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How to Plan a Successful Virtual Sales Kickoff Meeting


Annual sales kickoffs (SKOs) typically serve as a springboard for a company’s fiscal year. These meetings aim to boost morale, build a sense of community, celebrate wins, align goals and strategy, provide training, and get employees and sales reps motivated for the year ahead. But 2021 also presents some other objectives: Keep attendees engaged during a virtual meeting and rethink how to present in-person training for an online event.

“Getting everyone together in one room allows your team members to feed off each other’s energy and positive emotions, motivating them to hit the ground running in the coming days, weeks, and months. Creating this motivating environment for your sales team virtually has its challenges,” explains Justine Shay Sweat of Dallas-based J.Shay Event Solutions.

At the beginning of 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of large in-person events, data intelligence company Collibra had hosted an IRL SKO in Atlanta, says Mason Bradbury, the company’s global head of field enablement. These events were typically two to four days with a mix of keynote sessions with executives, motivational speeches, customer testimonials, and a series of team-specific breakouts. About 400 people from the company’s global offices would attend the annual events.

And while team building has always been a key component of SKOs, Bradbury says COVID-19 has amplified the need for connection building and for creating a sense of purpose. “There's also, I think, a big thing with COVID that doesn't get talked about quite enough is the fact that companies have had to do so much change as it relates to the effects of COVID. And it's not just the change of going from the office to remote, but also companies have had to do so much—whether it's lay off staff, whether it's changing their marketing or their sales motion or their product set.”

Because of this, he says that many feel overwhelmed. “I think that's another thing to be thinking about is how can you help people feel grounded in a world in which the company has had to do so much different stuff and they've had to keep up with so many things.” Bradbury says the challenge is to balance the need to present solutions to these problems while also going back to basics and making sure that employees feel comfortable—“that we know what's going on and what the strategy is and what part I play in it.”

To help you start the year off right, here are some tips, ideas, and strategies for planning a successful and effective virtual SKO meeting.

Choose the right platform.

“Virtual SKOs can get messy very quickly, both from the attendee experience and reporting standpoint, if the tech used to deliver your virtual event doesn't maintain authentication across the entire event journey,” says Brian Gates, S.V.P. of marketing at RainFocus, an end-to-end event marketing and management platform. “Many systems or cobbled-together technologies look great on the surface but fail to provide this level of security and tracking essential to an SKO. This leaves planners exposed to threats and with an extremely limited understanding of attendee performance.”

So choose an online event platform that allows you to track attendee engagement through metrics such as page clicks and length of time on a page.

Sweat recommends thinking through several questions when deciding on a platform, including do you require a way to verify if your attendees stayed throughout the event? Attended certain sessions for a duration of time? What attendee data points are important to capture as part of the experience? 

“The event portal is the gateway to all content, activities, and experiences, and is essentially the virtual venue,” Gates explains. “It should be clear and obvious what is available to the attendees while providing a beautifully branded experience that seamlessly serves up live, simulive, and on-demand content, guides attendees to meetings and networking, encourages interaction, and provides surveys/ polling to gauge content retention.”

Keep sessions short and sweet.

To help with engagement, as is the case with most virtual events, it’s best to plan shorter sessions with long breaks since at-home attendees will be dealing with distractions. “Do not expect your attendees to sit in front of their laptop listening to four hours of content with one to two bathroom breaks sprinkled in like you do in person,” Sweat warns. 

“Allow them time to take care of other business throughout the day—we all know there are tons of distractions when WFH—and this will allow them to be engaged and present when you need them to be,” she adds. Gates also cautions against repeating content formats, suggesting that planners should “mix in panels, interviews, videos, and fun to keep things interesting.”

Back in December, Bradbury was weighing the pros and cons of various approaches for Collibra’s upcoming SKO, debating between an on-demand-heavy format where attendees viewed sessions at their convenience (which is a drawback when trying to foster a sense of community) or more live Zoom sessions, which requires folks to tune in at specific times. This can be tricky for a global company like Collibra, which has attendees in different time zones.

Tailor sessions to sales reps.

For the most efficient use of everyone’s time, design agendas around specific roles and the attendee’s level of knowledge and needs, whether they are new reps and need training or a seasoned salesperson who’s looking for more in-depth sessions.

RainFocus, which is currently working on several SKO events for clients including Adobe, Informatica, and Alteryx, has been incorporating some unique approaches including sales mentor meetings where the top sales team members act as experts, providing detailed coaching on deals or strategies. They are available to meet with other sales team members via an intimate 1:1 virtual meeting, Gates explains.

Employ gamification techniques to keep attendees engaged.

While simple gamification strategies like Q&As, polls, quizzes, and contests might be enough to keep attendees interested, Gates suggests that meeting planners consider offering rewards for engagement or specific badges for certain experiences. Each engagement level is achieved through attending specific sessions, answering a survey, and engaging with exhibitors. “These games should be designed to reward the type of behavior you want to see from your sales team and are great motivators for team members,” he says.

For example, level one attendees could receive a branded backpack, whereas level five attendees might earn a trip for two to Hawaii. This type of incentivizing is something that sales teams are accustomed to, driving healthy competition as well as event engagement.

Remember to include some fun too.

“Quality content is necessary and important, but do not make SKOs all about the executive and company updates, roadmap, and education sessions,” Sweat says. “Just because the SKO is being held virtually this year does not mean you get to eliminate the fun.” Consider incorporating virtual team building activities into the meeting such as a mixology class or a yoga break.

“Give your team a chance to interact with one another. You want to do your best to create an environment where the team can build trust, that encourages collaboration, and creates positive energy that will carry your team for many months into the new year,” Sweat says.

This might be the biggest challenge when planning a virtual SKO, making it a standout event among all the other Zoom-bie sessions. “I think for a lot of people who are planning these and worrying about it right now is just ‘how do I make it memorable and unique?,’ Bradbury explains. “Because when you're in person, you can do parties and you can do all sorts of fun, you can book fun venues and you can have concerts or whatever you want to do to make them unique. …How do you make it memorable and how do you make it motivating when we're all burned out on Zoom?”

Although SKO meetings are typically mandatory for sales teams that doesn’t mean that the attendees are interested or engaged, especially when the event is held virtually. By adding in incentivization and gamification strategies, and keeping the sessions easily digestible, your virtual SKO meeting can motivate and energize your team, even from a distance.

Check out these virtual entertainment or team building activities for your next kickoff meeting on The Vendry.

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