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Libby Penn: Your theatre’s website needs work

The Guardian has axed its culture professionals network The Guardian has axed its culture professionals network. Photo: JMiks/Shutterstock
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We need to talk about your website.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s beautiful – gorgeous even. You’ve put a lot of thought into the creative side and how you showcase what’s on. But that’s just half the story.

It’s possible that you have made your calls to action hard to find, potentially overloaded your pages with too much information, not fully considered how the site will look and work on a mobile device, and in some cases created a purchase journey that takes too long to complete – maybe even sending customers to a second website in order to complete the transaction.

These are just a few of the symptoms of what I’ll call the ‘big three problems’ with arts websites that are putting off customers and pushing away potential donors.

Let’s put customers first

While customers clearly appreciate well-designed, visually attractive websites, not enough attention is paid to user experience. I’m not talking about a deep dive into UX (user experience), but how many of us have taken our own sites for a test drive from home page to purchase?

Your website should be a primary revenue generator

If we did, we’d find that a lot of our sites make it difficult to book tickets. They hide listings behind drop-down menus, and force us to read lengthy pages requiring a lot of scrolling. If I’m looking to make a purchase with a smartphone all I want are basics – who, when and how much. Making me read pages of text on a tiny screen will almost certainly drive me elsewhere.

If your website is going to be a primary generator of revenue and engagement, each click or tap should be funnelled towards a booking. Customers should also be able to take advantage of all the other services you would expect at the box office, such as buying memberships, applying offers, priority booking and cross-selling events and merchandise.

Show me, don’t tell me

It’s still common to see event information presented as a heavy block of text describing a production, which misses the mark in terms of speaking to potential bookers about the experience they are likely to purchase.

Museums and galleries are professional curators and as such they tend to do a good job of showing what they’re trying to sell. But this doesn’t happen as much in the performing arts. You’ve put so much effort into creating an interesting programme – your website should show it off.

The audience is not a faceless mass

Finally, our websites rarely seem to be built for diverse audiences. They tend to speak to customers as a universal group with the same interests and in the same tone of voice, rather than reflecting the broad variety of people their programme attracts.

How did we get here?

Only 47% of cultural organisations have a mobile-friendly website. Why is the arts industry lagging behind others in the online realm? That one’s a bit harder to unpick.

There’s clearly a skills gap. Some marketing directors will have started their careers before the internet even existed and not enough people of any generation have both marketing and technical skills. Arts organisations often leave the big decisions about online capability and technical approach to their web development agencies.

Artistic directors and producers have too much sway in marketing

Lack of budget is an obvious problem. Month-to-month we still spend too much on print distribution, traditional advertising, and print direct mail. Website changes are thought of as ‘projects’ – engaged every two to three years with a defined start and finish – which is a huge mistake in 2015. Audiences, technology and the internet change much more rapidly than that. Surely a better approach would be to have a website that can be revised and refreshed incrementally as you, the internet, and the audience evolve?

Traditional ticketing platforms are another issue. They can be inflexible, and force you to integrate third-party ecommerce portals that take customers to a separate site to complete the ticket purchase. The ecommerce technology available today makes the purchase path integral to the entire design of the website and allows you to keep customers within your own branded online environment.

I tread on this final point carefully but it’s worth saying – artistic directors and producers have too much sway over the story we tell customers. Does Amazon write three paragraphs of copy about every product it sells? Nope. What it does do, brilliantly, is demonstrate to customers what it’s like to use the product, concisely and visually, and then pushes them to make a purchase decision.

Seven steps to online nirvana

First, start by rethinking the role of your website. It deserves to be at the strategic and operational centre of what you do as an organisation.

Second, spend less on print. Interactive media and being able to buy tickets online makes your website a far better sales tool than a static piece of throwaway collateral.

Third, when you engage a web development agency, make sure the brief describes the user journeys and the customer experience you want to achieve. Focus on that and not how it should look.

Fourth, encourage staff to upskill by asking questions. Arts staff need to be fearless when it comes to website functionality and be able to demystify any technical jargon that’s thrown at them. You should also allow those on your team with experience of, and a passion for curating amazing digital content, to ‘own’ internal management of the site’s content.

Fifth, benchmark your site against other ecommerce sites regularly, and look beyond your own industry to see who’s getting it right.

Sixth, work with the right people. Pick vendors who you see yourself having a long-term relationship with, given that you’ll now be making improvements to your site’s functionality on a regular basis.

Draw on both their sector and technical expertise. They should be excited at the prospect of helping you do something amazing and be proactively offering support and guidance on best practice without being prompted.

Seventh, use data from web analytics and ticketing to measure how the website is performing as a sales channel. Ask for feedback from customers and website visitors and be prepared to invest in small tweaks on an ongoing basis, based on what the data and feedback is telling you.

Start anew – and keep going

For many arts organisations, the website is a 24/7 virtual box office. It’s there to sell tickets. And as form follows function, look and feel elements are only important insofar as they help us sell.

Realistically, I am telling many of you that it’s time for a new website – but in 2015 that needn’t cost the earth. There is an expanding universe of customisable WordPress templates, widgets and apps to keep the front end of the site on-brand, while behind the scenes a new generation of ecommerce technologies integrate easily with WordPress and other website platforms, making it vastly easier to keep customers on your site from seat selection to credit card receipt.
Arts websites need to work harder – to sell the programme, the venue, the organisation and finally the tickets. It’s an odd paradox that the creative industry isn’t better at using the online medium to engage customers in creative ways. With a rethink of the role that arts websites serve, we need to transform them from awkward digital brochures to powerful, revenue-driving tools.

Libby Penn is the managing director of Spektrix

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