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Yes, you can and should host a virtual sales kickoff.

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Yes, You Can and Should Host a Virtual Sales Kickoff.

It’s possible to create an engaging virtual sales kickoff, but you need to be inventive. Here’s how to next-level your most important internal growth event of the year.


COVID-19 may have upended life as we know it, but it hasn’t changed the fundamental needs of businesses to find and connect with customers. Marketing still needs to generate leads, and sales still needs to pursue and close opportunities. And you still need to find ways to support them.

For enterprise B2B companies, the sales kickoff meeting (SKO) is one of the most important ways to do that. This event builds excitement for the year ahead, fosters pride in being part of your organization, and gives sales representatives the tools and knowledge they need to meet and exceed company growth goals, successfully. It’s an investment in your team that pays dividends for your organization.

Read on to learn how to host the premium virtual SKO your team deserves. For a more comprehensive look at how to plan a virtual event, make sure to check out our guide to planning, managing and promoting virtual events.

So, I just schedule a bunch of Zoom meetings, right?

Wrong. One of the biggest misconceptions about a virtual sales kickoff is that it will be nothing but a series of online meetings or webinars. This fear is keeping many organizations from exploring what’s possible for a virtual SKO—and leaving their teams rudderless in the meantime. Those that do go down this path are sure to underwhelm.

Don’t limit yourself by choosing your delivery method—aka your platform—before you identify your goals and outcomes for the event. To create a next-level virtual sales kickoff, your desired attendee experience must drive your virtual event platform selection, not the other way around.

It’s a sales event. It has to be premium.

The biggest caveat when thinking about a virtual SKO is that it must—absolutely, hands down—be a premium experience. The entertainment, social engagements, and even the swag might be different than at your past events, but it all needs to be incredible. Remote selling is not easy. Most salespeople are extroverts who thrive in social settings. They have worked hard to adapt to restrictions on in-person interactions—not to mention, the total shutdown of face to face events.

More than ever, your 2021 SKO should acknowledge the incredible job they are doing, celebrate their successes, and set them up with the tools to smash their quotas.

This will not only benefit your organization through increased revenue, but it will help bring your team together in a way that’s never been more important.

Know your why before jumping into the deep end.

Another big but basic piece is to “know your why,” taking a page out of award-winning author Simon Sinek’s book, Find Your Why. According to Sinek, knowing your why is a concept with three centric circles — the outside circle, the second circle, and the inner circle. The outside circle is what a company does, the second circle is how they do it, and the inner circle is why they do it. Unfortunately, not too many companies take the time to understand why they are a company and how it relates to their mission and values. That lack of attention to your why trickles down into every touchpoint.

So, before jumping into your sales kickoff for the year, take the time to understand and then inform your sales team about why your company is here, what your products and services mean, who your customers are, and all of the other details that shape your why.

If you’re looking to incorporate your why into the event, a great way is by hosting a corporate social responsibility activity or a CSR. Perhaps that is a volunteer activity that relates to your mission and your values for your company. Or maybe you can partner with a local nonprofit. There are a lot of great ways to incorporate a give-back activity into your event and remind your organization why you do what you do.

Breaking it down: the parts of a virtual SKO.

Your team comes to the SKO to hear from leadership, collaborate with peers, celebrate top performers, have fun, team-build, and, most importantly, learn and prepare to sell your solutions this year.

Here’s what to consider as you translate each of these activities to the virtual environment.

Leadership conversations. 

The job of the keynote is to inspire your team with a vision for the year ahead. Don’t skimp on the production value here! But don’t stop with the keynote. Take advantage of the digital experience to offer attendees more personal interactions with the leadership team. For example, you might set up ask-me-anything (AMA) sessions so reps can get their burning questions answered.

Virtual value add: Now that your keynote is online, you can reach more people in your company with it. During or after the meeting, your whole organization can watch the replay and get excited about what’s next.

Training and development.

The heart of your SKO may actually be the easiest piece to bring online. Virtual training sessions enable sales representatives to access learning at their own pace, and make sure they don’t miss anything. This is also better for retention: the sheer amount of new information presented at an SKO can be overwhelming. Late night parties can also impact the amount of information reps can consume the next morning next morning.

For field managers, virtual events provide incredible tracking and analytics. You can not only track who completed the training, but gain insight into how effective it was.

Virtual value add: Now that reps will be engaging with content at their own pace, consider creating sessions for advanced skills and product knowledge that might have seemed like “too much” for the SKO in the past.

Collaboration.

Remote selling is not easy and some of your team have likely adapted to it more quickly than others. For this reason alone, the collaboration piece of your SKO is more important than ever. Traditional sales training activities like role plays and quiz games translate well to digital, but you can also get creative. Try a speed “dating” activity where pairs share something they’re proud of from 2020 or an open-mic style competition for the best pitch. Give top performers space to share successful stories or win stories, then edit them into a motivational “highlights reel” for future viewing. You can even set up an online mentorship program that kicks off at the SKO and continues throughout the year.

Help reps get psyched for these opportunities and drive engagement by integrating virtual SKO content in your sales LMS prior and after the event.

Virtual value add: Without the space constraints of your physical location, you can create more personalized tracks for the different people on your team. Consider organizing breakout sessions for different business units, skill levels, and more.

Culture.

Company culture must be built and supported. Including a culture activity for your SKO is a must-have experience that can help colleagues feel closer to each other and add meaning to the work they do. Culture experiences can be just as powerful virtually as they are in-person. For example, one of our clients had to pivot their hybrid SKO event to 100% virtual in just two weeks and one concern was how the in-person culture experience would translate. Originally, the plan was to have colleagues understand each other’s strengths and values in person with signs and other props. To take this experience virtual, we created a virtual photo booth that used colors, stickers, and frames to express different strengths and values. The result was a giant, colorful collage where everyone felt seen. Another great part of that experience was how everyone could see who shared their same values, how their colleagues think and how they might be able to collaborate better with them.

Watch our Virtual SKO Coffee Break Discussion for more insights from this client event.

Fun.

You can’t take the team out on the golf course, or to a 5-star dinner, but you can create experiences that embrace the situation we’re in rather than trying to work around it. 2020 was different and 2021 will be too. There are many providers and partners that can help make these experiences truly special. You might bring in a chef or mixologist for a live class (send out ingredients and the recipe beforehand), a mentalist or magician to entertain, or a comedian as an emcee. Games aren’t off the table—what about solving a mystery as a team? Or work together for a social cause by collaborating with some non-profits. Include a way for participants to share digital selfies throughout the event. And you can still gift winners with a round of golf in their own location.

Also, try to think outside of the box here too. One of the most entertaining virtual experiences we’ve seen was a freestyle rapper that had everyone submit random words via the chat. He would then incorporate those words and the names of those who submitted them into his freestyle about the company and the sales team. Adding something exciting and unexpected will win over your audience and give them a shared experience to talk about for weeks to come.

Virtual value add: Make sure to include other members of the household in the fun. These experiences can introduce a spontaneity and intimacy that may not usually exist among your team—changing your company culture for the better.

Celebration.

What is a sales kickoff without some celebration? The awards ceremony is a key piece that can get a little tricky virtually because there’s not a physical stage. However, you only need to create a virtual stage in its place. The goal to keep in mind with a virtual awards ceremony is to make sure people’s faces are seen, especially when they are receiving awards. It’s not impossible by any stretch but will require some AV magic to make it happen. Most importantly, the recipients need to be told ahead of time and put on the right platform so they can receive the award when their name is called. This takes away a little of the surprise factor but if you’re going virtual, the alternative of awarding someone that’s not ready to be seen on camera or speak is a huge letdown and momentum killer. Give your award winners a heads up the night before and ensure they have their cameras turned on.

Surprisingly cool benefits of a virtual sales kickoff.

There are actually a lot of interesting benefits to going virtual with your sales kickoff.

Amazing interactive experiences.
Create an immersive digital experience to showcase your product information. This could be anything from an interactive tour of features, use cases and benefits, to 3D simulations of products or technology. Don’t be afraid to use video, audio and animation to engage your audience. And, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what you create here is permanent. Invite reps to provide real time feedback on the tools you create and then iterate on them so your team can use them in the field.

Teach me now. Support me later.
No matter how important and engaging the information, once your audience reaches their saturation point, you’re facing diminishing returns. With a virtual SKO, your sales team can attend sessions live and return later to digest key points or prepare for a specific meeting. They might also save some content for when it is more relevant. Consider packaging session replays with other useful resources into a single interface—such as your sales LMS—so your team can easily find everything they need right when they need it.

A global affair.
Part of shedding one-size-fits-all thinking means considering ways to engage global teams in their own time zones. This could mean that some of your content is asynchronous, or delivered simulive with different team members handling the Q&A in different time zones. Or, maybe for your EMEA team, the schedule features the  keynote at the end of the day, instead of the beginning. Once you remove the constraints of everybody all at the same time, there are many ways to make the event more useful and engaging for all of your stakeholders.

Incredible shout outs.
The awards ceremony is not only a chance for your top performers to earn great rewards, but also to have their skill and achievements celebrated by their peers. With a virtual SKO, you can extend that recognition beyond the event, so everyone in your organization can appreciate and acknowledge the incredible work of your sales team, and the team effort that goes into company growth.

Involve your partners.
With time and space constraints out the window, you have the ability to bring in speakers you haven’t involved in the past. Offer your partners the chance to present a session, host a breakout, or have a “booth” at the event. They can increase the excitement with special spiffs or competitions. This same concept can be extended to other stakeholders, such as other geos or business units. Even better, think about how you can bring in the client point of view—inviting clients to participate in a virtual panel is likely much easier to pull off than having them attend your live SKO.

Key advice for virtual SKOs that delight.

When it comes to knowing how to host virtual SKOs, nothing beats experience. In helping clients plan, pivot, and execute hybrid and virtual SKOs, we’ve learned a few key tips that make a big difference between an okay event and a great event.

Aim for quality over quantity.

Less is more in this case. Creating a smaller agenda with thoughtful content and tactful breaks will boost engagement and impact. We have been doing these virtual SKOs and other events for over two years now, and as we continue to look at the data and the engagement levels, smaller agendas perform better. It’s natural to feel compelled to pack as much as we can into a two or three day event but being thoughtful about the content is more impactful as people have more time to digest content that has been specifically designed for them. Moreover, we’ve found that audiences value breaks where they can get up to stretch, eat, let the dog out, or do whatever else they need to around their home before returning to the event.

Make engagement easy.

Engagement is discussed so frequently but not often executed properly that for some it may sound like a buzzword at this point. It’s not. To get the most interaction and collaboration between your attendees and your speakers, you need to make it easy for them to talk to each other. Q&As are pretty standard with virtual events, but attendees need to have some more avenues to ask speakers and fellow attendees questions. When it comes to live sessions, speakers are not always able to answer every question that comes through, and when they can’t, they need to follow up with each person after the event. However, we’ve found that incorporating a chat into sessions was highly effective because it acted as a stream of consciousness for attendees, allowing them to provide feedback, pose questions, and show praise.

Add value with high-quality production.

In-person SKOs will have a grand stage that’s well-lit, where every speaker is mic’d up and has room to explore the space and the conversations and capture attention. There’s a high level of product there that needs to carry over into a virtual offering. To keep virtual sessions entertaining, the key is to maintain appropriate speaking time and be intentional about what digital presentation is being displayed. A must-have for these are intros and outros for each session to not only hype it up but to make it feel more valuable to the audience. Consider animations and graphics to better illustrate your points and maybe include a corporate video to motivate attendees or tug at their heartstrings.

Don’t stop with the SKO.

The SKO is your first stop among sales touch points. Once you’ve gone digital with it, you can leverage the content you created to create a virtual Executive Buying Center (EBC), virtual Account Days, or a virtual sponsor booth that reps can “take” to online events you participate in.

The Iron Horse insight.

When you take your SKO online, you’re not only setting up your sales team with the knowledge they need to beat their goals in 2021. You’re modeling an effective means for them to engage with opportunities in the digital space. This may be the most important way your virtual sales kickoff meeting drives growth this year.

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