The Rise of Virtual Events

The following is a pre-release of the July 2020 cover story.

Like most people, direct selling executives are crossing out travel and large in-person gatherings from their calendars. For an industry known for its relational appeal, eliminating the face-to-face factor should be crushing. But instead, many executives are reporting that they feel more connected to their teams than ever before and are experiencing record engagement.

“I’ve been involved in more field events in the last two months than I have been since I started the company in 2014,” says MONAT President Stuart MacMillan. Connecting virtually has become part of the daily workflow for MacMillan and many direct selling executives like him, as their teams and distributors take part in trainings while experiencing the benefits of connecting from home for both small- and large-scale events. “I still don’t believe there’s any replacement for face-to-face, and our people are itching to get back together—both employees and the field,” MacMillan says. “But I think what we’ve learned is that between those opportunities to get together, there are better ways to do this.”

Increasing Engagement with Function and Fun

This shift to virtual has opened the event doors wider, allowing people who would normally be limited by family obligations or financial flexibility to participate. For SeneGence Founder and CEO Joni Rogers-Kante, virtual events have drastically impacted the company’s attendance numbers. “Only a percentage of distributors go to our events, and ours was never a huge percentage,” Rogers-Kante says. “But we have five times more distributors than we have ever had at a single seminar because it was online, and they just got to sit down and login.”

The SeneGence virtual event sought to emulate a lot of the function—as well as fun—of a live event by passing out virtual awards that instantly appeared across social media channels as names were announced, conducting drawings and shipping prizes to distributors’ houses. While their next company-wide in-person event has been postponed, the SeneGence team is already implementing plans for a conference that will take place in Tulsa. “We think it will be the largest event we’ve ever had because people are so excited to get back together, and we have so many new distributors who can’t wait to actually physically show up at a SeneGence event. We just know it’s going to blow everything we’ve done out of the water.”

“We have five times more distributors than we have ever had at a single seminar because it was online, and they just got to sit down and login.”
—Joni Rogers-Kante, SeneGence Founder & CEO

10 Cents on the Dollar, 10 Times the Reach

Twenty-four hours after a recent Mannatech virtual live event, the entire 12-hour event was available for replay. The 6,500 unique visitors, representing a ballpark of 8,000 to 12,000 viewers who watched the virtual event live, quickly multiplied as people shared the content and participated after the event had ended. A traditional Mannatech event hosts 1,200 to 1,500 people.

“For one-tenth of the expense, we were able to connect with six to ten times the number of people we would have connected with,” says Mannatech CEO and President Al Bala. And although event product sales were one-third of the normal amount, Bala says it was offset by the savings in product transport to the event and the convenience of shipping it directly to consumers’ homes. “It was more efficient and definitely more profitable sales than we would have had normally.”

“Even though we aren’t all together, we see you!”

“Going virtual” has a simple ring to it, but executives in the driver’s seat know the challenging behind-the-scenes experience of sifting through broadcasting options and platforms. Arbonne, who planned to launch 13 new products at their live convention this year, suddenly had only a fraction of their usual preparation time to devise communication strategies that would build excitement while playing well through the screen. Social media, which has always assumed a role at Arbonne events, was now critical, and the company leaned hard into these social integrations. To allow the executive team space to focus on engaging with attendees through the chat function, much of the content was prerecorded.

“Virtual GTC 2020 was created in about four weeks, and because of the incredibly pressing deadline, we absolutely learned as we went,” says Arbonne Senior Director of Communications Kristen Gruber. Gruber’s social media team developed teasers, quizzes and other interactive content that posted throughout the event. “This provided a level of engagement to our audience to really say, ‘Even though we aren’t all together, we see you!’”

Despite the fog of uncertainty during the first few weeks of the stay at home orders, LegalShield dove headfirst into creating virtual experiences and may have been the first direct sales company in North America to pivot to an entirely livestreamed international convention on April 4. When it became clear that their planned live event would not take place, the company transformed the auditorium in their Oklahoma headquarters into a full studio with only three weeks’ lead time. From there, they offered 16 hours of training content and recognition from over 40 field leaders and live hosts to more than 10,000 viewers. In addition, more than 5,000 associates joined their two-day Zoom Breakout Trainings before the larger event.

“For one-tenth of the expense, we were able to connect with six to ten times the number of people we would have connected with.”
— Mannatech CEO & President Al Bala.

“Our field leaders are extremely creative in using Zoom as a recruiting and training platform,” says LegalShield Network Division President Don Thompson. “They use breakout rooms to host associates and their guests after a presentation for a Q&A session and for associate interaction.”

To not only survive, but thrive in this unprecedented environment, LegalShield’s CEO Jeff Bell has cast a vision for the company as a “digital disruptor” who uses technology to fulfill their company’s mission. The focus for the company is not on their limitations, but rather on how they can innovate and improve and use the tools available to spread their message and keep the field engaged and excited. “We are not at the level of Netflix or CBS,” Bell says, “but we are getting smarter and more successful in producing engaging content.”

As companies expand their live-streams to their international markets, the existing cultural and language barriers will have to be considered. Elepreneurs Chief Impact Officer Garrett McGrath, who also serves as President of the Association of Network Marketing Professionals, is watching as these virtual events begin to take shape on a global, multi-lingual scale. Although these broader events are more complex, McGrath is encouraged by the existing platforms that can do the heavy lifting for the direct sales industry.

Vimeo, a tool the ANMP relies on for its broadcasts, is paired with remote translators who use the Interactio app—which McGrath describes as a flawless application—to tap into the livestream and recreate the content in their listeners’ language.

“All you have to have is a good originating broadcast quality, and that becomes the place from where everybody views the actual convention, even though we’re bringing people in from all over the world,” McGrath says.

Caution: Challenges Ahead

Everyone is more than eager to get back to normal and industry leaders are at the front of the line, hurriedly trying to recreate their office environment from thousands of satellite home offices scattered across the globe where their leaders live and now work. But as the world has quickly discovered, working separately but together has come with its own set of unique challenges, and large virtual events are not immune to these foibles.

Security has been a hot topic for Zoom users (LegalShield reported instances of “Zoom Bombers” during their first few training sessions before password protections halted any further disruptions), but for other, more complex broadcasting platforms, hacking isn’t as much of a concern. The security concern, according to Katapult Events President Erik Johnson, should be privacy. “I wouldn’t put anything out on a stream that you wouldn’t want the world to see,” Johnson says. “Someone at home is likely recording it whether you want them to or not, and it’ll be on YouTube by the end of the day.” For companies who live and die by FTC compliance, it’s a stern warning for leaders. Even if a distributor thinks they’re in a private virtual room with only top-tier leaders, there is great potential that their words will become public.

“Our field leaders are extremely creative in using Zoom as a recruiting and training platform. They use breakout rooms to host associates and their guests after a presentation for a Q&A session and for associate interaction.”
— LegalShield Network Division President Don Thompson.

There will also be a fluency issue for older distributors who aren’t used to virtual interactions and for whom these new changes will require a steep learning curve. “I feel sorry for companies that are older and already have their culture set in stone because they’re going to have to switch at some point to this,” RevitalU CEO Andrew McWilliams says.

Even though virtual events are notoriously less expensive than their in-person counterparts, going too cheap can be very obvious. “A lot of people think they can just hop on Zoom and be fine,” says Johnson, who now produces SeneGence’s virtual events. The result of a frugal presentation, however, is fuzzy resolution, glitchy streaming and a visible mouse pointer on shared screens—not the high-quality presentation multimillion- and multibillion-dollar brands should attach their names to.

For the April SeneGence virtual event, Johnson utilized Vimeo for live streaming at the Enterprise level and set up studios at the Oklahoma and California SeneGence offices. With his crew and all of their gear at both locations, they connected the two offices live on camera for a high def broadcast that looked like prime time tv.

As physical events reemerge in the months to come, Johnson warns that virtual events should never be just a recorded version of the live event. Instead, he encourages leaders to plan for physical and virtual hybrids. For example, his crew is building a side stage that is reminiscent of the ESPN Sports Desk for the host of the virtual watch party at one of his client’s upcoming in-person events. Even though one large event will be happening, two different audiences with different attention spans will be watching. By having a dedicated host, he’ll be able to accommodate both.

Facebook Live Fright

As leaders who are used to delivering speeches from stages in loud rooms begin broadcasting from their kitchen table or home office to an audience they can’t see, they’re discovering that stage fright and Facebook Live fright are two different fears and require two different skill sets.

McGrath described his feelings about hosting an eight-hour live event as somewhere between nerve-wracking and exciting. He and wife Sylvia, Elepreneurs Chief Experience Officer, introduced live speakers and announced prerecorded segments and then watched comments and emojis unfold in real-time over an eight-hour stretch.

The stamina required to create these engaging content segments back-to-back for that length of time is similar to expecting sprints in the middle of a marathon. “The biggest concern you always have is: can you keep people’s attention for 12 and a half hours?” Bala says.

But it’s not just the audience’s attention that leaders are concerned about. “I don’t think you can underestimate what it does to the speaker’s energy to talk to a crowd,” Bala says. “When you’re a speaker, it engages you at a different level. You can’t replicate that virtually.”

An Attention Shift

Change can be a dirty word in an industry rooted in tradition, and that’s why McWilliams is choosing to embrace this time of disruption. As people readily accept digital platforms out of necessity, McWilliams says this temporary shift to virtual will now be permanent for his young organization. “I’m never going back,” he says. “It has been the most cost-effective thing we’ve ever done.” In April, RevitalU experienced double-digit percentage growth over March. After their first major virtual event on May 2, the company was up almost 55 percent over April by May 7. “It does not feel like a blip on a radar screen,” he says. “What it feels like is a shift of attention.”

These live virtual events with openly visible comment boxes bring with them a lack of control, but the effect, McGrath says, is unparalleled. “We were very aware that people don’t want a presentation; they want a conversation,” he says. “There’s a risk with a conversation because you don’t know what the other person is going to say, but that’s why people show up: because it hasn’t gone through the corporate whitewash and hasn’t been overly sanitized. It’s spontaneous and real.”

“We were very aware that people don’t want a presentation; they want a conversation.”
– Garrett McGrath, Elepreneurs Chief Experience Officer

In the short term, physical events aren’t possible, but even when the restrictions from the global pandemic are lifted, some executives are expecting a slow return as people remain gun-shy about close social interaction and even handshakes. McGrath says the question of when things will go back to normal is the wrong question. “The real question is, between now and then, can we document a plan that people can rely on as proven to work today?”

Is Virtual Really a Success?

There is no industry-wide metric for success when it comes to this new switch to virtual. Still, as many leaders face pent up demand and anxiety swirling around the new normal that has been thrust upon them, the measurement for success will depend upon each company’s specific goals and missions.

For affiliate-focused companies, comment engagement on a Facebook Live event could provide a gauge for distributor reach. Many executives are now reporting a sharp increase in sales during and after virtual events—when distributors would usually be socializing or traveling home—and are using that as their new benchmark for success.

Virtual can’t mimic the adrenaline rush of a packed arena, but industry leaders are approaching this new playing field with cautious optimism. For now, there is convincing emerging data that pivoting to virtual is doing little to harm the health of direct selling companies, and might actually be making a once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift that offers a glimpse into where the future of the industry might be headed.

“This is here to stay,” Bala says. “It’s just going to become another tool in our toolbox to create that engagement with our associates and for associates to create engagement among themselves.” DSN


 

VirBELA: The New Virtual Headquarters

Virtual events may be booming, but it will be finding ways to digitally recreate the ordinary daily interactions that will be key for direct selling to weather this storm of isolation and uncertainty. RevitalU has found its solution through VirBELA, a technology platform that allows companies to create a virtual headquarters. With VirBELA, people can come together formally for events, like a conference room where they’ll hear keynote speakers, as well as informally, like in virtual hallways between sessions where they can start up casual conversations.

Through avatars and multi-dimensional rooms, users can interact digitally in a personal way that doesn’t create the Zoom fatigue that comes with endless video chats. “It gives you autonomy to interact with whom you want to interact with and go where you want to go,” says VirBELA Founder and President Alex Howland, Ph.D. “When you read a book, you’re not paying attention to the black and white words or pages; you’re getting immersed into the book. The same thing happens with VirBELA. Your brain starts to feel like you’re physically in the room with colleagues.

Glenn Sanford, eXp Realty Founder and CEO, has been using VirBELA as his company’s virtual campus since 2016. During that time, he grew his number of agents from 900 to 29,000 from the virtual headquarters that he mans from the casita over his garage. In April of this year, his success with the virtual platform led him to join the VirBELA team as the company’s Chief Strategy Officer so that he could extend his knowledge and experience with simulated campuses to other business leaders navigating these unprecedented waters.

Sanford offered advice to McWilliams, one of the newest CEOs to become an adopter of the VirBELA technology, by explaining that the simulated campus will only work if McWilliams insists that people meet him in his virtual Planet RevitalU office, rather than picking up the phone. “We have an office, and I don’t care if it opens back up,” McWilliams says. “We’re going to make the physical office voluntary. For our business practices and working together, it’s going to be done online.”

 


Virtual Event Tips

Take your virtual event to the next level with these tips from production expert and consultant to the direct selling industry, Erik Johnson of Katapult Events.

“How good your first event is will determine if they buy your next.” — Erik Johnson, Katapult Events President

  • Forget Zoom. Use Vimeo to live stream.
  • Prerecording some content eliminates the potential for user error, streamlines transitions and trims the boring out of stories.
  • Use permissions to put events and event extras behind paywalls or passwords. Erik uses Phinkific.com to preserve special VIP treatments, like a Q&A with the keynote speaker, for specific distributor ranks and above.
  • Hire a professional. Picture-in-picture, title animation and HD screen shares matter.
  • Show others what they’re missing. Even if you’re charging for a virtual event, share a short segment onto Facebook Live for things like new product announcements. At the end of the segment, offer viewers the opportunity to buy access to the rest of the event. It’s a double bang for your production buck and a quick upsell.
  • Everything has to be faster. What might have taken you four minutes to say on a live stage, should take you 90 seconds when speaking to a virtual audience.
  • Shoot with two cameras. A simple wide shot and a close up will give your broadcast movement and will be more likely to hold attention.
  • A high-quality mic is just as important as good video. If they can’t hear you well, they will leave.
  • Don’t be afraid to hire an outside emcee. Professional talent can take your event from stagnant to funny, drive the energy of the show, and be in charge of throwing it to different hosts—chief executives, distributors—to keep the show moving.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Get rid of the extra stuttering and “um” sounds and give your team the chance to feel the flow of the event.
  • Double-dip your filming days. When broadcasting virtual events, you’ll likely have the members of your executive teams and an elaborate, staffed studio all in one place. Use this opportunity to film upcoming product launches, expand your expert interviews and update your opportunity presentation.

 



Five Ways to Simplify Your Pivot to Virtual

  • Don’t confuse virtual with automated. Even though there are no smoke machines and spotlights, this is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of environment. Building an interactive experience is key to getting virtual events right.
  • Prepare your team. Expect worst-case scenarios and plan how they’ll be addressed on the spot to protect your brand.
  • Choose your comment comfort level. Instantly visible, unfiltered feedback may complement the tone of a keynote address, or it might exacerbate the awkwardness of lackluster attendance. Pick an audience participation level that matches the event vibe.
  • Tap into existing partner platforms. Seamlessly charge registration for large events and automatically capture potential customer contact information. (Eventbrite, PayPal, Pardot and HubSpot are good leads for these functions)
  • Deliver an in-person experience. Pick two or three elements of your usual in-person events that can be creatively replicated while apart. If distributors have come to expect a lavish lunch break at events, send restaurant or food delivery gift cards to registrants ahead of time. These small gestures will build community while making a memorable impact.
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