and additional software for rapid addressing, credit card processing, and so on.

The selection process

Most organisations do not know what they could have at the start of the selection process.  So the first step is to find out what is on offer in the marketplace.  Most suppliers will be willing to visit to provide a demonstration to show what they think their system is best at, and frankly, to help them find out more about your needs.  These are sometimes called unhelpfully ‘beauty contests’ but the key point is that they inform about what is available, help staff understand the state-of-the-art, and build consensus about what a venue might need.  This is best achieved by seeing at least three systems.  This is often a valuable step in engaging staff with the change process, educating them about the future, and involving them in preparing for a new system.  It usually secures agreement that they need a new system.

The second step is to identify what other arts organisations are doing and to seek comparators to discuss their experiences with systems.  This may provide ‘references’ on systems but is not always helpful since experiences can be very specific to an organisation and their circumstances.  One venue can be removing a system in disappointment when another is installing it as a carefully selected ‘fit-for-purpose’ solution.

The third step is to develop a ‘Functionality Specification’, which describes what your organisation wants the system to do.  The Ticketing Institute application ‘Functionality Builder’ is the specialist tool to do just that.

This step needs careful thought.  It is important not to describe exactly how a system might process something (though for some tasks this may be unavoidable) but instead to describe the objective and outcome.  Different systems can achieve the same outcome in different ways.  Some people try to qualify or score the importance of each item of functionality, but if you need it at all, it is important.  A key part of the Functionality Specification needs to be about reports, data extractions and data processing.

Most organisations, especially charities and local authorities, are required to seek tenders from at least three suppliers for systems.  Some large systems, especially if you tender based on the five year cost of ownership, are likely to be above a set value under EU regulations in Europe and will have to be advertised in the European Journal.  The challenge is to ensure tenders are submitted on a comparable basis – TheTicketingInstitute has an Excel spreadsheet which suppliers must complete to submit their tenders.  Most suppliers will try to quote on a basis specific to them and their system.  Some organisations, especially if they are required to advertise, seek the completion of a ‘pre-qualification questionnaire’, with a scoring system, which is designed to select the short-list of systems for final tender and evaluation.

So the fourth step is to invite tenders.  It is appropriate to prepare a briefing document about your organisation and the venue(s) quoting volume and value of tickets sold, number of performances, size of venue(s) and variations in seating layouts.  It is necessary too to describe any membership or Friends’ schemes, any loyalty points or ‘frequent flyer’ type programmes, and the basis for subscription schemes and packages.

This document should include details of the number of customer records on the system and the period going back for which transaction records will be migrated.  Most organisations want their full transaction history for at least three years.  It is also necessary to specify the number of terminals the software is to be accessed from and their character and location. Accompanying this briefing document should be a description with dates of the timeline for the project.  This needs to specify:

  • The date and time tenders are to be received and in what form
  • The date of short-listing being completed
  • The date for evaluation sessions.
  • The date the ‘project’ is to start
  • The date installation and commissioning is proposed to start
  • The date training for staff is proposed to start
  • The date of any ‘live’ data migration
  • The date for ‘go-live’ of ticket sales on the new system

The Functionality Specification should be issued with the briefing document and timeline.  It is strongly recommended to specify that the Functionality Specification and the supplier’s response to it must form part of the contract for the supply of the system; any documentation supplied by the tenderer should form part of the contractual agreement.  Most suppliers would prefer at least two weeks to respond to a tender and it can be helpful (and save trees) to ask for electronic submissions in a standard format.  The Ticketing Institute Functionality Builder enables this.  It is usual to ask suppliers to give details of their standard hardware specification for servers and terminals.

It is usual to ask suppliers to score their response to each point on the Functionality Specification on a five point scale.  The recommended responses are as follows:

A            The requirement is met completely today

B            The requirement will be met completely in the next version to be released (within 6 months)

C            The system as supplied can be modified to meet the requirement (work-around)

D             The requirement can be met only by a tailor-made development

E            The requirement cannot be met

The simplest scoring system is to count the number of responses of each type.

Having scored the responses, it is useful to compile a comparative spreadsheet of the costs.  This can be difficult to compile on a like-for-like basis but is a key step to understanding the costs.  It is recommended to calculate a comparison of the five year cost of ownership.  Cost ought not to be the final consideration of short-listing since fitness-for-purpose should be premium, but clearly a system beyond the budget may require a return to a supplier and a request for a revised quotation.

The fifth step is to compile a short-list of those systems you wish to evaluate in detail.  It could be perfectly reasonable that this is only one system now, or perhaps two and at most three.  By now you should know what you want and who and what can meet your needs.   You should not be seeing any system where their functionality cannot meet your needs.

The sixth step is a formal evaluation.  This is not a further demonstration, but ideally a step by step working through of the Functionality Specification on a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) basis.  This can easily take a whole day and should not be rushed.  Some suppliers offer ‘analysis workshops’, sometimes at a cost, as a pre-contract stage, some provide a detailed ‘Scope of Work’ document to formalise and agree exactly what will be supplied and any specific development needs.

The seventh step is the negotiation of the contract.  This is not always straightforward and many arts organisations become exercised by the degree to which the system suppliers seek to evade all responsibility.  Unfortunately, money can be wasted on lawyers when the suppliers are simply unwilling to negotiate their standard terms.  Do not expect them to accept open liability for system failure and they are unlikely to guarantee support response and fix times.

After this the project can start.  Now the really interesting part begins: implementation.

For professional advice on procuring systems and evaluating systems and suppliers contact:

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