I was excited to present at the Arts Marketing Association conference 2022 in Birmingham the other week, with my (admittedly clickbait-y) session titled: Why You Should Get Rid Of Your What’s On Page.
Spoiler alert: the takeaway was not that everyone should immediately and indiscriminately get rid of their website’s What’s On pages. Instead, the session looked at the shortcomings of What’s On pages, and how you can replace them with more streamlined and useful user experiences on your own website.
But first things first…
What’s wrong with What’s On pages?
At the highest level, the problem with What’s On pages is that they’re trying to serve many different audiences, each trying to accomplish different things. In trying to cater to everyone a little bit they end up catering to nobody well.
For example, when most people come to your website to buy a ticket to an event, they probably have a pretty specific goal in mind: they either want to come on a specific day, or they want to see a specific show. It’s easy to see why funnelling both these groups into the same place might cause problems. The date-sensitive group wants a calendar and the show-sensitive group wants a search bar. Crucially, neither of them just wants to know “what’s on.”
And though every venue wishes they had a huge pool of customers who don’t care what they see or when they see it, and will buy a ticket just because they’re loyal to the venue… Well, not every venue is so lucky.
But even if you do have loyal customers who buy whatever you’re selling, you probably shouldn’t wait for them to visit your What’s On page. On the contrary, you should be actively selling to them: that’s why you have Facebook advertising and remarketing pixels and email newsletters. If you’re waiting for them to wake up one morning and decide to check your website, you’re doing something wrong.
Moving up the marketing funnel
While I was at the AMA I saw a great session by James Akers from the Digital Culture Network, where he went through — among other things — the stages of the marketing funnel. If you were at that session, you’ll recognise the date- and show-sensitive ticket purchasers I mention above as sitting at the bottom of the funnel, in the “Conversion” and “Loyalty” stages. They’ve already bought something, or decided to.
So what about the earlier stages of the funnel? Doesn’t the What’s On page serve a useful purpose for people who are thinking about buying (the “consideration” stage) or just hearing about you as a venue for the first time (the “awareness” stage)?
In some ways, yes, a list of all your shows can be helpful in these scenarios. If someone’s at the consideration stage and browsing your What’s On page, they might see something they're interested in and move into the conversion stage. Ideally they'll see more than one show they’re interested in and end up buying both: more sales for you.
But on the other hand, if someone’s browsing an alphabetical or chronological list of shows—the kind you find on a What’s On page—it’s unlikely that the shows listed next to each other have any relation or relevance to one another, so a user browsing the What's On page will likely end up seeing a lot of content they don't care about. Why would I be interested in Andrew’s Stand-Up Comedy Show just because I’m also interested in Anna’s Hour of Experimental Modernist Monologues? It's not reasonable to expect someone at the consideration stage to browse your entire programme just in case they find something they like.
Similarly, if someone’s at the awareness stage and taking a first look at your website to figure out what you do as a venue, they could do worse than your What’s On page—but they could also do a lot better. What if they happen to visit between on-sales, or when the first thing listed is a show that’s getting terrible press?
For users at the awareness stage, you need to give them more than just a list of shows, or they’ll never move down that funnel: you need to take them by the arm and explain who you are, what your mission is, what to expect during a visit, and above all why they should come. A What’s On page simply doesn’t do that.
Never mind these specific examples, though. The marketing funnel itself makes clear why What’s On pages are inadequate. Namely, they’re trying to serve users at every stage of the funnel—awareness, consideration, conversion, and loyalty—all in a single place. Where else would you ever do that in a marketing campaign?
Writing clearer calls to action
So far we’ve talked about the shortcomings of What’s On pages in terms of their content. But on most venue websites, What’s On is also a primary navigation item or homepage call to action (or both), and this presents its own user experience problems.
Consider, by comparison, a navigation item like “search.” The great thing about this is that it’s very clear what you’re going to get when you click it: a way to search the website. But even more importantly, you’re going to get the same thing when you click “search” on every website. With What’s On, that’s not the case.
For example, on the Scottish Ballet’s website, clicking “What’s On” gives you a list of all their productions for the current season. But on the English National Ballet website, clicking “What’s On” gives you not only their productions, but their tours, their classes and workshops, their Zoom and digital events… And on the Birmingham Royal Ballet website, “What’s On” lists only productions again—except that they offer classes and workshops too, and list them elsewhere, under “Get Involved.”
And this is just ballet websites! When you start to cast your net wider, the contents of the What’s On pages get more varied still. Certainly they list things that are “on” in the broadest sense. But to someone who visits a lot of different venue websites, it’s confusing that the same navigation item often means something different on each.
More importantly, all these points indicate that “What’s On” probably isn’t a very good call to action to begin with. If I want to book tickets to see a ballet, I have a very different set of interests and needs than if I want to sign up for a ballet class. Either way, “What’s On” doesn’t address those needs or give me confidence I’m going to find what I want there. If instead I was presented with two different, more specific calls to actions—like “book tickets” and “sign up for classes”—I would feel much more certain about which part of the site would help me.
Improving the user experience
In my session at the AMA conference I showed the websites for the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, which both demonstrate a more nuanced approach to listing events. These websites address the different user journeys that What’s On pages tend to lump together, and provide different pathways into the same content, tailoring those pathways to specific user needs.
For example, on both sites, date-sensitive users get a clear “calendar” call to action, which takes them to a page where they can browse by date. Likewise show-sensitive users get “season,” which takes them to a place where they can browse by show. Ultimately all users end up in the same place: a page to buy a ticket for a specific show on a specific date. But by providing different routes to those pages, New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera make it easier for every user to find what they need, rather than forcing them all through the same, nebulous “What’s On” page.
We took a similar approach when we were rebuilding the website for Ely Cathedral. The key call to action in Ely's navigation bar is “Book tickets,” which provides a quick action for people looking to visit the cathedral or attend a specific event.
But the homepage and several other key landing pages also have a calendar widget right at the top of the window. This shows every event coming up that day, with the option to pick another date or visit a full, separate calendar page, giving date-sensitive users a clear way to get what they need. Better yet, it also captures another common user journey on venue websites: people trying to double-check what time their event is before they turn up. On most venue websites, this requires a journey through the What’s On page to find the right event; on Ely’s site, the information is available as soon as the site first loads.
Venue websites need event listings
As I said at the start, I’m not advocating that everyone scrap their What’s On pages immediately, just for the sake of it. If your venue puts on shows… Your website is going to need somewhere to list all those shows.
But a single What’s On page that lists everything for everyone in the same place seems like a very analogue way of dealing with the problem, a holdover from when your only tool to connect users with your programme was a printed brochure.
If, instead, you try to understand how people are actually engaging with your programme online—and just as importantly, how they’re failing to—you can start to come up with creative solutions that improve your website for your users, rather than relying on the same overly generic navigation patterns everyone else uses.
When you start doing that, your users will be happier, you’ll be happier, and you’ll probably find that you don’t miss your What’s On page very much at all.
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