To bid or not to bid? How a theatre tickets agency delivered a star performance on Search – Think with Google

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Ryan Woods is sales and marketing director at London Theatre Direct. George Whitaker is senior account director at digital marketing agency Brainlabs, which is helping the company drive reach and effectiveness on Search.
Every night, London’s West End theatres bring in close to 100,000 people across more than 50 venues. That’s a significant amount of tickets to sell, week in, week out.
While shows have long taken care of traditional media, such as billboards and press, many rely on online retailers to look after “the magic” — selling tickets on the web. As one of the first online vendors in the West End, London Theatre Direct (LTD) has scaled quickly, with our success underpinned by excellence in paid search marketing.
But after more than a decade of enjoying high visibility on Search for people looking to buy tickets for major shows, we needed to reassess our performance marketing strategy. The only thing holding us back? Finding the time to do it in an industry that (we thought) never goes dark.
The pandemic lockdowns were catastrophic for the theatre industry as venues closed and ticket sales came to a halt. One thing it did give us, however, was the opportunity to take the time to assess how the market and customer journeys had changed.
In our Search campaigns, we bid on keywords — words and phrases that people type into Google to find tickets for shows. As consumer behaviour changed, we had to rethink our generic campaigns, which was a major challenge.
We also anticipated an explosion of interest when theatre doors reopened post-Covid, both in the U.K. and from abroad. We wanted to be ready to capture new and unexpected demand when that time would come, especially around search terms such as “best London musicals”, for short-term wins and long-term growth. That’s what brought us to broad match, a tool that finds all relevant searches that are expected to perform for you.
Broad match uses machine learning to understand complex consumer intent signals on Search. We also leveraged Brainlabs' proprietary search structure, D'Artagnan, which drives incremental volume by opening us up to relevant traffic via broad match.
This means our ads can show up for searches related to the meaning of a keyword. This was especially helpful to us because we were ready to capture wider demand from a range of search terms people use to find ideas for entertainment in London.
It also helps our ads match against foreign language search terms. We don’t need multiple landing pages for different languages: automation ensures that our ads are served to users likely to engage with — and convert on — English language content. Pre-pandemic, London attracted more than 21 million overseas tourists a year — many of which go to shows — so it was a critical audience for us to reach when international travel resumed.
In testing, we saw very quickly that — paired with Smart Bidding — we could extend the reach and effectiveness of our campaigns with broad match and without the need for an extensive keyword list. For example, we were able to get incremental conversions on the search term “things to do in London” through a “London theatre tickets” broad match keyword.
To bid on that keyword would have historically been incredibly expensive on a manual basis, but we’ve seen a return on advertising spend (ROAS) of as much as 1,000%.
These results have led us to use this approach and target ROAS bidding as standard for all our generic campaigns. We no longer have fixed budgets or any sort of artificial cap on our campaigns; our bids automatically flex up and down in line with demand, and we plug in our first-party data to ensure every ticket sold online is profitable.
Automation has enabled us to scale seamlessly and quickly in line with demand — especially in overseas markets. If we were still focused on running U.K. campaigns on a manual basis, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.
Even though it took the downtime during lockdowns for us to find the bandwidth to rethink how we connect with our customers, we realise we can’t — and wouldn’t want to — wait for another complete halt in our business to update our performance marketing strategy. It’s an always-on process. The good news: making your campaigns more automated, once done, saves more time than you ever put in.
Use broad match to shape demand. Utilising broad match keywords enabled LTD to reach more customers at the top of the funnel.
Ensure your budgets are flexible. LTD used a tROAS bidding strategy and removed artificial spending caps to capture fluctuating demand.
Free up time with automation. Adopting more automated campaign tools has given LTD the bandwidth to focus on bigger, more strategic marketing improvements.
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