Mike Mauer has a random meeting in the middle of the woods to thank for his career in music and events.
“I had graduated college and I was going to a kegger in the woods, in northeast United States,” he chuckles. “And we stumbled upon [someone else’s] bonfire, and the general manager of a venue that I lived near was there. And I said, ‘Hey, I like music. I've put up flyers and stuff for my friends’ bands.’ And he said, ‘Hey, I like interns.’ [Laughs]
“So I started interning at the venue there and ultimately I worked my way up to a full time role managing the box office and ticketing and marketing.”
Now a resident of New Orleans, Mauer wears many event hats, be it through his role as VP Marketing, Data & Technology at SaveLive; the Founder of concert marketing platform Sparrow; or as an advisor and investor at event access control organization WRSTBND.
One of the smartest operators in events, he has a humble outlook on his career.
“I feel like the music industry is constantly five years behind every other industry, and maybe seven years behind ecommerce as an industry. So all I really started to do was take those concepts that Amazon has been doing for a decade-plus, and apply them to festivals.
“Until you're on site, 95% of your experience with a festival or venue is digitally. You’re buying tickets – it’s basically ecommerce. [Applying] those concepts ended up working and I built a career off that.”
Here, Mauer considers best practices for festival and event marketing, maximizing ticket conversions, getting the best ROI out of Meta and more...
Recently you asked a question on LinkedIn, ‘What paid channels are working best to sell tickets other than Meta?’ You didn’t get any replies – what did that tell you?
That's the problem, right? I've been trying to pull my budgets away from Meta for a while. And the fact that 70, 80, 90, sometimes even 100% of the concert budget goes into Meta really indicates this over reliance on the platform – it's a concern to me.
But on the other hand, I haven't found anything that is able to tackle full funnel marketing as elegantly as Meta has. And unfortunately, we have to kind of go with the devil we know.
How do you get the most out of Meta in terms of ROI?
The thing that I've seen work best recently is really great creative with longer spanning, widely targeted campaigns. I actually believe that the Meta algorithm is pretty good. I would not be saying this a decade ago, but at this point, Meta is pretty good at finding the right people.
And so if you have really great creative and have, not dumb targeting, but relatively broad targeting – people who maybe like a certain genre or go out at night or people who have an affinity for concerts – if you let it run long enough, you'll actually get really great results.
That said, that's obviously a lot easier with festivals than it is for individual concerts, just because you have a longer campaign, and you also have the opportunity to really lean in on really great creative and customize it and have a very good creative mix.
"The thing that I've seen work best recently is really great creative with longer spanning, widely targeted campaigns."
In terms of creative, what’s really resonating at the moment?
The channels that are important to Instagram and Facebook, there's going to be a finger tipping the scales a little bit within that.
So things like advertising within Reels, just because you know that it's important to them.
Within your standard set of advertising, what I would usually encourage if you have the budget is just try out a lot of different things. Video works typically pretty well, but sometimes it doesn't.
And again, I think one of the interesting things, if you have enough of a campaign length and you have enough creative, you can throw a bunch of different things at the wall and see what sticks.
The other benefit of that is that it keeps ad blindness down. If somebody is seeing the same creative over and over again, as frequencies are running eight, nine, 10x or whatever, they're just skipping over that ad at that point, it's not really particularly effective.
But if they're seeing a tonne of creative then it's penetrating them a little bit better, right? They are seeing it from slightly different ways and slightly different angles, and they're noticing it.
It's actually a strategy that I use on the festival side a pretty decent amount, especially with smaller festivals, festivals that are back-end heavy, where there's a lot of walk-ups over the last two or three weeks and sales are really, really heavy. Your budgets are pretty high at that point, because you want to be really present. And at the same time your geos are constrained because the last week of the festival, nobody's flying across the country or buying a plane ticket or anything like that. So your frequencies tend to run high.
But what you could actually do is you could take that lower funnel, the people you're targeting, the smallest audience pool, and you can almost just introduce boosted posts essentially to that segment of people. And that's mostly just to keep creative fresh, to keep it top of mind. And those are your highest affinity people, so those are the people who are going to be responding to, not necessarily direct sales, but a higher frequency of ads, as long as the creative is a little bit different.
When you think about the lifecycle of a festival, from the announce to presale to the actual event, what are the most effective levers you can pull that will really lead to a spike in sales?
The first one is urgency. That’s the biggest lever that we could possibly pull. And within urgency there's a couple of types, but there really isn't that much.
There's scarcity. So that's why you see things like ticket tiers, language like ‘tickets are almost sold out’. A lot of that is manufactured scarcity. And it's to get people to commit to an action – urgency is the strongest call to action that we have.
The second thing, within the urgency umbrella, is obvious, but I think a lot of people sometimes miss it, is the event is coming up. You can't buy a ticket to the event after it’s passed. And so, in my mind, that's why when you sell tickets, you see it really ramp up the days leading in. That's because that urgency is really being applied at that point, and that's when people really respond to urgent messaging.
The last one I’ll mention under the urgency umbrella is peer pressure. One of the reasons that people buy tickets is because their friends bought a ticket. And as a marketer, there's a few tricks that we can do to affect that, but not too much. A lot of that is outside our sphere of influence.
Outside of the urgency umbrella, the other lever is frequency. People tend to buy when it’s top of mind. Think about a traditional sales curve – you will go on sale with the show, urgency may be low, but frequency is high. There's buzz about the show, right? The artist’s talking about it or there's news talking about it, and you’re talking about it through your own channels and paid media etc. and frequency is really high. And you have a bunch of sales at the start.
"The way that you sell tickets is by having a healthy marketing mix and having a lot of earned media..."
Frequency starts tapering down, the buzz starts tapering down, and you have this big lull, and then urgency starts playing a bigger role towards the back end where you have this event coming up, tickets are presumably selling out, etc.
And so with frequency, it's really thinking about how you're capitalizing on it. And the way I think about it is, no one channel is gonna carry your entire event, especially not advertising.
The way that you sell tickets is by having a healthy marketing mix and having a lot of earned media – a lot of buzz around an artist because they had an album come out – and you have paid media supporting that and reminding people, and you have radio ads, and you have friends talking about the album that they just heard, and you're reminding people with high urgent messaging that tickets are selling fast. That's the way that it all works together in my mind.
What about email and SMS? Are they still relevant for you in terms of marketing for events and festivals?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Permission based one-to-one communication is always going to be the highest ROI channel. I think that's why it's so important that you have really clean data, invest in CRM, and really think about the entire outlay of how you're actually approaching these things, because at the end of the day, the cost to send one email versus almost any other channel, and the amount of revenue that it generates, is insane. If you really invest and put time into it, it pays dividends forever.
What are the top two or three ways to make sure your email marketing is cutting through?
To me, there's a couple of things. Obviously, I think that there is a certain aspect of relationship building. Email, or an SMS message, is sacrosanct for a lot of people, and you have to be able to know how to use it, who you're talking to, and how to not abuse it.
But beyond that, I think a lot about data collection, how you're actually segmenting and how you're targeting. When you have a smaller email list or a smaller SMS list, or you don't have as much of a robust data collection programme, then it matters maybe a little bit less, and it's hard to get particularly sophisticated about it.
There's a little bit of spray and pray for that.
But once you get a lot of opt-ins, once people are really digesting your emails, there's some really high-performance tactics and segmentations you can do.
Just to give one example, for one of my venues, we hire photographers. And we've been hiring photographers for a long time to cover shows, and we’d post on socials as recaps, people would engage, they would like it. We started sending email recaps to people, knowing that they would get a 50, 60% open rate.
And within the actual email, we would cross sell other shows, and the ROI on that was really, really high, because it was highly targeted. Everybody wants a recap of the show that they just went to within the last day or two.
"All things considered, a well-run four-month campaign will almost always outperform a poorly run 10-month campaign."
If you're currently building up to your 2023 festival, at what point do you also start promoting your 2024 event?
Yeah, it's a good question.
Here's the thing that I would say: wait.
The reality is that fans, whether we like it or not, stop caring. You can certainly play up the nostalgia factor, there's a lot of user generated content campaigns that you can do. You can do fan photos, recap videos, etc.
But your engagement tailors off if you don't really have a very strong call to action – maybe sign up for an email, but [that’s] certainly not as strong as get tickets for the weekend of your life.
So the first thing that I would say is, use that time to refine your plan. And really think about what worked in the past season and adjust what didn't. Take the time, take a breather. You only get one chance a year to do things right for a festival. Which is why sometimes festivals get really loopy and crazy and really fun.
But the reality is, you don't need eight-plus months to market an event. And you almost certainly don't have the money for it. All things considered, a well-run four-month campaign will almost always outperform a poorly run 10-month campaign.
That's really interesting. There’s a school of thought that the best time to start marketing next year’s festival is during the current event, or at least as punters are walking out of the gates…
I totally understand. I get it.
I think the way to think about it is, you only have a certain amount of marketing moments when promoting a festival, right? And particularly big moments. You have your date announcement, that's traditionally the kick-off to the next campaign and gets people really excited. You have your early bird tickets, you have your lineup announcement and general on sale. And then you're done until the event.
And you manufacture moments within that – we’re going to do a big push about experiences, or a big push about the food – but none of them are necessarily as strong as those really hot moments where you publish dates with a call to action to get early bird tickets.
And then you put a little bit of money behind it, and [you’re] capitalizing on this marketing moment. And if you don't have all your ducks in a row, which I can tell you 99% of the time the day after the festival you do not, it's really tough to recapture that moment.
The way I think about it is, your planning season, you're rolling this ball up a hill, you're rolling this massive stone up a hill.
And then once you go on sale with tickets, that ball is rolling downhill, whether you like it or not, and you're just running behind it trying to adjust the course a little bit. And so it's really, really important that your planning season is buttoned up, you really have a moment to reflect on what worked and what didn't, you have a tight plan.
And so that way, when the ball is rolling downhill, all you have to do is worry about adjusting the little outliers that you didn't plan for, rather than trying to build the plan from scratch.
What are the key things you're seeing the successful festivals get right?
If I was to start a new festival, the first thing I would think about is niching down heavily.
There’s not going to be a new Coachella, there's not going to be a new Bonnaroo – I’m probably going to be eating my words on that some time in the future. But as far as I can tell, there is no value in trying to be everything to everyone anymore.
The biggest thing is really understanding your brand, understanding your point of view. What do you stand for? Who is your audience and who isn't your audience, and you want to lean into who your audience is, and you want to also know who it isn't.
If you're trying to say, hey, this festival is for everyone, you're doing something wrong.
"The biggest thing is really understanding your brand, understanding your point of view. What do you stand for?"
I would also say right now, make it beyond who's just playing on stage. If you make it all about the artists who are on stage, you're probably going to get yourself in a situation where you pay too much and don't sell enough tickets. So you really have to bring another aspect to it.
And the ones that I see doing it best are ones that combine, let's say, motorsports with music like GRIDLIFE does, or Hogs for the Cause, a barbecue charity music event that has world class talent, but it also has this food component, and has this community aspect behind it.
And the last thing I'll say is, from a marketing end, again specific to festivals – venues are different – but really getting lost in the details. I think that festivals, as opposed to venues, have a really dynamic or unique situation where you have a tonne of data about a very particular set of people.
And that leads to this opportunity that you have, where you can really take the time to know your fans, you can really obsess about who they are, what they do. And you have one event, so you have this singular focus on how do I learn and engage and really connect with these people and ultimately get them to buy tickets.
You mentioned venues are different – what are the successful venues getting right at the moment?
The funny thing is, I literally just said for festivals, get lost in the details. The biggest advice I could give for venues is don't get lost in the details.
With venues, it's almost the opposite of festivals, where you have a little bit of data on a wide group of people. So it's really helpful to just remember your basics and do them excellently, rather than trying to take a very small dataset and find trends and things that festivals particularly excel at.