This article has been updated.  Fairly obviously, for most organisations selling tickets, they rely on ticketing system suppliers and their Internet ticketing engine developers to make sure that their on-line sales front-end is optimised, so ticket purchasers get the best experience and are most likely to buy.  However, organisations selling tickets must take some responsibility for pressing their suppliers to develop better solutions that meet the needs of the marketplace in 2018.

Ever made the mistake of answering a stranger’s “what do you do?’ question with “ticketing”? Common reactions are either the stories of how difficult it is to buy tickets (usually referring to high demand events), especially parents buying tickets for their kids, with websites getting a lot of blame, or you are talked to as if you’re a white collar criminal working in a fundamentally corrupt business! I can usually explain both, but it seems increasingly hard to do so over the justified complaints about the on-line ticket buying experience.

enable customers to buy tickets the way they would want

I always remember a colleague Richard at Dataculture in 1999 (taken over by, as we agonised about adding on-line ticket purchase to the Databox ticketing system, saying it would be different if, instead of enabling current ticket sales methodology on-line, we were looking at how to enable customers to buy tickets the way they would want using a web browser.

As far as I can see, reinforced by my own on-line purchase experience, the perspective hasn’t changed much in 17 years. There has been a benefit from increased broadband speeds, though too many on-sales are marred by poor server responses even at modest traffic levels. But we haven’t seen the purchase flow improved and optimised that much, or reoriented to how attenders might want to go about it. The “why don’t they remember me?” complaint seems very valid. Retail stores have adopted on-line selling and gone out of their way to help the buying process, with reminder emails when customers exit without purchasing, or advice on new discounts or time-limited purchase offers, and an effective e-marketing dialogue.

lessons to learn in how not to do it

If we extend ticketing experiences to include railways, it can give us lessons to learn in how not to do it. Ticket machines at stations are effectively on-line front-ends, and watching passengers trying to purchase tickets from them is salutary. The transaction flow process is plainly not what the passengers expect. OK, it is straightforward to start with selecting a destination and then ticket type, but it goes wrong here. Where do I choose Off-Peak which I know to be valid but is greyed out? Where do I choose a Railcard?

At Cambridge, UK there are two routes to London, with different fares, but the destination of London according to route is not presented  in a way that passengers immediately see. Fortunately there is a ticket counter and the staff don’t mind that the machines are poor, because they get a queue of people who have purchased the wrong ticket-type/fare and need refunds and a replacement purchase, which keeps the staff in work. Apparently the on-train guards have to be forgiving of the numbers of people who have bought the tickets for the wrong route.

there is room for improvement

Are we much better in arts, entertainment and sports? Fundamentally, Yes, since despite the arguments of the secondary ticketers, most people don’t end up buying tickets they didn’t want. But compared with how on-line purchase in other sectors has moved on, there is room for improvement.  And customers are judging us by their on-line and digital inter-actions.  Are we behind the times?

What about the What’s On search? Can I choose to search by date or week or month or time of performance? What about ticket availability? Does it obviously tell me, searching for 2 tickets, when it is down to singles? Can I seek a specific seat location?  Can I choose a price and a number of seats and search across a run for availability? When do I specify the make-up of my party so I can see child and pensioner discount availability, before selecting prices and seats?

Note I started at the ‘What’s On search’, but what about recognising me as a returning customer? Why does Virgin Trains remember me, wants to check on my Railcard status, and keeps my credit card purchase details etc., but my local venue does not? This is going to become significant because General Data Protection Regulation in Europe from May this year (2018) is going to require a very specific permission and recognition regime, ironically in the interests of the venue as much as the customer. We should make it possible for the ticketing engine to know if people are members or subscribers, frequent flyers, etc., perhaps even remember their preferred ticket type and seat location?  This takes us into Segmentation, but that’s a separate topic.

optimise to help people buy tickets

Of course, the number of people purchasing on mobile devices means we could recognise them even more easily, and simply offer near one-click purchase, perhaps optimised for last minute and near door sales. And tickets could always be supplied as on-device or print-at-home.

But how many systems enable a group to reserve seats and pay separately? This may seem a big ask when some systems haven’t yet got a shopping cart for multiple event purchases!  And my experience of dedicated Apps, such as the Picturehouse cinema chain’s, is that these are a step back, not forward.

So can the New Year Resolution be to put ‘User Experience First’ and optimise to help people buy tickets?  Bound to be a topic at Ticketing Professionals Conference, this March too.


Roger Tomlinson

2 January 2018