We just finished our first completely-virtual company kickoff at Gainsight—Outcomes 2021. We think many were naturally dreading the idea of 2 days of video meetings, but it turns out the team knocked it out of the park. One Gainster remarked, “this is the best kickoff we’ve ever had—better than any of the in-person ones.” We don’t know if that’s a compliment or an indictment of past performances, but we’ll take it as a positive.
As with all virtual events in the “2020s,” we are learning and experimenting. In that spirit, we wanted to share some things that worked for us this year.
1. Consistent Themes Matter
While it’s reasonable to be a bit cynical about internal company branding and cliches, we’ve found that strong themes work. We used the highly-novel metaphor of a mountain trek for our event. 🙂 We recognize we may not be the first to have thought of that analogy. Still, the visual brand was highly global and allowed us to integrate imagery and terminology throughout the schedule. The theme also made us feel like we were all together, philosophically, if not physically.
2. Be Humane About The Length and Timing of the Event
We all know that we have increasingly-limited patience for video meetings. As such, we opted for two half days of content and planned to supplement with weekly ongoing training and enablement after the kickoff.
We also wanted to accommodate a global audience, with teammates throughout the United States as well as in Canada, England, Israel, and India. There is no “good” time block for all of those places, so we chose slots that were equally-inconvenient for all. Specifically, we planned 7 AM PT – 9:45 AM PT for the global part of the event and then 10 AM PT – 1 PM PT for our colleagues in North American time zones.
3. Make Global Lemonade Out of Virtual Lemons
While we certainly missed high fives and hugs, we celebrated the fact that our entire global company was “together” for the first time. We had activities and speakers featured from around the world. We tried to include music and cultural references tied to each of our offices. Outcomes 2021 was definitely our most globally-inclusive event ever.
4. Ditch the Slides
We all know there is a dramatic loss of engagement when a presenter switches into screen share mode. Be honest—you start multitasking the moment Zoom switches into slide mode. We all do. As such, we coached presenters to reduce slides and stay on full-screen camera. We used printed slides (held in front of the camera) in one session. We used props in others. Human faces make more powerful points than PowerPoint.
5. Go Big On Pre-recorded Video
We love making videos at Gainsight. But we’ve found some virtual events slack off on creating produced videos. Perhaps they think the entire event is a “video,” so they don’t need to bother recording in advance. But we all know that pre-recorded content is timely and can be edited to deliver a realistic, beautiful result!
While portions of the event included live content and Q&A, the pre-recorded sessions added a much-needed level of polish and pace.
6. Child-like Joy Beats Content Every Day
A friend of mine, Andy MacMillan, CEO of UserTesting, had his kickoff a few weeks before ours. So we had the benefit of stealing some of his ideas! He suggested keeping the content light. While we have a big company strategy and goals to unveil, people wouldn’t remember much from this one event no matter what we did.
So we focused on high-level videos getting our themes across. In particular, as we always do, we made silly videos! We created a parody of our executive meeting, with various execs singing in costume. We designed and filmed three game shows for our three company priorities (an idea directly stolen from Andy). And we even featured a rap battle, as one does.
7. Blow Up Zoom Chat
Throughout the event, we maintained the energy by keeping the Zoom chat going—with insights, kudos, and jokes.
8. Guest Speakers Add Variety
No surprise but, just like in in-person events, getting outsiders to talk helps break up the monotony of the program. We featured two client executives (Lumen and Paypal), a famous mountain climber (Alison Levine), a chess grandmaster (Garry Kasparov), and 2 of our investor friends from Vista Equity Partners (Tom Hogan and Jessica Cash).
9. Breakouts for Networking
We also created several sessions for Gainsters around the world to meet each other. We randomized them, creating situations where teammates from Hyderabad, St. Louis, and London were all connecting. We provided icebreaker questions and activities to work in small teams.
10. DJ For to win
Finally, and most importantly, the biggest “hack” ever is having a DJ for a virtual event. We hired DJ Skemaddox, who is truly EPIC! He mixed tunes from the 1960s to today and blended them so well together; we were all dancing in our home office chairs.
There you have it! Those are our top 10 ingredients for keeping employees energized and engaged during an annual kickoff. Have a look above at the results. We saw a 90.2% CSAT with a word cloud populated with words we don’t always associate with online meetings. ‘Child-like joy’, one of our treasured Gainsight values, will lead the way through 2021 as we apply these best practices to our event calendar. We hope 2022 brings us the chance to reconnect in person, in our collective new normal. Here’s to a pandemic-free future!