At this moment, the COVID crisis has meant we’ve all been unexpectedly catapulted into a new normal which demands – whether we’re ready or not – that we take a more urgent approach to digital transformation and innovation. The impact on our customers – whatever business we’re in – is far-reaching, and while many businesses move quickly to address their own immediate needs, we need to move as quickly to meet our customers where they’ve found themselves. We recently spoke to David Low, Chief Executive of The List, the UK’s leading events information service. For the past 25 years, David Low has worked in a variety of senior digital and media roles including STV, Skyscanner, Amazon and the BBC. He talks to us about the current business climate, and the critical need to adapt in the face of change.
For those of us whose fate in life has been to run a business, disruption has been something we’ve all doubtless experienced, effectively handled, and then marched on to live another day. At the helm of our respective operations, we’re used to the proverbial spanners in the works, and yet – it seems fair to say that almost none of us saw this latest crisis, perhaps the most profound and far-reaching, heading over the horizon to knock on our doors. I know I didn’t.
And here we are in uncharted waters, an unfamiliar, rapidly evolving situation. A situation in which it feels practically impossible for any of us to simultaneously meet the unexpected new needs of our business, our employees and our customers. If ever there was a need for quick, creative thinking, I think it just happened!
Crisis = Opportunity
Like most businesses, The List is experiencing a slump in activity as lockdown keeps us all indoors and the ‘going out’ industry non-existent.
But in every crisis comes opportunity and it’s been incredible to witness the phenomenal growth of online events as live-event lovers reach for their screens to enjoy our cultural offerings from their own front room. From Neil Young’s guitar-strumming direct from his fireside, to a virtual walk around the Sistine Chapel, to Dolly Parton’s bedtime storytelling, no one could accuse us of sitting around waiting for the ‘old normal’ to return …
From an initial merry band of artists denied the ability to perform or tour and now playing to small audiences via their social media channels, the nascent online events industry is on the verge of ‘going stratospheric’ as it starts to draw in big names, big brands, and at some stage, big audiences. We’re hungry for entertainment right now – and if we can’t get it at the pub or arena in town, we’ll get it on our laptops.
The List primarily exists to feed our demand for live events. For 35 years it’s evolved from pieces of paper flying around the office and (some pretty fantastic!) promo flyers from bands and theatres to a lean mean events promotions machine that has digital at its very heart. At certain points during our history, a shift to structured data collection at source – such as box offices and venues – has seen near-total automation of over 45,000 events across the UK, the most complete data set of its kind, and with a raft of benefits. Distribution of events by geography and other segments is now a burgeoning and popular data product, and as such, you’d think that online events would simply slot into that well-established process.
In essence, The List exists to open up choice. Choice of gig – small and local, or more stadium? Music more your thing, or perhaps you’re more of a comedian? Location – happy to travel, or can’t be bothered going further than the number 12 bus will take you? It’s this availability of choice around our personal entertainment that allows individuals, regardless of age, location and circumstance, to experience events on their terms. For example, everyone now knows about Joe Wicks and his health and fitness offering – since launching last month, his “PE With Joe” online sessions have garnered 32million streams, and he’s not alone. There are a ton of other online fitness and lifestyle gurus doing really well right now thanks to extensive promotions across national and social media. But perhaps the downside is that our local personal trainers trying to make a living via Zoom miss out, much like, say, an upcoming band’s gig in a pub getting no promotion on Radio 1, where an online gig from someone like Lewis Capaldi would be headline news. Established artists would sympathise that they needed good listings and exposure to develop their careers in the first place, and it goes without saying that Coronavirus shouldn’t stop that.
And yet, the rules were torn up overnight, and now they need to be rewritten. If someone is playing a gig in their house in London, but it’s streamed on Facebook, where is the gig? Would people searching for gigs in London find it? The List’s friends at GigsGuide were early entrants into this space created a “Paradise City” venue, acting as the setting for anyone’s online gig, and made for a fun way to solve a technical issue by removing the geography completely; in effect, Facebook became the ticketing platform rather than the venue. Our own “Venue 101”, inspired by The IT Crowd and it’s comedy “Internet” plastic box, extended the meme.
But then we started to notice kinks in this process, for example, speed-dating in Harrogate is a deliberately geographic product, conducted online, advertised on a specific site, and only really for promotion to a specific audience – they’re doing it to enable physical contact somewhere, once it’s safe. The Royal Albert Hall is promoting gigs which are really just some of their favourite artists playing at home – but they, like many other major venues, want their brand and location attached. SSE Hydro was in on the act this week too and we’re already seeing more than one venue promote duplicate “favourite artists” for the brand value. Who wins from that?
Gigs on Facebook are being added in a pretty scattergun way – some are events, some are live streams, some are a bit of both, some are just links on someone’s page to somewhere else. Some are aggregated by promoters or people who ‘know Facebook’ on behalf of technically-challenged artists, so the same URL appears for 10 gigs in a day. Are they advertising the promoter, the artist, or the event itself?
Some events spring up at short notice, so The List’s policy of asking for 2 weeks’ notice to advertise something suddenly feels like a lifetime. We often don’t know the link for a live stream until minutes before it starts, which would never happen with a ticketed venue. Fast, accurate data access has been key – something the big players aren’t always good at, and their definitions aren’t consistent. We’ve had to adapt and innovate like so many across every industry in order to keep delivering what our customers, followers, subscribers want, or at the moment need, from us.
In this lockdown period, we’re finding ourselves adjusting to a rapidly changing customer journey, as any good business should be. Part of this means addressing new technical challenges and trying to come up with new ways of doing things, where none were needed 3 weeks ago. Until then, events with no physical venue were not part of The List’s, or frankly anyone else’s data structure – the company pioneered an international standard for events venues, IVES, which hadn’t foreseen this situation at all. A schema which took years to define and accept, is temporarily redundant.
Finding ways for people to easily source and experience these numerous online events, and at the same time respond to these unique circumstances under which the artists and performers now find themselves (and who shouldn’t need to hibernate right now if they own a phone or a webcam) are big challenges and as a small business with very limited resources, we’re stretching every sinew to address them. In the meantime, Room 101 remains firmly open.
As our customers – their own lives wholly disrupted and challenged – turn to us for fast, relevant, valuable responses to their most pressing questions, it’s up to us to be on hand to answer them. By innovating quickly and decisively to meet their needs, accelerating our own innovation and digital transformation efforts, and ensuring we’re in a strong position to continue delivering the products and services our customers need in an increasingly uncertain climate, we’ll pivot ourselves to a steady front foot and be ready for the challenges ahead.