With two national MEA Awards for event marketing under her belt, Alana Hay gives ASE an insight into her work, her agency Milestone Creative Australia and a lesson in event ticketing.
A special feature by Bronwen Largier
During the qualifying period for the MEA Awards, Hay and Milestone worked on three notable projects – Vivid Sydney, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art.
While Mardi Gras was a poignant and timely creative design exercise, for Vivid and Liveworks, the main task for Alana was what many in the events industry find immensely stressful – putting bums on seats.
“We have a bit of a formula,” says Hay. “Where we really come into our own is where there are tickets to shift.”
“We know how to do that from either a B2B or B2C point of view.
“Getting those bums on seats where you need to sell something to someone, it is a niche area.
“I feel like we know exactly when you’ve got to plan, when you’ve got to get on sale; the dovetailing [of the] the strategy of ticketing and marketing together is super important.
“A lot of people go on sale and they go, ‘Right, now we’re going to start marketing.’
“Actually the marketing starts with the ticketing and the whole planning of what the price might be and when you’re going to roll out pre-sale and on sale and final tickets. It’s a strategic piece of work and actually the marketing sits on the back of that ticketing,” she explains.
Hay also says there’s a pattern to the ebb and flow of ticket sales.
“Usually, if it’s a 12 week campaign, you’ll see a huge upturn in tickets for the first two – maybe three – weeks and then it actually takes a downward turn, so those tickets, they’re chugging along but they’re not that first burst … most people will buy their ticket within the two weeks before the event.”
“It’s absolutely no wonder that those event people are freaking out.”
“It’s really hard to change that mindset because people are just so used to getting things at the last minute, with the exception of something that’s big.”
Hay cites the example of the sold out Ice Cube shows at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid Sydney 2018.
“Unless you’re an Ice Cube you really need to do the process.”
One of the key parts of the Milestone process is alliance marketing, whereby the agency reaches out to their extensive contacts with relevant events and content and encourages these contacts to promote the event through their networks with a discount code.
“We’ve developed these amazing databases over the last 10 years. It’s an included service for our clients where we have an awesome database of things like theatres, galleries, associations, groups across all types of industries,” says Hay.
“Obviously we’re drawing out particular groups or contacts that are really relevant to that event or a program so the same person won’t be contacted 25 times from us in a year; we’ll only give them stuff that’s really relevant to them.
“You need to understand who your audiences are and then work out how best to get to them and then again this whole alliance strategy kicks in.”
Alliance marketing also helps address the mid-campaign slump in ticketing, says Hay.
With all marketing methods combined – from traditional to digital – Hay says, “You pick moments along the timeline of the sales funnel and each time you’re doing something new and targeting a new audience.
“It’s a formula. It’s planned and it’s organised and it’s systematic and we make sure we get out to all of the right audiences and that’s how we sell tickets.”
There are some definite don’ts for ticketing too.
“My worst thing is right at the end when people discount the tickets because they want to get rid of them. The piss-off factor of seeing your ticket that you just purchased at full price at a discount is the most annoying thing.
“If we’re going to do any sort of discount, it’s done up front as a VIP or to offer it to the most loyal people who should be getting those discounts to try to inspire them to buy early,” says Hay.
Of course, all this makes the task sound much easier than it is. But, for example, Vivid Ideas in 2017 consisted of 680 business events, or what Alana calls “a scarily big program”.
“My job in there was to create awareness for the Vivid Ideas as a business event or a home for a whole bunch of business events and then secondly, to help sell those tickets.
“It was looking at individual channels for individual events and targeting those through social media, digital marketing, programatic marketing, alliance marketing – the full gambit pretty much.”
Selling for Vivid these days is also arguably easier than when Milestone first came on-board what is now Australia’s largest festival.
“Back in the day when I first started, which was 2012, I wrote a strategy for B2B for Vivid Ideas to try and engage and grow audience but also how to engage with event owners so that they wanted to move their event inside the window of Vivid. You might not think, but back in the day it was a challenge because people were like ‘What’s Vivid?’. No one had really heard of it,” says Hay.
Liveworks is another kettle of fish entirely.
Run by the not-for-profit arts organisation Performance Space, Milestone’s work on the niche 11 day experimental arts festival with a tiny budget garnered them the national MEA Award for Event Marketing in 2017.
“They [Performance Space] approached us and said, ‘Look, we’re getting the audience which is artists and people that are deeply ingrained in experimental art but actually we feel like there’s audiences out there we’re not touching at all.’ So we did a strategy for them … It was basically how are we going to grow their audience outside of artists and into mainstream consumer while still maintaining that [experimental] integrity.”
General Manager of Performance Space Vanessa Lloyd says while she knows Milestone has worked with arts and not-for-profit organisations before, “our content is probably more challenging than anything they’ve dealt with for awhile.”
“We do do quite experimental, quite edgy work, and the ticketing is complicated.
“Sometimes it’s brand new work and we don’t even really know what the artist is going to do so the collateral and the content is quite vague.”
“It’s experimental art, so in itself, it’s not very well known, people actually don’t understand what that is. For us it’s trying to explain what experimental art is … the bleeding edge of arts that you won’t have seen before; this could cover performance art, music, immersive things, durational experiences, installations … to explain to the general public, firstly, what experimental art is, and why you’d want to go and see it, is a challenge in itself,” she says.
“And then, secondly, the artists in these programs are not known, they’re new. They’re usually emerging artists so for us to try and build profile for these artists and promote them so that they sell [is challenging].
“We need to build messaging around each artist and get to the right audience for that artist because it’s not one size fits all … these are all unique, niche audiences,” says Hay.
Despite these obstacles and others including political content, lots of nudity and unusual performance times and venues – “even getting the timetable to look neat and readable online and in our program is always a challenge,” says Lloyd – clearly what Milestone have done with Liveworks is working. Since the seminal three year strategy of 2016, the Liveworks audience has increased by 120 percent, with 50,000 people through the doors in 2017.
“I think they love it,” says Lloyd. “There was never, ‘oh that’s too tricky’ or ‘that’s not how festivals work’ – that’s never the answer from Alana and her team. It’s always, ‘ok, thank you for that, let’s figure it out’.
“We allow the art to be what it needs to be and that proves challenging but also intriguing to audiences, hopefully, because it’s experimental work.”
“They’re amazing,” says Lloyd of Milestone. “They’re event guns and that’s what we needed.”
“Alana always has another trick up her sleeve if something’s not working or it’s not quite hitting the mark, she’ll have another way to approach it.”
The other issue for Liveworks is, of course, budget.
“Consumer marketing is expensive, because you’re talking about, well, everyone” says Hay.
“How do we do that with little to no budget? It’s all negotiation, it’s sponsorships. We do paid marketing but then we’ll try to leverage some editorial … we’re looking for opportunities at every turn.
“It’s not like we have hundreds of thousands of dollars to go out and just buy everything. It’s not that easy.”
“Because they’ve got little budget, we know that digital marketing is one of the best places for them to put their money. Out of all the things that we do for event marketing, digital marketing is really successful in selling tickets. We do all the other parts of marketing but we do focus on highly targeting specific groups through paid social media.”
It is all about making experimental art accessible, says Hay. “It’s diving in deep into the program and pulling out the little pearls that we can then send out as messaging to the general public.”
Milestone Creative will turn 10 in 2018 and Hay attributes the agency’s longevity to a number of factors.
“We are a full service agency but we’re a very small team so there’s usually two to three of us sitting in the office,” she explains.
“We’ve got several comms specialists [but] they don’t sit in our office. They work with us and under us, under our brand, but they’re specialists in their own right. What is unique to us is that they work closely on all of our projects and they get all of our work, so they’re very very busy, but what allows us to keep our overheads down is not having all of these people sitting on staff 24/7. We engage them per program and it means we still get consistency.”
Rather than sourcing generalist marketers, Milestone engages those who have specialist marketing and communications knowledge in specific industries.
“That’s what really does set us apart and people come to us because they know they’re going to get the right people for the right job,” says Hay.
“A lot of agencies actually have an outsource model, they just don’t talk about it; they’re afraid that the clients will go direct.
“We’re not afraid of that because the difference is that in-house we have the expertise as well and we’ve got those beautiful client relationships and they trust us to deliver the job.
“The key account manager, whether it’s me or someone else in here, it’s our responsibility to manage that team to make sure that we’re delivering and it’s working like a well-oiled machine.”
Milestone have embraced the gig economy as a good fit for their work in the events industry, “because events do switch on and off so we switch staff on and off according to those events”.
“We’re in creative industries so we need to remain creative and I think having full time staff sitting there slogging through the churn – we’re not getting the best out of the people by doing that.
“That’s what works for us. I’m not going to say it works for everyone in the industry. It does for us because we’re a creative agency. We’re working across many projects all at once.
“It’s successful and it makes sense, so that’s why we do it. And if it stops making sense, we’ll change the model.”
Hay says one of the other reasons why she thinks they’ve been successful is because they have devoted themselves to events.
“Our specialty is in this industry, so that’s something else that sets us apart. There’s many agencies that do marketing, but we only do this industry.”
Maintaining good relationships and prioritising clients’ success even if it means recommending using services other than what’s in Milestone’s bag of tricks are also key features of the Milestone ethos.
“I’ve done that several times, even just in the last couple of weeks, saying, ‘well I think you should do it a different way and it’s not actually through us’. I think that honesty builds credibility and again, I’m not about the quick win and cashing up. I do actually genuinely have an interest in making these things work,” says Hay.
Ultimately, Hay’s just pleased to be doing what’s she’s doing.
“The nice thing for me is that we do have regular work, we are well-known in the industry.
“It’s just nice to still be around and have a job and have a great team of people and work with awesomely creative individuals in their own right.
“At the end of the day you can’t ask for more than that, can you?”