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Whether it’s winning a major sports championship or fulfilling your dream of playing electric guitar in front of thousands of screaming fans, it seems that everything these days can now be done virtually. B-to-b events are no different, as recent advances in technology have pushed some trade shows and broad-scale meetings into the online world.

A specific b-to-b event now receiving greater virtual consideration is the sales kickoff, the signature event of the sales year. While these meetings give CXOs and other key groups an opportunity to communicate directly with the sales team, they are expensive, often running well over $1,000 per rep when all expenses are accounted for. In comparison, virtual events often run $100 or less per attendee, making them very attractive to those looking to cut costs. In this brief, we discuss the move toward virtual kickoffs, the key considerations involved, and a few innovations that if embraced can expand the value of going virtual.

A Virtual Move
The global economy’s rapid deceleration in the fourth quarter of 2008 forced nearly every organization we work with to have at least a fleeting thought of canceling their 2009 sales kickoff. An informal poll conducted in early 2009 found roughly 20 per cent of sales organizations chose to eat the cancellation fees and deliver kickoff information in another way. Another 40 per cent proceeded with an event, but in a scaled-down fashion that included cutting back on attendees, outside speakers and lavish extras. The remaining 40 percent went ahead as planned, determining it was simply too late, too risky or too expensive to cancel with no viable alternative in place.

Besides their natural cost advantages, a key driver causing sales leaders to at least consider bucking kickoff convention is that virtual event technology has seen dramatic improvement over the last couple of years. It also hasn’t hurt that key vendors in the virtual space, including Unisfair, ON24 and InXpo, all have announced solutions developed specifically for virtual kickoff meetings.

Online kickoff meetings can include main tent sessions, breakout groups, product showcases and lounges for networking; integrated chat, discussion forums, and feedback and administration functionality all can enhance the experience. Executives can analyze data to track both attendance and time spent within the virtual environment, providing an innovative look at attendee behavior. Multimedia studios can be hired to enhance production, content creation and technical expertise. Total costs begin at around $40,000 to create a virtual event, and increase depending on audience size and functionality required.

Not So Fast?
Simply transporting traditional sales meeting content from the stage to a rep’s desktop won’t work. Annual kickoff planners will have to reconsider how to most effectively produce and deliver each of the meeting’s key components, including:

* Strategic vision. The delivery of the key strategic message from CXOs and sales leaders is always a main tent event. While virtual technologies can’t replicate the energy of a packed room, webcasting can still convey the message and the feeling of a live event. These webcasts can be conducted live or pre-recorded to improve the quality of the presentation; using a “studio audience” or regional gatherings could further enhance the experience.

* Networking. Salespeople rely first and foremost on their personal networks to get the answers and knowledge they need when selling. Those in the field rarely get the chance to see anyone other than their teammates; the kickoff meeting represents a unique opportunity to build relationships with an inside lead development rep or other colleagues selling to common audiences; to interact with product marketers and subject matter experts (SMEs); to meet those in administrative and order-processing functions; and even to lobby a regional manager for a promotion. While there is no virtual replacement for these relation-ship-building opportunities – and as such is a natural tradeoff – there are some unique virtual options to consider, options that will be discussed in the next section.

* Training. Training teams take advantage of everyone being together at a kickoff to stage large-scale, instructor-led classroom training on skills, processes and products. In the past, learning management systems have been unable to replicate the learning experience and interactive dialogue of a live setting; now, online functionality can better replicate the benefits of the traditional classroom experience.

* Business operations. The often mundane operations-related communications that must be shared with reps are actually the easiest component to deal with, as they can easily be delivered with live or on-demand webcasts.

* Motivation. Presentations from Olympians and mountain climbers are intended to add a shot of adrenaline to kickoffs, balancing out what are sometimes dull training and educational components. While these messages don’t translate well to the virtual world, they do challenge sales leaders to develop a more lasting motivational strategy that can be shared with reps as part of a long-term sales communications effort.

When you add all of these components together, it’s pretty easy to see that while virtual events will ease many of the costs of travel and venue, they aren’t free. They also have their own challenges, particularly in the organization, production and delivery of what is still a significant amount of content. While the costs for webcasting, learning and broadcasting may be absorbed by the existing internal capabilities of some companies, others will need to make new investments.

Taking Full Advantage
Going virtual means the sales kickoff meeting never has to end. Instead of a standalone, three-day event that quickly fades from memory, it can be delivered as part of the day-to-day communications strategy for the sales organization. An often-undeveloped upside of going virtual is the reusability of content, which requires a media strategy and production capability so content can be repurposed for internal or external use. Executive messages also can be replayed for new hires or shared with select clients, and product presentations can be edited down into pod-casts to provide just-in-time sales knowledge.

In addition, leveraging on-demand elements with instructor-led, Web-based training could foster a true learning environment in contrast to kickoff training sessions where attendees often become distracted. Utilizing Web-based sessions for certification also allows reps to absorb content at a rate they’re comfortable with, rather than cramming information into tight agenda time slots.
Finally, today’s reps are largely using social media on an individual basis. Losing one of their main face-to-face interactions may provide you with the opportunity to develop a much broader virtual networking environment and culture throughout sales. The creation of an internal LinkedIn capability will help new or remote reps quickly get to the right resource, while collaboration technologies can manage and administer communities moderated by subject matter experts (SMEs) that provide the tactical intelligence a salesperson needs on the next call. SMEs also can leverage blogs with content that supports salespeople through RSS feeds or from a Twitter burst.

Going virtual for a sales kickoff meeting means experiencing both positives and negatives. Yes, you’ll save money. No, you won’t be able to exactly replicate the networking that many reps consider so important. Yes, you might be able to improve the results of your training efforts (but only with a buttoned-up, complete strategy that involves ongoing reinforcement and certification). No, you won’t be able to make a splash with Lance Armstrong. In the end, it’s weighing the positives and negatives – and honestly assessing your organization’s ability to take advantage of what virtual events offer uniquely versus what you might lose in translation that will help you make the right decision. Regardless, we believe that next year will be one rife with economic challenges, all of which will have sales leaders again considering – albeit this time with much more runway time – what to do with their kickoff.

About the Author:

SiriusDecisions, a leading source for business-to-business sales and marketing best-practice research and data. SiriusDecisions Executive Advisory Services, Consulting Services, Benchmark Assessment Services, Learning and Events provide senior-level executives with the sales and marketing operational intelligence required to maximize top line growth and performance. 

©SiriusDecisions, 2009. Reproduced with permission.



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