StubHub, platforms, and the challenge of far too many empty seats…


I was thinking about open ticket markets and a relatively closed market like we have in the United States over the last few days and the ongoing sales process that involves eBay looking to sell StubHub.

In general, I am a proponent of having more means of open distribution like you see in Europe where companies receive allocations of tickets and are incentivized to market and sell tickets to ensure that they continue to be able to receive tickets.

As I’ve been reading articles about the decline in attendance at college football games, baseball games, and pretty much everywhere. I’ve drawn a few conclusions and that’s one that I think is pretty familiar to folks around the world: the biggest challenge facing the business of tickets and experiences is one of marketing.

By this I mean that in far too many places we just aren’t doing a very good job of bringing the basics of modern marketing or the best practices of marketing and sales 101 to the way that tickets and experiences are sold.

Which gets me back to the overwhelming utilization of platforms to sell tickets in the States.

Far too often, we are finding that our content producers are wed pretty tightly to one platform on the primary side, maybe one on the secondary side, and they can find themselves stuck in a position where there is little control to their strategies and their marketing and selling.

In looking through this idea, I’ve come back to three insights that I think are the most important to keep in mind. (And, are likely relevant to anyone selling tickets or experiences to anything.)

When you are so platform-dependent, you see the following things pop up over and over:

  1. You may gain data, but you have no relationship with the consumer.
  2. You often end up as a commodity and not differentiated in your positioning.
  3. You end up at the mercy of your platform partners’ marketing and sales efforts.

Let me explain these a little more completely.

You get data, but you don’t have a relationship:

For some reason, it feels like everyone is chasing data constantly now and that data is always held up as the saving grace of every new initiative.

Recently, we’ve seen the bidding for StubHub allegedly include people like Vivid Seats and Fanatics. With Fanatics coming in late in the process under what has been described as a potential play for StubHub’s data.

Obviously, knowing more about your customers is better than knowing less, but there are limits to what data can and can’t do for you.

In the way that many organizations are using their data and partnering with platforms to gain more data, they seem to be making the assumption that all data is good data.

When all data isn’t good data.

All data is just a lot of data.

Relevant and contextual data is the really important stuff.

In the process of chasing data at all costs, many organizations have lost the art of building relationships.

What is missed in this lack of relationship-building is the reality that the most important data could be gleaned more efficiently if organizations, teams, and venues did a better job of relationship building and managing the relationship from cradle-to-grave of their fans, supporters, and guests.

Just the other day, I got an email about a playoff ticket pre-sale from an MLB baseball team that I don’t remember having received an email from in several years.

Maybe they have my information from years back, maybe they are utilizing partner data that shows I went to about 3-4 baseball games this year, or maybe they are spraying and praying. The point is that I looked at an email from the team after not receiving an email for years as a little sketchy and a little desperate.

I think about it in the same way that no one pays full price at J.Crew any longer. They discounted and acted desperately so much that it never seems like I should pay full price.

Compare that someone like Apple that never really discounts. When I need a new phone, I buy it. Laptop, same.

Two things set Apple apart from J.Crew or many organizations:

  1. They own me as a customer. I’m brand loyal and don’t shop around for my Apple products.
  2. They market to me consistently not just when they are in a snit because their iPhone sales are down.

In today’s world, the tools to achieve a greater degree of knowledge about your customer exists everywhere. For sports or other experience organizations, you can easily do any of the following that would go a good way towards developing a better relationship with your audience. This list isn’t anywhere near complete, but here are several ideas that you can use to gain relevant and contextual information that you can use constantly:

  1. Create a membership program like teams like Tottenham Hotspur or Man City do that offers value, connection to a global fanbase, and gives you the chance to engage with your fans year-round.
  2. Develop a frequent guest program that could look something like Starbucks’ rewards program or Peet’s or any number of frequent guest programs. The technology to drive these is pretty simple and you turbocharge it by adding in the membership program data too.
  3. Have a content calendar that uses assets that you own like your website, your email list, and your building to drive engagement, data collection, and other information to you and not through partners.

I could go on, but the key is that you must return your focus to owning the relationship with your customers and the tools that can deliver on this promise readily available.

You often become a commodity and that’s a problem: 

I have a number of friends and colleagues that take the point of view that a ticket is a commodity and I’ve often pushed back on that.

But, lately, I’ve come around to the idea because if you are neglecting to sell an event as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which every live event or experience is, you are a commodity because you’ve done absolutely nothing to differentiate yourself from every other event or experience going on in your market or in other markets where the events are being broadcast.

This is only emphasized further by the nature of how the platforms market and sell your tickets and experiences.

Do a Google search for any event you might be thinking about, I’ll wait.

I did Madonna in Brooklyn tomorrow night (September 19th, 2019) because I went to her “Confessions of a Dancefloor” tour at MSG and despite being hotter than hell, it was awesome!

The point is that I know from reading the WSJ article about the tour launch yesterday that there are VIP options available. I know the venue is intimate. I know several things.

But when I visit the sales page, primary tickets are mixed in with secondary tickets. VIP tickets aren’t well marked. There isn’t a lot there to build anticipation of the event that is likely really cool because it is seeing Madonna in a venue of the size that you would never have seen her since she was just starting out.

I point out this because this happens across the board for events.

Your event is presented as a standard Thursday night in NYC, not the once-in-a-lifetime event that this most definitely is.

At what cost are you allowing your events and games to become commodities with your pricing flying up or down built on uncontrollable or difficult to control buzzwords like “buzzy”, “hot”, or “huge”.

The thing about this is that these once-in-a-lifetime events are too precious and valuable to allow to become commodities, especially with “The Experience Economy” being a bigger part of people’s attention and their recreational spend.

The answer, again, to controlling the narrative around your events and not allowing them to fall into commodities is:

  1. Marketing better and consistently.
  2. Storytelling.
  3. Creating more and more value that is unique for your buyers and potential buyers.

In the end, you become a pawn at the mercy of your partners and platforms to market and sell you effectively: 

This is the worst thing in the world to happen to a lot of companies.

I was listening to Scott Galloway talks about how dangerous Amazon is for retailers, not the stores, but the people selling products because on a whim they can change the way your product is presented, if is presented, or the terms of your relationship and you have no power.

That comment was the one that got me started down this rabbit hole of platforms.

I did a really well-received webinar for the NATB a few years back where I talked about if you rely on platforms like StubHub, Vivid Seats, or Ticketmaster to sell your tickets, you aren’t anything but a commodity.

I went on to highlight that you have to have something of unique value that you can use to differentiate yourself and make your tickets more valuable to the platforms you are partnering with.

This is a lesson that everyone can and should learn because it plays itself out daily.

I’ve been working with a few events around the country and I’ve needed to partner with the secondary market to ensure that tickets are available in places that people are likely to search for them.

I’ve learned 2 important lessons, at least:

  1. Your primary partner contract can make or break you.
  2. You don’t want to be at the mercy of having to figure out how to effectively use the primary and secondary market once you’ve gone on-sale because you are at their mercy once you’ve made a deal with your platforms.

This is important to keep in mind because it is all about strategy. Which I’ll remind you comes down to 3 points:

  1. Your value
  2. Your customer
  3. How you are reaching them

Back to the platforms, you might be listed on a platform, but if they aren’t allocating spend to promote your event when you need to be promoted, you are at the whims of them and you have to figure how to scramble and fill in the void in your marketing and sales efforts that you were hoping to have alleviated by your platform partners.

And, if the same lack of urgency befalls you on the primary side…well, good luck!

You’ve now fallen into the commodity trap.

All 3 of these points really come down to marketing, strategy, and focus. Things we all talk about with great frequency, but often don’t execute on with enough consistency.

Which brings me back to StubHub and the sale of the top platform on the secondary market. eBay is going to make a lot of money off their initial investment, I’m sure of this. But the company that buys StubHub under the hope of utilizing their data more effectively to open up another market or revenue stream likely needs to be reminded of my warning about Big Data versus contextual data.


Because we’ve seen this story before and it typically ends poorly for the business making this play.

What say you? Let me know in the comments!

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