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Why arts organisations should invest in a bespoke website

Photograph of Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd

Project manager

The age of online ticket sales

Every year, more and more tickets are sold via the web. Arts ticketing provider Spektrix recently reported that 60% of all their transactions in 2018 were made online, up from 53% two years earlier and 43% another two years before that. And while the trend isn't limited to arts ticketing — sporting arenas, travel companies, and festivals are all moving their sales exclusively online — the arts are arguably where it matters most, because as public funding becomes scarcer, arts organisations increasingly rely on their box office income. If those same organisations aren't thinking seriously about their online sales, they're losing money.

Bespoke web development isn't cheap, of course; when Shakespeare's Globe sought proposals to redevelop their website two years ago, for example, they did so with a budget of £80,000, a number that might make your eyes water if your organisation runs on a tight budget. (Theirs was an exceptionally complex project; average costs for a new website are usually lower.) But while it's easy to understand why many organisations opt for a lower cost, out-of-the-box option, in the long run doing so is false economy.

Money isn't everything

Robert Frost called it the road not taken; economists call it opportunity cost. The point is, while you might save money upfront by forgoing bespoke development, in doing so you incur other long-term costs that aren't so easy to quantify:

  • When providers design a purchase flow that has to work adequately for everyone, it ends up working brilliantly for no one. Moreover, when your provider needs to make upgrades, it can often cause unanticipated changes that make your venue’s sales more difficult.
  • An out-of-the box solution also might not have all the features you want — a loyalty programme, for instance, or the ability to bundle up food and beverage sales. So you'll have to pass on ideas that might have brought in even more income, or implement them haphazardly.
  • Finally, out-of-the-box solutions can't adapt as easily to your organisation's needs. For example, the same Spektrix report quoted above noted there's "considerable unmet demand" for online bookings for customers with special access needs. But if you use an out-of-the-box solution and want to bring your accessible booking programme online, the chances are you'll need to change what your staff and customers do in order to work around the constraints of your system, rather than changing your website to fit what works best on the ground. Or, again, you’ll need to pass on something that would have brought in extra income — but either way, you’re eating into the money you “saved” by not investing in a custom website.

Until you have your own custom ticketing website you'll never know how many more tickets you could be selling

It's impossible to attach specific costs to things like this, because until you have your own custom ticketing website you'll never know how many more tickets you could be selling. But when you're considering an upfront fee for web development, it's important to keep in mind the bigger picture of what you are and aren't getting with something off the shelf.

...But money is still something

As much as you might agree that a bespoke website would be a better solution for your organisation, you simply might not have enough money to pay for one. In cases like these, obviously a short-term out-of-the-box solution is better than nothing, but that doesn't mean you have to be stuck with it forever. There are lots of opportunities for grants to fund web development, especially if your organisation is a small business, charity, or nonprofit; corporate sponsors might contribute to your costs in exchange for being featured on the finished site; and of course, because your online ticket sales are ultimately a marketing tool, portions of your marketing budget can and should be set aside for longer-term investments in making your website better.

There are lots of opportunities for grants to fund web development, especially if your organisation is a small business, charity, or nonprofit

Above all, remember that incremental gains add up quickly, so a bespoke website might pay for itself faster than you expect. For example, when Firefox trialled a new landing page for users looking to download the browser, they increased downloads by 15% — and that was just by improving the code to make the same page load faster! Even if you only sell 10 tickets a day, at the average UK theatre ticket cost of £27.10, a 15% increase is nearly £15k in extra turnover per year. And if, as is likely, you’re selling more than 10 tickets a day, the gains will be even larger. So try plugging in your organisation's ticket sales stats, and see how quickly a new website might go from the cost column to the revenue one.

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Photograph of Andrew Ladd

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