Virtual events open up opportunity for companies to reach more people
By: David Rauf
“This is attractive. It’s less travel, less stress. Virtual has really opened things up, and I don’t think it’s going to go away. That means hybrid events are coming.”
—Jeff Poe, creative director, Multi Image Group
“From a cost point of view, it’s literally one-fifth of our normal conference budget, and we’re reaching five to 10 times more people than we normally reach. For us, that makes sense.”
—Al Bala, CEO, Mannatech
“It’s such a broad reach. It’s global. That’s what these virtual conferences are allowing us to do. It’s really opened up a lot of doors for network marketing companies.”
—Jack Fallon, chief vision officer, Total Life Changes
Since early 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak upended normal business for corporations around the globe, direct sellers have relied on virtual events to host everything from training sessions to their splashy conferences.
But now direct selling companies, along with businesses in all industries dependent on in-person sales and events, are starting to prepare for a slow return to normalcy as vaccines begin to circulate.
Companies are clamoring to get back to a time when face-to-face parties and mega conferences can once again be held in person. However, executives also recognize the forced shift to virtual events is here to stay in some manner, even in a post-pandemic landscape. The convenience and cost-saving benefits are too much to ignore.
That means the channel can expect a switch to more hybrid events moving forward.
“ ‘Hybrid’ is the buzzword right now,” says Jeff Poe, creative director at Multi Image Group, an event production company that works with direct sellers to host virtual events. “I do see hybrid events becoming the thing in the future.”
Poe says direct sellers are realizing that “they can do so much more with a virtual event than they ever could with an in-person” conference. Companies can still put on a big show, but when streaming online, it opens the door for people who can’t travel to attend. Aside from giving access to a much broader audience, there’s cost savings for companies and attendees who don’t have to pay for travel and lodging.
“This is attractive. It’s less travel, less stress,” says Poe. “Virtual has really opened things up, and I don’t think it’s going to go away. That means hybrid events are coming.”
The Future Is Here
The concept is already gaining traction. In a call with analysts over the summer, USANA CEO Kevin Guest shared an interesting detail about the company’s outlook for future conventions and events. The company had just finished holding its first-ever series of global virtual conventions, and Guest came away from those experiences seemingly convinced that a hybrid model would be the best path forward.
“‘I think my vision is that we will move into some sort of hybrid when we actually can meet in person. There is power in meeting in person, but how can we leverage what we’re learning through technology to reach those who can’t afford to travel around the world to come to an event? So we will leverage that experience and opportunity to adapt how we do our events, and I think it will be a hybrid. We will continue to utilize technology in a greater form from an events perspective, but I do expect us to return to our in-person conventions as well.”
Guest added that virtual events might be more limited. Typically, USANA does a national kick-off event in every market, and “we might go more virtual there and rely more heavily on technology from that perspective, … and then focus more of the in-person on the global type of events.”
Poe says direct sellers were early adopters of virtual conferences compared to other industries that his live event company works with. When COVID-19 dashed plans for in-person conferences, direct sellers were hit with the realization that “you couldn’t celebrate folks who are crushing it, and you can’t push products as effectively,” he says.
Most of the successful direct selling companies have adopted some sort of virtual conference model, he says, because it was “either do nothing or do something.” In many cases, the results have blown away expectations in terms of attendance.
“We started off with a couple of direct sellers expecting 2,000 to 3,000 people to attend because that’s what they normally get to attend their live events,” Poe says. “But it went quadruple and quintuple right off the bat.”
Tupperware CEO Miguel Fernandez told analysts in October 2020 that the company had about 2,500 to 3,000 people normally attending one of its big annual conferences. But with a recent virtual conference, 8,000 distributors tuned in, “thereby creating a larger community of engaged leaders.”
Mannatech CEO Al Bala says his company has held about eight virtual conferences since the pandemic started last year—and so far attendance has been booming at every one.
They include all the regular direct selling conference happenings: keynote speakers, tips from corporate and top field leaders, product roll-outs, product specials, training, recognition for top earners, and prizes.
“From a cost point of view, it’s literally one-fifth of our normal conference budget, and we’re reaching five to 10 times more people than we normally reach. For us, that makes sense,” Bala says. “The concept of a hybrid event with a local audience but broadcasting to a larger audience is going to be part of our strategy going forward.”
Jack Fallon, chief vision officer for Total Life Changes, says his company used to keep live conference attendance capped at about 500 to maintain an intimate setting. Now, virtual conferences are being streamed by up to 10,000 people viewing in five different languages.
“It’s such a broad reach. It’s global. That’s what these virtual conferences are allowing us to do. It’s really opened up a lot of doors for network marketing companies,” he says. “Moving forward, they’ll be hybrid. Everything we do is going to be virtual and live.”
Total Life Changes was one of the first direct selling companies to broadcast a virtual conference, as the pandemic outbreak took place right before one of the company’s major events. Fallon says the decision to go virtual so quickly was easy because “we needed to carry on.”
“At the time, people needed to see companies continuously push forward because of pure fear,” he says.
Fallon notes that the company’s last major virtual conference, held over three days last November, generated about 42,000 viewers.
“We’re continuously getting better with the virtual events,” he says. “I recommend everyone look into virtual and hybrid, so we can continue to do what we know how to do best in this space.”
In the Spotlight
One of the most important elements of any direct sales conference is the awards and recognitions portion for top earners.
Poe of Multi Image Group says direct sellers hosting virtual events were most hesitant about how to replace in-person award ceremonies with the online equivalent.
“It’s the big moment at these shows. It’s the coup de grâce,” he says. “And for good reason. These people are there busting their butt to sell these products. It’s also a motivator for other people who aren’t at that level yet. They said ‘we can’t replace the awards segments.’ But we said ‘you’re not replacing them.’ We found a way to celebrate these people virtually. Is it the same? No. But it can be better in some ways.”
One of the ways that Poe says virtual conferences are addressing awards is to no longer relegate the recognitions to a single event at the end of the conference.
Instead, he says they’ve found ways to “spice up the awards by putting them around the show as opposed to one night. Now we’re celebrating people throughout the day’s events,” he says. “It could be as simple as a call-out or a live DJ making an announcement.”
Poe’s event planning company has also sent awards to recipients scheduled to arrive on the day of the show, or sometimes will have the courier waiting for a signal outside to knock on a door. On other occasions, some direct sellers have sent small camera crews “like Publishers Clearinghouse-style” to record the reactions live for the streamed event, he says.
Technology allows for award recipients to be on a virtual stage “as if they were standing on stage next to each other,” says Poe, so the announcements are made live during the conferences.
“There are a lot of ways we’re doing this to celebrate those folks because it is the big moment,” he says. “We can’t replace that live experience for the awards. Instead, we are making that a whole new experience. It’s been our most successful model.”
Poe notes that virtual events are scalable, so it gives more flexibility to direct sellers in how to approach the production aspects. “You can do these events at any level,” he says. “It just comes down to formatting and getting the right mix of live and pre-recorded material.”
At Mannatech, most segments of their virtual conferences are pre-recorded in advance to avoid tech issues and to “help manage the compliance side of things,” says Bala. He estimates about 75 percent of content is pre-recorded by company leaders in their own home environments.
But when it comes to the awards and recognition, Bala says it’s “our most produced segment” because of its importance. With an in-person event, he says, sometimes when you have dozens of people “crossing the stage at the same time, it becomes more like cattle and people don’t get personalized attention and recognition.”
So the production company Mannatech works with creates the “equivalent of being on stage” for the awards segment, and each winner is called out individually. Bala says the company had to mail out the awards in advance, so “there’s a lot of things we can still do better. But we were able to bring this experience to life by making sure each person had a video segment, and had their pictures on the screen,” he says. “So you get to experience that recognition.”
Bala adds that for Mannatech’s next big conference, it’s possible the company will broadcast from a studio with a “very small live audience.”
At Total Life Changes, the company’s executives go to a television studio to record segments for conferences live—no pre-recorded material, says Fallon, the chief vision officer. They have even flown in some weight-loss winners for recognition, he says.
The company has a process for recognizing award winners during virtual conferences that includes allowing them to give a short speech that is streamed to viewers. But Total Life Changes had to make adjustments to its awards process, including the cancellation of its ring ceremony because “it’s a pretty high-touch event with putting on rings.”
“It’s going to continuously evolve with these virtual events,” he says.
Fallon says his company has garnered a reputation as a “live meeting” company with dynamic speakers, presentations and a “team that does very well on stage.” So there was hesitation in accepting the all-virtual event model because speakers draw energy from the crowds, and “when you’re on camera, it’s just dead. The crowd is there. You just can’t hear them.”
In the months of hosting virtual conferences, he says that’s changed, “and I think they’re buying in now and accepting it.
“The virtual events are going to get better. It won’t ever 100 percent take the place of live events. Nothing will ever beat live.”
For Mannatech’s Bala, he says the jury is still out on whether the virtual conferences are “tapping into that emotional and passionate side of people. Are you really getting to their hearts? That’s one of the things we haven’t figured out yet.”
What is the long-term impact of these virtual events from the perspective of how they actually motivate people and help people make the kind of decisions to really drive the business forward?
That’s something we still don’t know and it’s not easy to assess.
Channel Shifts to Virtual Personal Meetings
Unique needs of direct selling field reps drive innovation in video platforms
As field representatives have been forced to move from in-person meetings to a blend of online meetings and webinars, many are quickly learning the limitations of presenting through a camera, rather than, let’s say, at a Starbucks or across their own kitchen table.
The tools, while revolutionary in and of themselves for all types of businesses, are not always well-suited to the direct selling field associate. The needs for shopping integration, enrollment functionality, and CRM are unique to the channel and require extended functionality not found in most current video conference platforms.
Thus, a newly formed market of Zoom-related technologies has sprung up to meet field demand for specific-use, video presentation and selling tools.
“Unfortunately, available platforms don’t go far enough in supporting field sales, and sellers often struggle to get it right,” says Steve Jamieson, CEO of WorkingLive, a provider of a Zoom-licensed video sales-enablement platform for direct sellers. “This can mean slower sales and stunted growth for their companies.”
Jamieson says some of the aspects of direct selling are often arcane to people outside the channel, and even those in direct selling can find using the technology on its own a challenge.
“There are so many differences,” says Jamieson. “We looked at every single aspect of the direct sales experience and built them all into Zoom to create a seamless, easy set of tools that any rep can use, leveraging the corporate brand, data, and marketing prowess to best facilitate increased product sales and enrollment.”
“For example,” he continues, “we’ve added speaker notes that only the presenter can see, audio and video tracks that can be turned on and off for each individual slide, and real-time international translation in 29 languages.”
Beyond a simple Zoom meeting, new tools can enable sales by improving the brand, facilitating transactions, and empowering the rep with better and more robust presentations.
The need is not likely to decrease. “Business is booming on Zoom,” says Jamieson, “We don’t believe it will slow down, even as the pandemic improves. It’s here to stay.”
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