February 01, 2015
Show Them Who You Are: Driving Successful Events with Cultural Authenticity
by Beth Douglass Silcox
Excitement is palpable and anticipation electric. Energy fills the space and all eyes wait, fixed center stage. Perhaps no other industry rallies its salesforce in quite as spectacular fashion as direct selling, where participants create an atmosphere that resembles a professional sporting event, a national political convention and even a homegrown dance party.
Large-scale events are the culmination of tens of thousands of smaller gatherings that push business growth forward and foster belief among the rank and file selling field. By the time the pockets hit the seats in hotel ballrooms, convention centers and stadiums across the globe, successful direct selling companies have made it their business to fascinate their sales fields. As that first spotlight welcomes believers, it is up to corporate to deliver an authentic experience that lives up to the fascination and defines how the company wants the world to see them.
At an event is clearly one of the few times when a voice from the corporate level goes out powerfully to the field. The independent contractors are present, attentive, and invested in hearing and learning. This is the place to deliver big on consistency in messaging.
Events of all sizes are avenues where direct selling companies pass along their corporate culture. But it is the large-scale annual or semi-annual extravaganza that should capture the essence of a company’s culture in every conceivable way, from the personal development speakers who take the stage and ceremonial recognition of top leaders to the entertainment and extracurricular activities. Often, even the venue locales themselves, point back to the company’s authentic, true self—its culture.
Cultural expressions at these grand events range from Team National’s homegrown comfort, banquet-style roundtable seating, indoor beach volleyball games and sandcastle sculptures to NuSkin’s on-stage pyrotechnics, Cirque du Soleil style performances and innovative musical concerts by top-shelf artists like Seal.
While some companies because of the scale of their corporations or their cultural style may spend more money and offer more visual sizzle, the same event methodology applies to all. It’s not enough to simply tell the field who you are and what you stand for, you must show them.
For direct selling companies, “showing” starts in living rooms, kitchens and coffee shops across the globe. Every gathering, whether it be just two people or 2,000, is an event, and each of these events layers one on top of the other to lead direct sellers to yet a larger event, culminating in attendance at a national convention.
Participating in local events provides the first degree of connection for the independent consultant to the company, and to other consultants. From this, an individual is much more likely to take that leap to go to a regional event or fly to a national conference. When a company’s strategy includes a layered event rhythm, independent consultants build relationships, gain knowledge and understand the value of that national conference. By layering events with specific intention, it reinforces the perception that the bigger national conference will provide significant value to the attendee.
Whether it’s an intimate one-on-one meetup or an on-stage affair in front of thousands, It Works! events—or parties as they like to call them—are central to the company’s overall business strategy. “The purpose of the event is to not only inspire your existing field, but to create new revenue, increase retention and give recognition,” says Mike Potillo, Chief Sales Officer. “If you can’t see it, feel it or experience it quickly, we don’t sell it. We’re all about the experience, and our company name really defines how our events strategy works—It Works!”
Where some direct selling companies cater their events, marketing, sales strategies, and business models to 100 percent of the potential market, It Works! pinpoints the segment of market share they want and caters only to them. In so doing, Potillo says, “We know that we can be ourselves. We can be who we are. We can be goofy. We can be silly. We can be the crazy one, but we’re going to pull a big percentage of what we want and they are going to be like us. We can truly have a lot more fun and not have to worry about how we are perceived. I think that the genuine authenticity of our company resonates with everyday people because that’s exactly who we are.”
Cultural authenticity also infuses Nerium’s events through the expression of its main core value: Be Real. Their approach is personal and humanizing and giving. “Our speakers and everyone we have on stage share from the heart and are transparent with their stories, their struggles. It’s not like we’re just showing a bunch of perfect people up on stage that aren’t relatable to our Brand Partners,” says Amber Olson Rourke, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. “Our philosophy for events is to make it a time for giving back, investing knowledge and personal development into the field, giving them fun experiences and opportunities to network and really making them feel special. We see events as a way to give back to our Brand Partners and invest in them, and I think a company gets more in return if they look at events this way.”
While Viridian Energy shares a similar event escalation process, they take a distinctly business-like approach when addressing their independent associates at events. “They are sweat equity investors in our business because they invest their time and talent,” says President Meredith Berkich. “Our desire to honor that investment is taken super, super seriously. We open the majority of our events talking to our independent associates on a business level because they consider themselves the CEOs and presidents of their own companies. We want to take a very mature business approach with them.”
Viridian’s high-level business strategy posture at events attracts extremely professional associates to Viridian’s ranks, while corporate transparency in its sustainability efforts to minimize carbon footprints through renewable energy purchases solidifies the overall integrity of the company and increases trust. It’s a strategy that keeps Viridian growing.
To successfully grow in today’s marketplace, direct selling companies must know who they are and find authentic ways to skillfully exhibit it to their sales fields. Event choices—no matter how seemingly incidental—will read authentic or not to the direct selling field. It’s imperative that companies pay attention to the details, for it is the field that literally embodies the company’s culture when they return home to build their businesses, and it’s their first-hand accounts that will fill the seats of that next national event.
“We see events as a way to give back to our Brand Partners and invest in them, and I think a company gets more in return if they look at events this way.”
—Amber Olson Rourke, Chief Marketing Officer, Nerium
A Fascinating Formula
The use and applications of technology have grown in every aspect of business, including meeting planning. In fact, according to the Event Industry Trends Report 2015, published by Julius Solaris, Editor of the Event Manager Blog, the most exciting technologies for events in 2015 will be focused around attendees and maximizing their experience at events. Take a standard Q&A session, for example, a segment that can be challenging for audience participation. Traditionally, attendees would take turns at a solitary microphone, or attempt to pass around a few wireless ones, often creating awkward silences.
A startup company called CatchBox has created an innovative and fun way to get the audience involved. A microphone and its required audio equipment are tucked inside a foam square that can literally be tossed around the room. The attendee simply catches the box and then speaks into it. When the question is answered, the attendee tosses the box to the next person with a question. This unique product promotes not only engagement, but also does what is traditionally very difficult—it motivates attendees to get involved.
New apps can also turn anyone’s mobile device into their own personal microphone, syncing up with the room’s sound system so they can be heard—with top-quality sound. These innovations work at two important levels—increasing audience engagement, which is always a goal, but also making the experience more personal and gamified, and thus reducing the stress usually associated with speaking out loud in front of strangers.
Apps on mobile devices will also replace paper event schedules, and even maps and guides, as the old standard “You are Here” map-on-a-wall becomes a micro-locating flag on your smart phone, ready to lead you to your next workshop.
ACN does a great job at building the belief level of new consultants, not only in the power of the business opportunity, but also the power of attending events. ACN regularly has new people—some only in the business for a few weeks—sign up for national conventions.
Successful companies establish formulaic events. They’ve got a standard set of objectives, and often a standard platform or schedule mixing general sessions with targeted workshops. Basically, each objective or segment should revolve around growth and getting people consistently doing the right things when they return to the field. The event is the largest and loudest “voice” during the year, but everything coming from the company all year long should layer into the messaging from the event, and keep the field going in the same direction.
That’s not to say that the companies should create a boring event that never changes or has surprises. Excitement is critical to a successful event. But it should be within the framework of consistency that the creativity of each company flourishes, instead of simply calling on the same people each year. New attendees generally always bring excitement with them, especially if the company has laid the groundwork leading up to the event. Ideally, the attendee list should be a mix of current leadership and a heavy number of brand-new attendees.
As for those escalation events like Viridian’s Road Shows and Super Regionals, Berkich says a 20 to 30 percent guest-to-associate ratio is a good rule of thumb. “If you get to the point that you have a lot of associates coming to a normal escalation event and they aren’t bringing guests with them, then the business is not growing,” she says. And direct selling companies are wise to heed that warning.
“We approach every event as if we are talking to a brand-new person,” Berkich says. “But the reality is that we all need recharging at times. You miss goals, and you have people out there trying to steal your dreams. Even people who have been in the business for some time need to come and build their own beliefs back up, and sometimes they need to borrow the belief of other people.”
Putting Pockets in the Seats
The same corporate people saying the same corporate stuff year after year can be a hard sell. Companies like ACN have drawn phenomenal speakers to their international training events over the years. These influential voices provide positive front-end promotion, give companies great bang for the buck and drive people into the seats time and time again. Other companies mobilize and utilize the talents of their own field leaders to provide the inspiration they know will reach their particular salespeople.
But personal development speakers and motivational messages are just part of a successful event framework that also includes major corporate announcements. There’s no better time to launch a new product, promotion or initiative than in conjunction with a major event when companies can build excitement for a brand, a message and a product. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Where better to paint a picture of success and excitement than at a national or international event?
Events offer the ideal show-and-tell playground for top leader recognition too. Regardless of the corporate culture’s style, these hard-working direct sellers must get their moments in the spotlight. Primerica’s Next Generation Giants walk away with enormous trophies and fine art portraits, while Ambit Energy awards cash prizes, iPad Minis and even a Cadillac CTS Coupe.
But it’s not only top leaders who benefit from attending events. One of the most important aspects of a successful event is also something that is relatively easy to do: Give people something they may not get elsewhere in their lives—recognition and appreciation. That could be as simple as seven minutes of applause while 100 people stream across the stage waving or handing the microphone over to an unpolished speaker so she can share with the crowd why she joined the company. Recognition is about making every single direct seller feel special because they actually made it to their goal, and it’s about inspiring the audience to earn their way on stage next time.
One of the most important aspects of a successful event is also something that is relatively easy to do: Give people something they may not get elsewhere in their lives—recognition and appreciation.
Events and Strategic Growth
“The biggest mistake most companies make at events is that they think they are just there to have fun,” Potillo says. In fact, making friends and having fun is only part of the equation. “When people leave our events, they don’t just leave with a good feeling that they had a good time. They leave with a specific goal, a specific path, and a very simple system for how to achieve that.”
Without such a game plan, Potillo says It Works! would not have posted year-over-year growth since 2010. “We had an event. We came together as a team, made a lot of friendships, had a lot of fun, put together a plan for freedom, and we jumped to $45 million in sales the next year,” Potillo says. They repeat the process each year, and have continued to experience high growth. Last year, It Works! placed No. 27 on the DSN Global 100 list for 2013 at $456 million.
Startup companies can use an aggressive event schedule to expose as many people as possible to their products and to encourage new consultants to take the first step of engaging with the company. Consistency in events also aids this process, as existing consultants know that the new people they bring to an event will have the same experience they did. It’s this kind of confidence that sparks the daily field behavior that grows events and, by extension, companies.
Still, for a lot of direct selling companies, lack of staff and resources can make such tight event schedules really difficult to execute. In this case, two events a year is an excellent beginning. It establishes the kind of event rhythm companies need in order to consistently gather a captive audience. This schedule creates a foundation to build upon, and part of that is also driving behaviors in the field with product and recruitment promotions that head toward that event.
In the simplest of terms, the field sees the event as a very real deadline for achieving goals. They want to be recognized at the convention, and they know what they need to do to meet their goals. A strategic event schedule allows the company to create deadlines that are good for business and, at the same time, a rhythm to drive the business.
But it’s a mistake for companies who are culturally ambiguous to believe they can host a large-scale event, give people some good information and see immediate success. Events are best utilized when they are part of a larger strategy to train, recognize and motivate the field to achieve their goals. After all, if the strategic plan is carefully orchestrated, when the field reaches their goals the company also reaches theirs.
Additionally, while it’s true events can facilitate rebranding or repositioning of a company, they are not a place to display ego or confirm the executives’ public speaking skills. Events are all about the people in the seats—connecting with them, recognizing their accomplishments, and driving and inspiring their behavior and growth.
The enemies of direct selling are time and distraction. The average direct seller has only a few precious hours to spend building a business each week with no time to waste trying to figure out what your company stands for or in which city you’re appearing next. Berkich says, “The element of surprise and ‘aha’ for a volunteer army is a slippery slope. You need those people to be able to engage on a level that they have set for themselves for their own personal goals and aspirations. You need to be able to maximize that precious time and provide an environment of stability and consistency.”