Go the extra mile to make it memorable. For our first virtual event, we included a product giveaway as an incentive. Everyone who attended was automatically eligible for a drawing at the end of the event. For our upcoming event, we’ll be sending “work from home necessity kits” to registered attendees as a little bonus and thank you for coming. After all, everyone loves swag!
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Hermann.
Suzanne Hermann is the Media Relations Director at Darby Communications, a boutique PR and digital marketing firm in Asheville, NC. As Media Relations Director, she is responsible for everything from overall strategy and direction for the PR department to understanding the intersection of all agency services, client needs, and staff responsibilities. A successful day for Hermann involves connecting with media partners to secure impactful coverage for Darby Comm’s incredible client roster and making sure her team is working efficiently. When she’s not at work, Suzanne enjoys hiking with her husband and two young daughters.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in Greensboro, NC and was always really involved in sports, which I think contributed to my outgoing personality and stick-to-itiveness. I have always had a love for writing (I even won a regional writing contest in 4th grade — look out, Hemingway!) as well as the outdoors. The mountains of western North Carolina drew me to UNC Asheville, where I played volleyball and studied communications. Somehow, I’ve never been able to leave Asheville!
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
Well, it definitely wasn’t a straight path — but how often does that actually happen anyway? I studied communications at UNC Asheville and thought I wanted to work in TV or film production, so I took a production assistant job at the local ABC affiliate and ended up working in TV news for 10 years. I realized probably halfway through my tenure that it wasn’t for me, but I felt totally stuck since it was all I knew. I even joined a “Life After TV News” group on LinkedIn because it gave me hope that I could transition into something else! As a way out, I ended up accepting a very low-paying service position with AmeriCorps as the volunteer coordinator and education associate at a local nature center. Talk about a 180! It was a short-term position and my pay probably went down by 2/3, but I loved it! I got to delve into social media more, as well as email marketing and group presentations, and I realized I really enjoyed those things. PR had always seemed like a natural transition from news when I was at the TV station, so when a colleague at the nature center mentioned he had a good friend at a local agency that served the outdoor industry, I was intrigued. We met for a casual interview and it was probably the best interview I’ve ever had. I had an infant at home and wasn’t 100% sure I was ready to go back to work, so there was no pressure. We ended up hitting it off and as soon as a position opened up, I was top of mind. I started as an Account Executive and was promoted to Media Relations Director in 2019.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m sure there were many — including a stubborn inclination to use way too many exclamation points in my emails — but one that stands out probably wasn’t a big deal to anyone else. It was one of my first big press release distributions and I realized after it went out that one of the participating brand’s name was misspelled. A fairly easy fix, but I panicked and felt like it was a mistake I’d never recover from. Somehow, I did recover, and I learned that what may feel like a fire to one person is usually not the end of the world. I also learned that proofreading is life.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I grew up watching a lot of sports films as a result of coaches that wanted to motivate me, and as cheesy as it sounds, movies like “Rudy” and “Remember the Titans” always get me so pumped to take on whatever challenges come my way. It’s also a good reminder that “teamwork makes the dream work” so to speak, and you have to support and elevate the other players by your side to really succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There isn’t one specific quote that stands out, but I try to live according to the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. I think when you boil it down, it really is that simple and can be applied to all parts of life, including business.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
Sure. We typically organize a number of media events for our clients throughout the year, including new product showrooms, deskside appointments, experiential events that take media out of the office to remote destinations, and of course, mixers and product demos at trade shows. In 2020, pretty much all of those were off the table.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
We had to pivot this summer once we knew the Outdoor Retailer trade show wouldn’t be happening, and neither would our fall media tour to Santa Fe/Boulder/Denver. We needed to find a way to connect with media partners we wouldn’t be able to see in person to keep them interested in our clients, so we hosted a virtual media event online. We held different sessions based on interest group (Outdoor, Fishing, Gift Guides, and Fitness) over the course of two days and had an incredible turnout. I think nailing down the perfect platform was the hardest part since we incorporated both live and video elements plus presentation slides, but once we settled on that, it was mainly just a lot of wrangling with product. We showed A LOT of product (more than 50 items)! All in all, it went smoothly and we were so pleased with the feedback from media — obviously a big goal was to make it relevant and convenient for them and that consideration was appreciated.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I think just about every PR agency in the outdoor industry has done virtual events since the summer, and it seems like everyone does things just a little bit differently. I have to commend everyone on their flexibility and willingness to jump feet-first into something totally new, but one stands out. The REVEAL Media Conference in April was probably the first virtual media event for the outdoor industry once the pandemic shut everything down. ECHOS Communications, OutsidePR, and Exact Change really pulled it together in practically no time and there was clearly a huge amount of work and coordination that went into that. I think to replicate that, you have to recognize that you can’t do it alone — it takes effort from everyone on the team (and sometimes beyond), and that includes successful delegation, as well.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think the main thing is to practice! I’ve seen people stumble over talking points and technology and it gets really uncomfortable really fast. With our event, we not only did multiple practice runs with the platform, we also recorded video backups for each session, so we knew we had the messaging, tech, and flow dialed when it came time for the main event. You also have to keep in mind that the people watching from home have a million distractions at their fingertips, which wouldn’t be the case if they were sitting in front of you. You have to keep their attention, respect their time, and make it interesting!
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
We found a lot of success using Webinar Jam. I think it’s much more seamless than Zoom or Teams for incorporating various elements (video, slides, etc.) and the registration process is built in, along with event reminders, which takes that off our plate. The only downside was that we couldn’t actually see the people attending like you could with Zoom. We could see that they were there, and they could comment throughout via a chat box, but it would’ve been nice to see them and their reactions. In some cases, these are folks we’ve been working with for years, so naturally we miss their faces!
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
I’d say just explore all the options to find the one that works best for your needs. Do you just want to present and have a conversation? Maybe Zoom will work best. Need to include video elements? Maybe Webinar Jam is the right choice. Do you have multiple speakers in different places? Will attendees be logging on via cell phone? All of these factors need to be taken into consideration, but the research is there if you do a quick search online.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Make sure you can answer the question — what is the goal of this event? If you can’t answer this, why even have an event? A clear purpose will give you and your team focus and give people a reason to come.
- Take into consideration what works best for your audience/guests. We sent out a short Google Forms survey before we even planned anything to get a feel for what our potential guests would prefer — from format to length to follow-up. It was extremely valuable feedback and made our guests feel like their opinions counted.
- Test your tech! Make sure you have the best platform for your needs and practice, practice, practice! We did so many practice runs it got old, but in the end, we knew we were prepared for anything that came along.
- Keep it interesting! Personally, I find it incredibly hard to concentrate during online presentations, so we worked hard to keep talking points upbeat, incorporate physical demonstrations, engage with attendees, and wrap up in a reasonable amount of time (one hour per session, max).
- Go the extra mile to make it memorable. For our first virtual event, we included a product giveaway as an incentive. Everyone who attended was automatically eligible for a drawing at the end of the event. For our upcoming event, we’ll be sending “work from home necessity kits” to registered attendees as a little bonus and thank you for coming. After all, everyone loves swag!
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Create an outline and a checklist! I’m a big checklist fan — is there anything more satisfying than checking off a task and knowing you’re one step closer to completion? Determine what assets you need to pull it off, when they need to be in place, and who are the right people to get it done. Once you thoroughly plan your work, it’s much easier to work your plan.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
For me, it would be to inspire more brands in the outdoor industry to focus on accessibility so that all people can experience the transformative benefits of time spent in nature. That includes making gear and apparel that’s affordable without sacrificing quality, making size-inclusive outdoor gear, and partnering with organizations working to limit the barriers to access that can make the great outdoors feel like an exclusive club.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. My boss had the good fortune to meet him and actually live in his guest house for a semester as part of an internship when she was in college, and to this day (years later) she talks about the impact it had on her, personally and professionally. His commitment to ethical and sustainable business practices is second to none, and I would love to soak up his extensive knowledge of the industry over a meal!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.