The RTE Toy Show Appeal — Converting millions of viewers to millions of Euros with Serverless

written by Caroline Rennie

The Late Late Toy Show is the most watched show in Ireland every year with a 70%+ audience share and over 1.5 million viewers on their live show. Every year they put on extraordinary entertainment for the nation and 2020 was no exception.

The show’s host, Ryan Tubridy, explained:

We know, now more than ever, that the kids of Ireland, who have been so good, deserve a night like no other. So we’re putting more effort and more love into this thing than you can imagine.

Ryan Tubridy as Fantastic Mr Fox in The Late Late Toy Show’s opening number

This year, Ryan and the team decided they needed to do something extra special to lift the nations spirits so they created the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal — the appeal would raise money for children’s charities across Ireland to be distributed by The Community Foundation for Ireland. Needless to say, the Irish nation rose to the occasion!

By the end of the first broadcast on Friday night, the appeal has already raised an incredible €5.2 million, with the total continuing to climb (at time of writing it’s now over €6.5 million). Thousands of Toy Show fans have donated so far and it’s not too late to show your support:

Donate to the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal at rte.ie/toyshowappeal

How did they do it?

The final sign-off to run the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal was less than 2 months before broadcast and with it, the new requirement to process donations from the live show. That’s where We Are Serverless comes in. Managing broadcast-driven transactions is one of our specialities and we were happy to take up the challenge for this new appeal.

Here’s where we’re going to get a bit nerdy…

Dealing with unpredictable traffic in traditional infrastructures can be exceedingly costly or high risk. This is because to work within infrastructures which require you to estimate the scaling requirements comes with an intrinsic element of finger-in-the-air guess work. The challenge with TV audiences is particularly poignant — ask any broadcaster and they’d give their right arm to have an accurate idea of how many viewers they’ll have for their show. TV viewership is still measured in the “overnights” so even during a broadcast, producers don’t have any accurate means to report on their audience figures. While there was historic data for The Late Late Toy Show’s audience figures, there was no way of knowing how effective a call-to action to donate would be. This leaves hosting provisioners with a conundrum:

  • Estimate too low and you’ll overload your servers, some users will not be able to access your site or — worst case scenario — no users can access it. So in short, it’s bad.
  • Estimate too high and you’ll be sat comfortably managing the traffic on your site — but at a cost. Every second you’re below your estimated traffic volume equates to cost wastage. What a nightmare, right?

Whats the soluton?

Serverless, of course.

With serverless hosting, you’re provisioned for your precise traffic needs. Working in a pay-per-use model means that when your website has low traffic, you’re only paying for what’s being used, but if it suddenly has high traffic surge, you’ll automatically scale to meet demand. For the appeal, this meant we were managing zero or negligible traffic throughout the day and were ramping up to thousands of requests per second during the show.

Number of requests per second to the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal donation application

What’s great about Serverless is that it’s evolving rapidly and tooling is coming further and further downstream so that you don’t need to have ever considered configuring a server to be able to build full stack applications. For the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal use case, We Are Serverless chose Cloudflare Workers as our weapon of choice — for a lightweight application with minimal downstream integrations, it was the most cost effective and time efficient solution for our needs (did we mention we had 4 weeks to pull this all together?).

In terms of getting up and running within our time constraints, Stripe was the obvious choice for Payment Service Provider; it was very quick for the Community Foundation for Ireland to set up an account so that all income is deposited directly into their bank account. This means that the millions of Euros donated can be distributed as quickly as possible to the range of children’s charities the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal is supporting.

For the first year of the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal, we made the decision to also use the Stripe platform as the main data storage for the donations. We were able to track call center agents activities (giving the team at Abtran a little friendly competition) and the ability to run live totals throughout the night from Stripe’s dashboard.

This approach kept things very simple as We Are Serverless and RTÉ would never touch customer data and Community Foundation for Ireland had all the data they needed for auditing, processing Tax Relief and refunds.

What were the challenges?

Serverless applications are fantastic for automatically scaling but awareness of downstream bottlenecks is essential to make sure all your dependencies can scale with you. Partnering with high scale payment processors, Stripe (founded by Patrick and John Collison who have personally donated €100,000 to the appeal), meant we were confident that our downstream dependencies would be able to scale if required. During the broadcast we were hitting some of Stripe’s rate limits and within 30 minutes they had lifted the capacity 5x to manage the demand.

Donate to the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal at rte.ie/toyshowappeal

What happens next?

The RTÉ Toy Show Appeal will be open for another 2 weeks with donations coming in from across the globe. We Are Serverless will be wrapping up the project with RTÉ and The Community Foundation for Ireland, reviewing what’s gone well, what we’ll do differently and what we’ve learned. Community Foundation for Ireland will distribute all the money raised to a range of children’s charities across Ireland and RTÉ will get planning on how they’ll follow this year’s success for their next Toy Show.

How to get started?

Contact us to set up a free consultation with a member of the We Are Serverless team. We are currently operating a fully remote service - we can’t wait to help.