How to Connect When You Can't: Energize Your Sales Team with a Virtual SKO

The sales kickoff (SKO) is a time to motivate, educate, entertain and celebrate your sales team. Although virtual SKOs may seem like a poor substitute to in-person events, we’d make the case that a virtual SKO can actually set them up for better results (especially if they’re involved in remote selling). | Originally aired on February 24, 2022

Rather read a transcript of the session?


Key takeaways.


You can include so many more people–other departments and sales supporting staff, leading to a richer experience.


On-demand sessions can be rewatched as many times as needed–as a refresher or for those who weren’t able to attend.


Less is more! Create a smaller agenda, with thoughtful content, and tactful breaks in order to boost engagement and impact.

HubSpot Video

Always have a robust contingency plan. Things change on a dime… So we make sure we have that really thoughtful and documented so everyone on our team can go into action with what that plan might be.


Episode Transcript

Ellen Smoley: Hello everyone and welcome to our coffee break, How To Connect When You Can't: Energizing Your Sales Team With a Virtual SKO. I'm so happy to be here with you today talking with Stephanie Siemens, our lead for a recent client, virtual sales kickoff meeting. Steph worked day and night to help our client create a successful SKO, and we're really excited to share some of our learnings with you all today. Please drop questions in the Q and A, and then also let us know where you're joining from. Steph, I'm happy to be here with you today.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah. Thanks Ellen. Super happy to be here and to talk about this event with you.

Ellen Smoley: Yeah, absolutely. So Steph kick us off. Tell us a little bit about the client's goals and how you want to work with them.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah. Sure, so I think it helps to give a little bit of background and set the stage before we jump into the virtual side of this event. But this event for our client was supposed to be a hybrid event. So they were going to have everybody get everybody back together in-person. They were going to over index on the in-person side of it. There was going to be a virtual aspect to it, but they were really holding that for people who either couldn't attend the in-person event or didn't feel comfortable yet going back in-person. So they were really focused on getting everybody back together. Everybody was super excited about this. So, that was the original intent when we started planning this event with the client. I'll list off some of their high level goals for the event, but they included education and knowledge sharing, which is always huge in sales meetings. They included motivation.

Stephanie Siemens: So motivating your sales team, kicking off the year with a bang, which is always big for sales kickoffs. Entertainment was big. You really want to entertain your sales team and really get them excited for the year ahead. Maybe spice it up with some surprise and delight in there. And then the celebration is huge. So, celebrating not only the company's success from the year prior, but also your top performers, and this all culminates in an award ceremony at the end of the event. So, fast forward through the planning process and the holidays hit 2021, end of the year, holiday season, and COVID starts to come back a little bit with a vengeance, and with our new... with the new variant, cases started coming up.

Stephanie Siemens: And so we were getting a little bit nervous watching it, keeping a really close eye on it. But on January 3rd, with two weeks to go before the event, our client made the really hard decision to cancel the in-person event and really pivot to a 100% virtual experience. And this was a really big decision. Everyone did understand because the health and safety of their employees was number one to them, but it came with some disappointment as well because everyone was so excited to come back in-person, see their friends, and have this sales kickoff that was like a big party.

Stephanie Siemens: So, we had to keep reminding ourselves that there are a couple of big advantages to having a fully virtual meeting. And especially for the sales meeting, one of the biggest advantages is you can include so many more people. You can include other departments, you can include sales supporting staff, and really that helps with knowledge sharing, and it really gives everybody a much richer experience, getting more minds involved in the content and in all the collaboration. And the second big advantage is having sessions on demand and the ability to go back to the sessions and rewatch.

Stephanie Siemens: Now, a lot of times when you're in-person, it's hard. You digest a session, but then you go on, you go home, and sometimes you forget about what you learned in that session. And with virtual, you can watch the sessions as many times as you want. If you have to look up a quick fact, you can go and do that. So it's really helpful as an education tool for your sales team. So, when we made the decision to pivot to virtual, we had to keep in mind those high level goals I just went over, but we also wanted to focus on a couple of key in-person elements and how to shift those to work in a 100% virtual experience. So, we're going to go through a couple of those key aspects. Ellen, do you want to get us kicked off?

Ellen Smoley: Yeah, absolutely. So when we were planning the hybrid event, they had a really cool cultural activity planned for the in-person audience. And so when we went to virtual, they said, “okay, we still want to do something around this cultural experience, so can you help figure out what that might be?” So the culture experience that they had planned in-person was to understand colleagues' key strengths and values. So we really took a look at their goals for this specific activity. And what we were able to do was to create a virtual photo booth. And with the use of colors and stickers and frames, we were able to have people use the photo booth to express their strengths and their values.

Ellen Smoley: And it was neat to see this all come together at the end. It built a big collage. And so I could kind of look in and see who had a blue background with me, or who had those same values as me using the stickers and frames. And so it was just a really neat way to pivot from something that was supposed to be an in-person to let's do this digitally, and we did it. We executed that pretty well.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah. I think it's a great way to get to know your other colleagues too, and how to work best with them.

Ellen Smoley: Right. And everyone put their name in. So even if I was new to the company or the company has grown so much over the past couple of years, since we all got together last, looking to see the name of that and then connecting with them online.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah, super cool. The next aspect I'll mention is for entertainment. So we really wanted to incorporate entertainment into this virtual experience. One of the ways we did that was hiring a performer to kick off the award ceremony on our last day. And this performer was a little bit different. So, maybe not what you would expect from a corporate event. He is/was he performed at the event, a freestyle rapper. So, his whole deal was he liked to get the audience involved and really involved in his performance. So they would submit words via the chat for him to incorporate into his rap, right, live during the performance. So they could be words related to the company, or they could be random words like hippopotamus or a Husky dog, and he would incorporate them into his performance, and people loved it. It was a great way to get them excited about the event and really kick off this celebratory session that we were hosting.

Stephanie Siemens: And that leads me into my next point, the awards ceremony, which is a really, really key piece of a sales kickoff. And it's a little bit tricky virtually because you can't... you don't have a stage. You have a virtual stage instead. So, one big thing that we wanted to make sure of for the award ceremony is we wanted people to be able to see the recipients' faces when they accepted their awards. So that was something that was really important to our client. Now we had to little bit of AV Jiu-Jitsu to make this happen, and we work with a really great AV team that can make magic happen with all of our technologies, but this meant pulling in the award recipients, making sure they were on the right platform, so they could receive their award when their name was called.

Stephanie Siemens: This was also a little bit different from the in-person experience because we had to give the award winners a heads up the night before. Now, usually, if you're in-person, it's a surprise when they're sitting in the audience, but when you're virtual, you have to make sure people are ready to be seen by the entire company, ready to turn their cameras on, make sure they're not fresh out of the shower with wet hair, that kind of thing. So we did give them the heads up the night before that they would be pulled on stage and turn their cameras on. And it was really well received by everyone. People loved seeing people be brought up on screen and accept their awards. So that was a really great touch.

Ellen Smoley: Yeah. And I think it made the award winners feel really special too, to have just a couple minutes of fame to wave, say hello, and really just be highlighted for their achievements.

Ellen Smoley: So, that was great. The rapper was incredible. Another experience that we switched to in an all 100% virtual was the gifting piece. At Iron Horse, we think that digital gifting and the digital experience is a must have just to have that surprise and delight. And so the in-person was supposed to have a little popup store where you could go shop and get some swag and purchase some other items, but we really turned that into a virtual experience where you were given a virtual gift card and still could shop online. So therefore it wasn't the in-person shopping experience, but really you could still spend that money online.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah. I think people really liked that. The next thing I'll mention is incorporating and focusing on the why at your event. So I'll explain what I mean by this. And I'm taking a book out of Simon Sinek's book; a page out of his book. Excuse me. And if for those of you not aware or familiar with Simon, he is an award-winning author and speaker, and he has this concept of three concentric circles. So when he works with corporations, the outside circle is what the company does. So everyone knows what their company does or should. The second circle is how they do it, how they do what they do as a company, but the internal, the inner circle, he calls it the golden circle, is the why. And this is something that a lot of companies don't spend a lot of time on, but it's why they are a company and it relates directly to their mission and values.

Stephanie Siemens: And it's something that is really, really important to remind, especially your sales team as they're kicking off the year, why they're around as a company and what their products or service is, who they're helping, all of that. And a really good way to incorporate your why into the event is hosting a corporate social responsibility activity or a CSR. And that is some kind of volunteer activity, maybe that relates back to your mission and your values for your company. You can maybe partner with a local nonprofit, but there's a lot of great ways to incorporate a give back activity into your event, just so you can remind your organization why you do what you do. And that's very important.

Ellen Smoley: Yeah, absolutely. Super important. Another important piece I'd like to turn to is the content piece of a virtual event. So when we were thinking about this as a hybrid event, of course, we had two different audiences. We had the in-person audience, and we had the online audience, and we were building agendas for both. When we pivoted to being 100% virtual, we really, really tried to take a look at the agenda and be very thoughtful with the sessions that we offered. We have been doing these virtual events for over two years now. And as we continue to look at the data and the engagement, it really works out for the best if you have a smaller agenda.

Ellen Smoley: We always feel compelled to pack as much as we can into these two days or these three days, but really being thoughtful with the agenda and creating a smaller agenda with breaks in between. So we found that our audience really likes to have breaks so they can get up and eat and go let the dog out, and do whatever they need to do at home, but still come back to the education. So when we did pivot to 100% virtual, we did take a look at the agenda and make sure it was still getting a lot of the educational content that we could, but definitely looking at the structure of that and making sure that it felt not overwhelming and very doable for the two and a half days.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah, and I think that makes your content and your event so much more impactful when you're giving people time to digest and then walk away from the computer and come back and deal with life stuff. I think that's super helpful. Related to the agenda and the session, something else that's really important is to make sure you are getting a lot of great interaction between your attendees and your speakers and people are interacting, collaborating with each other. So one of the best ways to do that is incorporating chat and Q and A with every session. So for the Q and A that's pretty standard with virtual events, but attendees need to have some avenue to ask questions of the speakers.

Stephanie Siemens: And a lot of times, if it's a live session, speakers may get to the question during their session, but if they don't, they should be following up with that person after the event and supplying them with an answer. But what we really saw that was very successful at this past event was incorporating chat into sessions. And it really acted as a stream of consciousness for the attendees, for them to really give us direct feedback on whether or not these sessions were hitting, or if they're understanding things, or if they're confused, or if they're loving it, people were active in the chat the entire sessions, and they were interacting with each other. So it was just great to see that as even a networking tool as well, and see how people are interacting with each other as it relates to the content. And that’s only strengthening the education, which is hitting on one of those main high level goals for the event for sure.

Ellen Smoley: Right, yeah. That was a huge piece to have both chat and Q and A on our sessions, I felt that was, yeah, very valuable. And then the last piece here that we'll talk about is the production quality. So when you were in-person at an event, you've got the amazing stage lighting and the speakers on stage. And so we wanted to really pull that back to the virtual event too, and so what that means is really having high production quality. So really speaking time and being thoughtful about what you're going to create and produce to your audience. So we were able to create intros and outros that gave a little bit of hype before the session.

Ellen Smoley: And so had some music and some animations to enter into the session, and then closing out, it had some animations as well. On top of that, the event also had corporate videos. So these corporate videos really tugged on heartstrings, they made you feel motivated and made you really love the brand and be happy and excited that you worked at this company. So adding those in before the speakers got started, you were able to have some brand personality put in there and we thought that that was great, and definitely something that's necessary when you're hosting SKO.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah. And that relates directly back to the why and the Simon Sinek conversation we were having earlier that really ties it all back and it was a really nice thread throughout the event to tie in that mission and values and get people really inspired to start the year off well.

Ellen Smoley: Yeah, exactly.

Stephanie Siemens: Yeah. Oh, right. Well, we just went through a bunch of great key in-person elements that we pivoted in two weeks to a 100% virtual experience. So thanks Ellen for helping me get through those. I'm going to turn it over to you to close us out here with three main takeaways as you plan your next virtual event.

Ellen Smoley: Yep. Absolutely. So Steph and I talked you through a lot of the things that we saw during this virtual sales kick off, but wanted to leave you if you're going to walk away from this with anything, just these three main things. That is number one, always have a robust contingency plan. Things change on a dime as we've been aware of over the past two and a half years. And so really be thinking about this. And we were, we thought about this before we even got started planning the hybrid event, we thought there could be a possibility that we'll have to go 100% virtual. We weren't wanting to do that. We wanted to keep this hybrid event, but unfortunately the way things turned out, we started to think about that earlier.

Ellen Smoley: So, I would say always have a robust contingency plan in mind, so that includes the plan for your whole event and also some disaster recovery plans. Iron Horse is big on that and making sure that if a speaker doesn't show up, or if the site goes down, what's our plan? What do we do? We don't want to be surprised so we make sure that we have that really thoughtful and documented. And so everybody on our team can go into action with what that plan might be.

Ellen Smoley: Number two is less is more. So, like we mentioned with the agenda, really being thoughtful about the content that you're producing, we all have so much content, but what does your audience want to see and how can they filter it? Make sure that they're not overwhelmed when they're entering into your virtual experience with thousands and thousands of sessions that they're very thoughtfully planned. And then the last one we have, Steph mentioned it earlier, is that surprise and delight. So how are you going to delight your attendees, who are with you for half a day, a day, two days, however long that you have their attention, how are you going to delight them?

Ellen Smoley: So this is with performances and hiring some musical acts or a really cool rapper with your high quality speakers, with those corporate videos, that high quality content, that high production or with direct mail and gifting. So are you going to send them a snack box so while they're watching, they can have a snack or even a digital DoorDash gift card? So how are you going to delight them in that way? So those are our three takeaways from this session. We really thank you for being with us and can't wait to see you all again, next time around. Thanks, Steph for chatting with me today.

Stephanie Siemens: Thanks Ellen, and see you next time.

Ellen Smoley: See you next time.