Optimising your online purchase pathway

Author: Ash Mann

I presented a session at this year’s Tessitura Europe Conference, which was held at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, on ‘Optimising your online purchase pathway’, this post highlights some of the key points.

No exceptions

It’s important to remember that your users’ interactions with your digital platforms don’t happen in a vacuum, no-one resets their expectations when they’re visiting a cultural organisation’s website.

Research carried out by Ofcom last year (2016) found that “the UK now spends more time online each day than sleeping” with the average adult Brit spending 9 hours a day online (which is both terrifying and ridiculous).

Your users are spending a lot of time online, and their expectations are set by where they spend most of their time, increasingly that’s with companies like Amazon, Facebook and Netflix.

These are the standards by which your digital experiences are judged. As well as being responsible for an ever-increasing proportion of your revenue, the expectations that are made of digital experiences are increasingly sophisticated and demanding.


People are impatient, multi-screening is a thing and, accordingly to some, average attention spans are now shorter than a goldfish’s (for reference, that’s about 9 seconds).

A user’s first interaction with your organisation is quite probably going to be with your website, and their first detailed interaction with you is quite probably going to be buying a ticket through your website.

This is importantIf that experience is clunky, or slow, or annoying, or confusing what does that do to their expectations of the experience they’re buying a ticket for?

This was a theme that was touched on elsewhere at the conference.

Whilst some long-form activities are growing in popularity (the bingeing of the whole of Stranger Things 2 in a weekend being a good recent example in my life) the reality is that no-one is blocking out time in their diary to come to your site and buy a ticket. Buying a ticket is not something that anyone looks forward to doing in and of itself, the ticket purchase is a means to an end. The purchase experience should not demand any more of their time and effort than absolutely necessary.

Our job should be to make it as easy as possible for the user to accomplish their goal, and get out of their way.

Factors that impact conversion rates

Getting people to part with their money online is tricky, so don’t make it any harder for them than it needs to be. There are a few fundamental things that I think it is worth highlighting, all of these issues have a marked effect on conversion rates:

1. Speed

Speed affects everything, millisecond changes in page load times have been shown to negatively impact conversion rates, bounce rates and basket size.

47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less.

Back in 2012 Amazon calculated that a page load slowdown of just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year. Google calculated that by slowing its search results by just four tenths of a second they could lose 8 million searches per day. And that was 5 years ago. People have almost certainly not become more patient in the intervening half decade.

It also has a huge impact on customer perception with research showing 79% of customers saying that dissatisfactory website performance would stop them buying from that company again.

Speed is boring, it isn’t sexy, and it is difficult to fix. However it is shown time and again to be one of the most significant factors affecting conversion rates.

2. Time.

It might seem like a different way of saying speed but the amount of time it takes for a user to complete a transaction has a significant impact on the effectiveness of your purchase pathway.

I’ve put time here rather than ‘number of steps’ because it’s not necessarily the number of steps that has the impact, it’s how long those steps take to complete. Are you asking more of the user than absolutely necessary? If you are then that will be having an effect. No-one wants to spend more time than absolutely necessary buying a ticket. People are time-poor and impatient, ruthlessly so.

3. Forced registration.

Every single piece of research I can find shows that forcing customers to register impacts your conversion rates.

Some research indicates that 30% of users will abandon the checkout if forced to register. I understand the desire to capture customer data, but all of the research says that in doing so you’re missing out on sales.

And if you do have to force registration then do you really need all of the data you’re asking for?

4. Form-filling.

Related to the above but there are, inevitably, quite a few forms involved in a checkout process. Poor form design, and poor error messages, are going to lose you sales.

Like speed, form design isn’t particularly sexy or exciting, it’s also fiddly, but get it right (or wrong) and you’ll notice the impact.

5. Design.

Ultimately if your digital experiences look bad, and are unpleasant to engage with then that is going to have an impact on your conversion rates.

When I say design I’m not just talking about how the thing looks, but what it’s like to engage with, user experience design is key and that encompasses far more than just what your webpages look like. Good user experience design underpins most of these points.

However there are also straight-forward design choices that can directly affect your conversion rates, the size, colour and placement of elements will impact how users interact with them – are you making it visually obvious about what the user needs to do to move forward through the process? 

6. Distractions.

Related to design but I think it warrants its own item on the list. There is an increasing body of research pointing to the fact that an ‘enclosed’ checkout process is more effective. What this means is removing most of the surrounding navigation and other content options in the checkout process.

By removing these myriad ‘escape routes’ you are forcing the user to focus on the task in hand, namely completing their transaction.

That doesn’t mean just presenting them with a totally stripped back screen that just has one form field on it, but it does mean only ever presenting them with the options and information they need to complete whichever step of the pathway they are currently on. This also vastly decreases the cognitive load on the user – by asking them to engage with, and process, fewer visual elements, you are greatly increasing the chances of them moving through the pathway rather than abandoning.

7. Words.

The copy you use on your site has a huge impact on conversion rates, we all know that, however I want to focus on one particular aspect of copywriting that’s often overlooked. Microcopy. The words that appear on your form fields, buttons, error messages and tooltips.

But these pieces of information are so small as to be meaningless? Wrong. A simple tweak from one word to another can have a marked impact on conversion rates, particularly if it relates to an important call to action or key user interaction, equally the wrong choice can stop users in their tracks and make them abandon their visit.

It’s easy for the wrong copy choice to quickly introduce ambiguity and confusion into the user experience. Words like ‘continue’ or ‘back’ may seem like appropriate choices but the potential for confusion is huge, does continue mean continue checking out, or continue shopping, does back take me back one step or back to the start, words like this are contextual, as in their meaning changes entirely depending on their context, similar issues could be found with words like ‘update’, ‘proceed’ and so on.

Whilst you know where the user will go after they click that button, they are unlikely to have that level of familiarity with your checkout process.

A lot of these things are quite easy to tweak and experiment with, and others (speed, time) are more difficult, or may be out of your control (you’re not going to be able to have a direct impact on the build performance of TNEW for example).

However I hope that by being aware of some of the factors that can affect the effectiveness of your purchase pathway you can begin to identify problems and solutions.

This stuff is hard.

Lots of people with much more time and money than any of us are still doing a perfectly terrible job of it.

Anyone who has ever tried to book a flight with Easyjet, or a ticket from Ticketmaster can tell you just how frustrating it is trying to push through a checkout process that is throwing upsell options at you on every screen, where the design is confusing, and where you’re not even sure if what you’re looking for is even going to available when you eventually get to the point you can select what you’re there to buy.

But the reality is that customer expectations aren’t slowing down, and increasingly companies are sorting their act out. So can we as a sector really afford to be left behind?

Your website is a single user experience

Often, especially at these conferences, you might hear people referring to ‘their marketing site’ or ‘their ticketing site’, which in the context of a conference is possibly valid.

However this internal nomenclature sometimes seems to translate into the customer being confronted with a very disjointed user experience between two platforms sometimes managed by entirely separate teams, who don’t talk to each other, supported by entirely separate agencies, who may not even be aware of each other’s existence.

No-one ever said ‘oh I had a really bad experience on the theatre’s marketing site’. Or ‘it was really easy to use the theatre’s ticketing site. To the user, it is one site, it is your site, and there needs to be some joined up thinking around that.

Someone needs to have some oversight of the entire digital experience (Chris Unitt wrote a good blog about that which you can find here), as I say, users don’t differentiate between different parts of your site, or your activity across channels.

There should be a consistency to that experience, fixing one part of your purchase pathway whilst another languishes simply because they’re nominally part of ‘two different systems’ is going to mean that your time and money isn’t getting the results it could, the user will still be getting a bad experience.

The purchase pathway is longer than you think

Depending on the user, the purchase path might look something like this.

  1. Google search
  2. Lands on what’s on
  3. Navigates what’s on
  4. Lands on production page
  5. Chooses dates
  6. Moves to seatmap
  7. Selects seats
  8. View cart
  9. Log in to/create account
  10. Choose shipping options
  11. Enter payment information
  12. Confirmation

There are a huge number of potential exit points in that 12 step process.

And that doesn’t even go into detail about any of the potential hurdles that each of those steps could throw into the user’s way.

And that’s probably a simplified version. However for brevity’s sake, let’s assume this is a typical purchase pathway. It doesn’t start at the seatmap, it doesn’t start at the what’s on page.

For the best results, you’re going to need to optimise every single step along that journey, one weak link will undermine any time you lavish on the other elements.

Easy(ish) fixes

I’d encourage you to be ruthless in asking how many of those steps are essential, how many are things that the user actually has to do in order to be able to complete their purchase and how many are there for other reasons.

Could some of these steps be combined? Can we surface important information earlier in the process so that the user always has enough information to be moving forward through the pathway? Every time a user has to move backwards along this journey, you hugely increase the risk of them abandoning the process.

Are you using techniques like rich snippets and schema markup to enable Google to show key information at the earliest point you can in this pathway (i.e. the search engine result) – if you are then Google can display information around date, time, price and venue in search results – this means that from the earliest point the user is moving into the purchase pathway equipped with a useful level of information.

Once users are on your site: How do they want to navigate your what’s on? By date? By artform? By price? Are you letting them do this?

Are you using the same language in your what’s on as you are in your other comms?

If you have a lot of events are you letting the user know what they’re looking at?

If you have filters, are they non-arts-people-readable? In trying to provide ways for people to navigate your programme are you in fact providing a pretty overwhelming and confusing array of options?

Once they get to the production page, are you telling them everything they need to know? Are you telling them which performances are sold out or which ones only have £100 tickets left? If they’ve followed a link from a campaign that’s promoting £15 tickets are you making it easy for them to identify which performances still have availability at that price?

When they reach the seatmap, is it obvious what the likely rainbow of coloured dots means? What about the stars or whatever other shapes there are? It is obvious how they find out how much a seat costs before they add it to their basket? It is clear where the restricted view seats are? Is it obvious what restricted view even means? Is it clear how they can add a seat to their basket? And is it clear how they move forward through the pathway?

Are you offering guest checkout? If you are forcing them to create an account, which information are you making mandatory for them to supply? Why is that? Have you fine-tuned any error messages associated with this process so that they’re clear and human-readable

This point is particularly raw with me after spending a number of tries trying to create an account recently only to be told each time that I hadn’t ‘submitted the required information’ – that’s all it told me, and it was only on about the fifth time that I realised I needed to tell them which salutation to use – there was no indication that this was a required field and even if there had been – salutation!? seriously!? Why is that required!?

When was the last time you bought something on your site?

But before we talk about how you can diagnose issues, and fix them, it’s worth asking…

What’s the user experience like on your site?

It’s very easy, in our day to day jobs, whilst we’re attending to any one of the thousand things competing for our attention, and whilst everything is nominally ‘fine’, that there are hundreds or thousands of people interacting with your website at any given time.

When was the last time you used your website to buy a ticket? And if it was recently, was it in the way that most of your users are trying to buy a ticket?

When was the last time you talked to users about how they found using your website?

When was the last time you watched someone trying to use your site? There’s nothing more humbling and, in some cases, harrowing, than watching someone trying to carry out a task on your site.

How many steps are there in your purchase pathway? Are they all necessary? Like, actually, necessary. And by necessary I mean essential-in-order-that-the-user-can-complete-the-transaction, not necessary as in ‘we need to capture data’ or necessary in the sense of ‘we have to tell them about the education work we do’. I mean, from the user’s point of view, actually, really necessary?

It’s so easy to view the website as something that just requires patching up, or smashing apart and totally rebuilding, as infrequently as you can get away with. Or to agree to changes based on internal needs without fully interrogating the knock-on impact this will have on key user experiences – such as the purchase pathway.

I’d urge you to consider the website as an ongoing project that requires nurturing and developing you will spot little problems before they become big ones and also be able to easily run experiments and tests so that everything you do on your site is measurable.

On the other hand if your ship has sprung 1000 tiny holes and you haven’t noticed then you’re going to drown before too long.

Spotting the problems

How can you work out where the problems might be in your purchase pathway? First you need to be acutely aware of all the component parts of your purchase pathway and the role you expect them to play. If you aren’t then it’s difficult to tell what success looks like and whether or not you’re achieving it.

You know I’m going to mention it sooner or later, but Google Analytics – deployed via Google Tag Manager can be configured to provide invaluable insights into how the various parts of your site are performing.

Out of the box, Google Analytics isn’t particularly useful, it can tell you lots and lots about nothing that’s especially meaningful, however with some relatively straightforward tweaks it can be configured so that you can isolate particular user behaviour.

Analytics is great for gathering quantitative data, it can give you indications on where problems might be. Once you’ve begun to identify where the problems or pinch points might be you can use heatmapping and session recording tools such as Hotjar, Crazyegg or Zarget (yes, they all have terrible names) to record actual user behaviour in these scenarios.

These tools allow you to see how users are actually interacting with your site, where they’re clicking, how far they’re scrolling and more. You can also see playbacks of actual user interactions on your site. These insights can be invaluable for identifying what is, and isn’t working.

They can also be used for a/b testing and gathering other feedback mechanisms such as polls and surveys. If you’ve not experimented with tools like this I’d really encourage you to give them a go, all of them have a free tier of one sort or another.

It’s worth noting that deploying some of these tools may require a tweak in the wording of your website privacy policies, but the data you can gather is invaluable.

Some conclusions?

If you haven’t recently tried buying a ticket on your site, or carried out any user testing then do this first. Once you’ve done this, use some of the tools (or others!) to help identify a) how users are using your site and b) where issues are.

There are some good primers on how to run user testing here, here and here.

Identify the component parts of your purchase pathway and be really clear about the role each step plays in the user journey – does it all need to be there?

Do what you can to remove unnecessary steps from the pathway, things that might be nice-to-have from an organisational standpoint are likely to be irritating or obstructive to the user. Ask yourself why you’re putting things in their way. Also, wherever you can, look to increase the speed of your digital platforms – focusing on build performance is difficult, and technical, but it works.

Consider the design of your purchase pathway, ask yourself about why each element is on the page – is it helping the user complete the tasks they’re there for, at that moment in the pathway? If not, lose it.

And lastly, experiment; with language; with design. I’d recommend exploring multivariate testing tools – which can be deployed via tools like Hotjar or Google Optimize – so that you can test variations of design and copy.

Test your assumptions, put them in front of users and be ruthless about how you’re measuring success, if something doesn’t work then don’t persist with it in the vague hope that it’ll eventually become a good idea.


Make sure everything you do is rooted in providing the best possible experience for your users, and make sure you know what ‘the best possible experience’ means for your users. Understand how that experience might be compromised and push back against that wherever possible.

Make every element of your user experiences as clear as you can, again, ask yourself – what does the user need to know and to do in this scenario, and are we making it as easy as possible for them to do so?

And lastly, make it simple. there will undoubtedly be things that you can remove from the key user journeys, be ruthless about this. Every compromise you make on this front will have a negative impact on your conversion rates. You want to force account creation? Fine, but do some testing around that, what will the impact be? What is the cost vs benefit? 

Users are fickle, impatient and lazy when it comes to transactional digital experiences. We all are. Let’s recognise that and make it as easy as possible for people to buy a ticket.