How SeatGeek scores you tickets to the game

Repeat Customer podcast, Season 2, Episode 6

When SeatGeek set out to disrupt the live-event ticket-buying experience, they went up against dominant players like Ticketmaster and StubHub, and a seemingly endless series of new pain points that kept cropping up around every corner. Would the startup be able to continue adjusting its mobile-first platform at the same time as it fought for space in a tightly controlled industry?

SeatGeek co-founder Russ D'Souza describes the murky world of ticket buying he sought to improve and the challenges his team had to overcome. Journalists Eric Fisher and Dave Brooks, and ticketing veteran Fred Maglione provide context to a complex industry. And sports superfan and podcaster Tim Daniel relates his experience scoring tickets with SeatGeek.

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Transcript

[Tim Daniel]
So I've missed every major prospect that's come up. I've missed their Major League debuts. So I missed Jay Bruce, I missed Homer Bailey. I wasn't there for Joey Votto's. I wasn't for Ken Griffey, Jr.’s first game as a Red; I wasn't there.

[Mio Adilman]
Tim Daniel is a huge Cincinnati Reds baseball fan, but he keeps missing the big games.

[Tim Daniel]
Nick Senzel's going to be the future of our franchise.

[Mio Adilman]
So when top prospect Nick Senzel got called up, Tim was like, "I got to be there."

[Tim Daniel]
That's when it was like a ruckus to try to get tickets for the game.

[Mio Adilman]
A ruckus means Tim was having problems finding good seats at a good price, and game time was just hours away.

[Tim Daniel]
SeatGeek was like my last resort.

[Mio Adilman]
Just like in a baseball game, for Tim, this was bottom of the ninth, two outs, full count, SeatGeek steps up to the plate, and it's going, going, gone. Tim scores tickets to the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

[Mio Adilman]
Welcome to Repeat Customer, an original podcast from Zendesk about great customer experiences, how companies create them, and why their super fans love them so much. Zendesk is a customer service and engagement platform, and I'm Mio Adilman, the guy for whom buying tickets to a big concert or a sporting event has always been so stressful.

[Tim Daniel]
And I ended up getting really good seats to be able to go see Nick Senzel's first Major League Baseball game, see his first Major League hit, see him score his first Major League run. It was an awesome experience.

[Mio Adilman]
So we're going to look at how a ticketing company called SeatGeek came straight out of left field to take on the big players in the industry, beating them at their own game by focusing on the customer experience.

[Speaker 3]
In the ticket-buying system, customers can choose between two separate yet equally important groups: primary ticket sellers like Ticketmaster and secondary market resellers. These are their stories.

[Mio Adilman]
The world of live-event ticketing today is a little chaotic when you start digging into it, so the main thing you need to remember: there are primary ticketers, which are the promoters, teams, and venues putting on the event, and there's something called the secondary marketplace, where people resell their tickets.

[Russ D’Souza]
SeatGeek is a consumer app that makes it easier for fans to find, discover, and purchase their favorite live events.

[Mio Adilman]
The app helped millions of fans attend live events last year, but getting to this point hasn't been easy. SeatGeek had to elbow its way into a closely guarded industry that hasn't always put the customer first. I could go on and on about the pain points I've suffered buying tickets, but let's let SeatGeek's co-founder Russ D'Souza do some complaining instead.

[Russ D’Souza]
After college, I moved to Boston, and I remember viscerally just how difficult it felt to be able to find the tickets that you wanted to buy and buy them. It was a very murky market it felt like, where a fan like me would have five different windows open with everything from Craigslist to primary ticketing company websites, secondary ticketing market company websites, trying to compute fees, trying to understand what tickets are legitimate, and which ones you're buying from somebody who you have to meet in person on a place like Craigslist. This was also during a time that, when I was in Boston in 2008, that every single Boston team seemed to be doing extraordinarily well.

[Mio Adilman]
The amazing thing here is that Russ is describing a time not too long ago where we already had internet and social media. It shouldn't have been that hard to get a ticket with that many options available to him. To better understand this murky market, as Russ calls it, and what SeatGeek later brought to it, let's quickly go back in time.

[Mio Adilman]
There's a lot of innovation happening in the ticketing industry now, but for decades, the transaction was pretty one dimensional.

[Dave Brooks]
Typically, you know, you would have to go line up in front of a box office.

[Mio Adilman]
[Dave Brooks] is a senior correspondent for billboard.com.

[Dave Brooks]
I'm from the Bay Area, so we used to line up in front of Warehouse Records sometimes the night before. Right? You could camp out, and you'd be there with fans. There would also be some kind of sketchy people who were paid to wait in line by like scalpers who were going to flip the tickets. You know, basically the time came at 10 a.m., and they opened the box up and started selling tickets, and you just hoped that the line kept moving.

[Mio Adilman]
And what if you never made it to the front of the line?

[Dave Brooks]
This is pre-StubHub, pre-Internet. You either have to know a ticket brokerage firm, right? Like a brick and mortar VIP ticket style place that sold you tickets.

Speaker 6
Who's got tickets? Who needs tickets? Who's selling tickets? I got tickets. Who's got tickets? Who needs tickets?

[Dave Brooks]
Or you could show up early to the concert and there would be the guys out there scalping tickets and you could wheel and deal in the parking lot.

[Mio Adilman]
And hopefully not buy fake tickets or pay a crazy price.

[Dave Brooks]
And then of course, that was followed by the Internet and tickets going online.

[Mio Adilman]
That was around 1996, 1997.

[Dave Brooks]
TicketWeb sells the first ticket over the Internet, and then it would be mailed to you. It was obviously convenient because you didn't have to go anywhere besides your computer, but you know, it was really slow to be adopted, and as the bigger shows started to sell more tickets online, bigger problems started to arise.

[Speaker 7]
All your tickets belong to us.

[Eric Fisher]
As time went on, you had a lot of bad actors out there who were learning how to write these scripts called bots.

[Mio Adilman]
You see? Online made it more convenient for me to get tickets, but it also made it more convenient for the scalpers. Eric Fisher, U.S. editor for SportBusiness, a U.K.-based sports-industry news and intelligence provider, is helping me relive the horror.

[Eric Fisher]
They were able to sort of jump in and go through this whole process much faster than any human could. They would essentially be able to work through the system and all of the various login prompts and purchase flow sequences, and what that did is pull particularly prime inventory from fans into broker hands, reseller hands.

[Mio Adilman]
This made face value tickets harder to get, and it led to the creation of a secondary marketplace. StubHub was maybe the first and definitely the most dominant where you could go by marked up tickets, which totally freaked out the primary ticketers, like sports teams.

[Eric Fisher]
But then they also finally realized that there was a real issue with the renewing season ticket holders, that tickets in the drawer is like death for renewals.

[Mio Adilman]
As great as season tickets are, it can become a chore when you have to go to like 40, 50, up to 80 home games, so sports teams saw an opportunity to help their best customers.

[Eric Fisher]
These partnerships were basically facilitating a way, and still are to this day, facilitating a way for that season ticket holder to unload that extra inventory, and then by the same token, that team, that league gets a cut of the action.

[Mio Adilman]
So now you had scalpers selling the best tickets and primary ticketers using secondary marketplaces to get rid of extra tickets for season ticket holders. Things started getting pretty confusing for the average customer like you or me, according to Russ D'Souza.

[Russ D’Souza]
There's often situations where people assume that tickets are sold out, but they're not, because many of the primary ticketing websites don't have great functionality.

[Mio Adilman]
This is maybe the craziest part of it for me. Like, you're buying resale tickets on the secondary market when there's still face value tickets left. Oh.

[Russ D’Souza]
And that's when it really hit home for me just how the process for purchasing tickets left something to be desired, and my co-founder and I really started to talk about how we could build a better experience for people to be able to buy tickets.

[Mio Adilman]
Russ is talking about his co-founder, Jack Groetzinger.

[Russ D’Souza]
We felt like there should exist a ticket-aggregation service that pulled in tickets from all these providers, and it was a one stop shop for people being able to buy.

[Mio Adilman]
In 2009, SeatGeek launched its aggregator, sort of like travel aggregator, KAYAK. You know, if you're searching for flights, it finds you the lowest price for multiple airlines. Well, SeatGeek did the same thing, but for tickets to sporting events and concerts.

[Russ D’Souza]
Initially, just a website that would display all that inventory to fans, and we would integrate with the different ticketing providers.

[Mio Adilman]
This is where the modern ticketing customer experience started to change.

[Russ D’Souza]
We built these really incredible maps that compared and allowed you to display all those listing side by side so that users can zoom in really smoothly to see where the ticket they want to buy is.

[Mio Adilman]
But the real game changer was a proprietary algorithm.

[Russ D’Souza]
A product called Deal Score that ranked every single ticket from a scale of zero to 100, where 100 is the best deal and zero is obviously a deal that we wouldn't recommend fans look to. The way that every other ticketing provider listed and displayed their inventory was simply in order of least expensive and most expensive.

[Mio Adilman]
That used to mean a lot of scrolling for me, looking for the right option.

[Russ D’Souza]
We're effectively trying to say, if my budget is this and I want to sit in this section, what are the tickets out of the 10,000 tickets for this game that I should look at?

[Mio Adilman]
SeatGeek's engineers built new technology from the ground up, and they kept adding new features like a View From Seat image option, and a year or so after launching, they continued this tech-forward approach with something new.

[Fred Maglione]
Most of the traditional primary companies and StubHub, the only real name in the secondary space at the time, their infancy was on a desktop, and SeatGeek was the first ticketing player period to come out and say, "I'm going to be mobile first."

[Mio Adilman]
This is Fred Maglione, a ticketing-industry consultant. He remembers when SeatGeek launched its mobile app.

[Fred Maglione]
The consumer experience is just more obvious. The flow is more obvious. If you think about squeezing down a desktop application to your mobile device, it's difficult to read, but when it's built for a mobile application, it's easy to see the seating chart, for example, of a venue, to pinch and zoom with your fingers. SeatGeek had a bit of an advantage coming in later and developing their product with that mindset.

[Mio Adilman]
Now, as an aggregator, SeatGeek improved, definitely clarified the customer experience of ticket buying, but it didn't directly sell you the ticket. Once it helped you find the right ticket, you exited the app to complete the purchase in whatever marketplace the ticket existed, and this is kind of funny because after solving one really big pain point, SeatGeek ended up, or rather you ended up, at another pain point.

[Russ D’Souza]
We would kick a user out from this really great mapping experience to a mobile website that's barely mobile optimized. Somebody would have to struggle to put in their account information. It was not in line with the values that we had, and we weren't able to control the end experience of the user.

[Mio Adilman]
SeatGeek was able to control the customer experience within its own app, but once you left it to finish a transaction somewhere else, not so much, because the other apps' experiences weren't usually that great.

[Russ D’Souza]
When a fan had a question and they had an issue with their tickets or they needed help, we would have to tell them, "Well, why don't you talk to so-and-so at so-and-so marketplace?" That's not a great customer experience. What we want to do is be able to say, "OK, we can look up your order. We know exactly where it is, and we have all the relevant details about your order."

[Mio Adilman]
And SeatGeek could no longer control the customer service when you left its app to go buy the ticket, so in order to ensure the ultimate fulfillment of the customer experience it had created. SeatGeek really only had one choice going forward.

[Mio Adilman]
In 2015, SeatGeek launched its own secondary marketplace on top of its aggregator. In addition to making it easier to find the right tickets for you, you could now buy them on SeatGeek.

[Russ D’Souza]
We were very focused on having fulfillment happening natively within the SeatGeek app so that wherever you bought a ticket from, it would be delivered right within SeatGeek, and then you could just scan your ticket right into the event using your phone.

[Mio Adilman]
And Eric Fisher says this had been another sticking point.

[Eric Fisher]
It's really just been in the last few years where you've had a lot of these integration deals where the bar code essentially gets canceled out and reissued to the buyer. For the first 10, 15 years of StubHub's existence, using FedEx to move tickets and PDFs was really the preferred thing.

[Mio Adilman]
SeatGeek took a smaller sales commission than other secondary marketplaces and offered other cool things like quick two-tap checkout, two-tap ticket transfers, and those transfers between friends were free, something no other app was doing at the time. Payments could be routed through Venmo, so you didn't have to provide sensitive banking info. Later, they added things like weather forecasts and integrated with Lyft to take you to the correct gate at a stadium.

[Mio Adilman]
Now, I don't want to give you the wrong idea, because while other companies were slow to respond, they did respond. StubHub is still the dominant player in the secondary market, but SeatGeek's impact was felt, and not only did they push the customer experience to another level, Russ D'Souza finally had more control over the customer service, and that would become a very important asset a couple of years later because SeatGeek wasn't finished iterating its customer experience.

[Mio Adilman]
To this point, SeatGeek had brought much needed transparency to the secondary market as an aggregator, and then it became a secondary marketplace itself with a bunch of frictionless experiences. This left one more market: primary ticketing. It was and is the top level of ticketing, but it is often also the elephant in the room.

[Fred Maglione]
For the longest time, the biggest primary player, and still is in North America, is Ticketmaster. For the longest time, Ticketmaster felt that the only place they wanted consumers to go to buy a ticket was ticketmaster.com.

[Mio Adilman]
Fred Maglione is talking about the walled garden of primary ticketing, totally dominated by Ticketmaster and it's parent company, Live Nation Entertainment, which is run by a guy named Michael Rapino, and I don't know about you but there've been times in the past where buying tickets on Ticketmaster for me has been extremely frustrating. At one point, it didn't seem to matter when I logged into the sale. All of the tickets, tens of thousands of them, were all gone like within 10 seconds. But for Ticketmaster itself, there's a flip side to the events that sell out.

[Fred Maglione]
One of the things Michael says is, "50% of our tickets go unsold," and part of the reason and part of the reason they go unsold is because people don't know the event's happening.

[Mio Adilman]
By limiting the point of sale, Ticketmaster was also limiting its marketing opportunities, which hurt them for sure, but it also hurt the customer because they didn't even know stuff was happening.

[Eric Fisher]
This has been SeatGeek's big push that a fan should be able to buy a ticket, not just from the SeatGeek mobile app or the SeatGeek website, but any number of e-commerce places that if you're on your phone and getting an Uber, you're on your phone buying a plane ticket, you're on a hotel website, what they would like to do, and it's still very much a work in progress, is embed their purchasing abilities in all of these other forms of not just e-commerce but fan websites. If you're reading a story about the Yankees or whatever, there should be a buy button right in the midst of that story where you could buy tickets to tonight's Yankees game.

[Mio Adilman]
Basically what Eric Fisher is describing is an open ticketing situation, which sounds great, but back in 2016 or so, to do that, SeatGeek would have to get into primary ticketing, which we just said was totally dominated by Ticketmaster. That's problem number one, and [Fred Maglione] tells me about problem number two.

[Fred Maglione]
There's only one section 101, row 1, seat 1. You can only sell it one time. If you sell it two times, you've got a big problem because you've got two people trying to sit in the same seat, and then you can exchange that ticket, you can forward that ticket, that location, to a friend. You can digitize it, you can print it as a physical thing, you can put it into a package as a season ticket, and that's what creates the complexity of ticketing.

[Mio Adilman]
SeatGeek hadn't dealt with that level of complexity before.

[Fred Maglione]
That's why SeatGeek realized early on it was going to take much longer if they want to develop this themselves.

[Mio Adilman]
At the time, Fred was the executive chairman of an Israeli primary ticketing platform called TopTix. Rather than build out their own primary platform, Russ D'Souza and SeatGeek purchased TopTix and added it to their stack and called this new thing SeatGeek Enterprise.

[Russ D’Souza]
It is a full-stack ticketing service, all the aspects that a venue might use to run their business. We have a layer then called SeatGeek Open, and what it does is it distributes inventory to anyone who wants to participate. So if a fan goes on to a partner of SeatGeek and they buy a ticket, that ticket is then reissued by SeatGeek Open, and the fan can get a valid ticket instantaneously to attend the event.

[Mio Adilman]
But even if you successfully create a primary ticketing platform, a pleasing new customer experience, there's still that elephant in the room.

[Fred Maglione]
Well, Live Nation is the biggest rock and roll player out there, and they control the inventory.

[Mio Adilman]
They also control a lot of the venues, so getting promoters to use SeatGeek was going to be tough, but there was another way in.

[Fred Maglione]
Most of the content owners in sports also manage the stadium and/or arena, or have some interest in the stadium and/or arenas.

[Mio Adilman]
So SeatGeek focused instead on sports, especially since some of those sports teams were getting frustrated with Ticketmaster.

[Fred Maglione]
Ticketmaster felt that the person buying that ticket was a Ticketmaster customer, and there was a point in time when the content owners said, "Uh-uh (negative). If you're buying a Lakers ticket at ticketmaster.com, that customer is still a Lakers customer, it's our customer."

[Mio Adilman]
Is it because Ticketmaster wasn't sharing the data?

[Fred Maglione]
Correct. They were not sharing the data.

[Mio Adilman]
And according to Eric Fisher, teams desperately needed that data.

[Eric Fisher]
Historically speaking, a team at best knew about a quarter, maybe a third of who was in their building, and with all the transfers and giveaways and resale and so forth, all those subsequent moves, it left the identity on the table, and the teams didn't know who was coming into their building.

[Mio Adilman]
Customer data is obviously key to creating great customer experiences, and SeatGeek was willing to share. It first made deals with Major League soccer teams, and then, amazingly, the NFL, first the New Orleans Saints, then America's team, the Dallas Cowboys, to take over their ticketing and sell them across a wide range of portals.

[Mio Adilman]
I can understand that MLS is interested in working with you guys because they need more fans, like they need more exposure. How do you get the Saints onboard? How do you get the Cowboy...I mean, that's an enormous stadium. How do you get them to do that?

[Russ D’Souza]
So in the case of the Cowboys or the Saints, you're right, they have no problem selling out the stadium. What we offer is also the ability for the season ticket holders to have this really great experience to manage their tickets, transfer their tickets to friends, to be able to scan into the venue. From a customer standpoint, build in small things into our product that actually head off questions that season ticket holders may have.

[Russ D’Souza]
Like an example that I always like to give is how we make it so clear for AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys play, what the bag policy is. That doesn't sound like rocket science. It's just a widget that we display within our app, but the team loves that because they used to get hit up every single week with people asking, "What kind of bag can I bring?"

[Mio Adilman]
When they added primary ticketing, SeatGeek basically created a blended marketplace where you can buy both primary tickets and secondary resale tickets, and you can still use the aggregation tools to find the right priced seats for you. But this us back to SeatGeek's customer service, because when it blended marketplaces, it not only attracted more consumers, SeatGeek was also now selling its platform to businesses, and all of those customer service interactions fell to the SeatGeek CX team led by Joe Gilgoff. Not easy.

[Joe Gilgoff]
Part of the complexity in our overall CX operation, and certainly in managing our knowledge base and our help center, is that two different customers could have a question that at face value seem similar, but one of those customers might've spent $20 or $50 to buy secondhand tickets to, let's say, attend a Yankees game, Yankee Stadium. Another one of those customers could be a VIP season ticket holder with the Dallas Cowboys, and the answer to the stated question could be very different for those two different sets of customers.

[Mio Adilman]
There was a pretty urgent need to upscale customer service.

[Joe Gilgoff]
We were setting very specific quantitative goals around our service, and I'm talking about things like speed and availability, so phone pickup rate, email first reply time, CSAT, the basics, but just making sure that we were operating on a world-class level.

[Mio Adilman]
They adopted live chat, partnered with external call centers, and added AI tools to their relaunched help center, for both customers and SeatGeek's agents.

[Joe Gilgoff]
We're seemingly always launching a new partnership or bringing on a new marquee B2B client, and so when these changes occur in the business, one of our training and content specialists will build out a lesson. When the Cowboys or the Saints make the playoffs, when all of those tickets go on sale, or it might be when the season schedule is first released or when a huge concert is running at AT&T stadium and those tickets first go on sale, that's going to create a very, very high volume moment for the CX team. And so in that case, we need to have our whole operation adequately prepared to at least answer a basic level of question for customers, while having a highly trained subgroup that are going to be the ones building those individual relationships and handling the most complex questions.

[Mio Adilman]
The amount of information needed is staggering, and given the temporal nature of live events, that information is always changing, and this is going to remain a challenge because SeatGeek's daily sales keep growing as it blends primary and secondary ticketing, which is something the other big companies are doing now too, and they're also getting into open ticketing. I mean, Ticketmaster is offering me basketball playoff tickets in my Instagram feed, where I'm more likely to buy them. After years of struggling to buy tickets, recently it has felt a bit easier for me.

[Eric Fisher]
If you're sort of looking at a fan now, there was a growing theory that many of them don't really even differentiate between primary and secondary, like many of them wouldn't necessarily differentiate between a broadcast TV station and a cable TV station. As time moves on and as these relationships get deeper, as Ticketmaster does more on the secondary side, StubHub and SeatGeek do more on the primary side, you're going to see the lines just continue to blur.

[Mio Adilman]
And Eric Fisher says the customer experience is continuing to evolve.

[Eric Fisher]
Just to kind of give another kind of takeaway to the listener here, is just this whole notion of communal fandom, communal areas, bars, gathering spaces, and it's fundamentally changing the notion of fandom and how tickets are sold, and we've seen a lot of these sort of Netflix-style monthly offers where you can just have access to any games in a given month for a pretty low flat fee. It's really going to continue to push the innovation front, and different kinds of ticket products and different types of selling approaches, different kinds of marketing. And again, it really just makes it a very, very exciting space to continue to watch because the pace of change and experimentation and innovation is only going to grow.

[Mio Adilman]
And on the topic of different kinds of marketing, the next episode I'm prepping is about the Texas-based lifestyle brand, Magnolia. It's really benefited from exposure on the home-improvement TV show, Fixer Upper, staring Chip and Joanna Gaines. So while you wait for that one, please leave me a review or check us out at zendesk.com/repeatcustomer, where you can also get tips on how to up your company's customer service game, because the best customer experiences are built with Zendesk. Thanks for listening.