Eric Holmen of Splash: “Connect often”

Connect often. You don’t need to spend a lot of time facilitating connection, as long as you do it often. It’s more important to have multiple touchpoints, so it’s a consistent thread that ties your event together. These activities can take as little as five minutes and can be a profound way to connect attendees […]

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Connect often. You don’t need to spend a lot of time facilitating connection, as long as you do it often. It’s more important to have multiple touchpoints, so it’s a consistent thread that ties your event together. These activities can take as little as five minutes and can be a profound way to connect attendees and drive your message forward. Ideal times to facilitate connection, in addition to the beginning of your event, are right after a speaker/panel/presentation, after a break or meal, or before you close.

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 Eric Holmen.

Eric Holmen is the chief revenue officer of Splash, a next-generation event marketing platform designed to help teams build and host virtual, in-person, and hybrid events and do what they love: create memorable experiences, new connections, and business value. He is responsible for driving the company’s transformative growth in sales, marketing, customer success, services, and support.

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 the age of the first Macintosh and spent insane hours mastering BASIC and Pascal programming (winning a national programming contest at 12 years old), then dove into the early design tools like Adobe Illustrator ’88 and Photoshop 1.0, eventually designing and selling Mac fonts. At the time, everyone was self-taught, and we relied on Bulletin Board Systems — precursors to the Internet in many ways — to learn from one another. I had no idea that these three new ways of thinking — basic programming, computer design, and connecting ‘online’ — would become the foundation of my career.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

From a very early age, I loved the creativity of design, and I loved data analytics. I was lucky that when I was out of college, the Internet was becoming public. Websites needed design, and they produced a ton of data — which led me down a marketing path and into the emerging space of marketing technology. As a marketer, I’ve been part of hundreds of events and learned how difficult it can be to make them successful. Over the decades, I’ve seen how every aspect of marketing has automated and improved with technology to account for optimization and ROI. The only aspect that remains the same is events, which are still largely run in the same way. Splash is the leader and at the forefront of solving this most complicated problem to make hosting events easy. I feel like my career has been leading this direction all the while.

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?

Mistakes are never funny at the time! I was running a marketing campaign — what we would call Account-Based Marketing today. We had a great list of prospects we were targeting for high-value marketing services that we were selling. The mailer was a cardboard tube — a little larger than the cardboard roll from a paper towel, with both ends capped and taped. On the outside was a label with a nice picture of a premium Mont Blanc pen and an invitation to have a meeting with our sales representative in exchange for the pen. Inside the tube was a printed invitation with all the details and a plain blue Bic ballpoint pen. The invitation explained that this Bic pen was a placeholder until we had the meeting confirmed. We mailed hundreds of these each quarter and had great results. But one time, we sent off the pallet stacked with mailing tubes and wrapped in plastic and didn’t get a single phone call or response for weeks. Then one phone call from the Criminal Investigator of the Postmaster General’s office later, we knew why. Before he had a chance to explain the purpose of the call, I was pleading guilty to mail fraud! He replied, “Slow it down. You’ve done nothing wrong. This is what happened.” He went on to explain that someone saw our pallet of hundreds of Mont Blanc pens sitting unsecured at a postal distribution center, and when no one was watching, they stole the entire pallet! The Post Office tracked the criminals down and were prosecuting them, and wanted to know the value of the contents. I told him it was probably 30 dollars worth of pens. He thought the criminals had substituted the Bic pens when they stole the Mont Blanc pens! As I explained to him that this was a marketing tactic, we both laughed. He could see why I was (unnecessarily) worried about fraud, but we both thought the thieves must have been gutted when they opened the tubes to discover they’d been outfoxed by a marketer.

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?

These books are classics that every aspiring leader needs to read and read together because they complete the picture. If you really want to lead your organization to greatness, the best way is to learn through the stories of past companies making mistakes and finding triumph. These books deliver the goods: The Innovator’s Dilemma, Crossing the Chasm, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, and Marketing Myopia (a Harvard Business Review Article).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“He who hears not the music, thinks the dancer mad.”

This is a very visual quote — I imagine someone watching a dancer from behind a window where they can’t hear a sound and wondering what the heck is going on. Then I flip my perspective to the dancer who is floating their body through the music and feeling unaware of the judgment from the observer. In life and in work, we need to find our music and learn our dance — judgment be damned.

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?

My career started in marketing, and it seems that every entry level marketing role requires supporting events, and my first was an annual B2B customer meeting in Denver. I remember working almost all night helping to do set up, rehearsals, seating charts — and the millions of other details. And I loved every bit of it and was sure it would be perfect. That’s when I learned that successful event managers are best when things don’t go as planned — which they always do. I watched our event leader take the hits, stay calm and collected, and fix the problems without anyone ever knowing something was not going as planned. Many years later I inherited an events marketing team for the Craftsman tool brand at Sears, and we were producing NASCAR experiences, store grand openings, and even parades. We had 127 event agencies working across the business and I learned how important design, experience, and production value were to an event’s success — and how very difficult it was to capture that bit of magic. Of all the strange things that can happen, one that I was not prepared for was a grand opening in Ohio where we had a local councilman “cutting the ribbon” in front of cameras for the opening and just before the ceremony started, the roof of the store collapsed. As far as I can remember, it’s the only time I’ve had to completely shut down an event and pivot to PR damage control.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Isn’t it interesting that we have the term ‘virtual event’ when we’ve had the term ‘webinar’ for so long? It’s important — we’ve decided that the static, monotone nature of a webinar needs to be upgraded to the standards of an ‘’event’ with design, production value, and some magic in the experience — especially in this moment of Zoom fatigue.

Splash’s customers are running thousands of virtual events across our platform and we’ve been providing best practices from what we’re seeing that works, and imaging new experiences and experimenting with new technology and ways of engaging.

The most exciting way to look at great virtual events was in our recent Virtual Event Makeover Series. Just like the home makeover TV shows, we worked with companies to take an event they had already planned and did a complete makeover of the design and experience. It’s a short series that anyone can view on our website — take a look.

We learned a couple of key things from the series:

  1. In a virtual setting, interactivity with your audience is paramount; embedding your event engagement technology of choice into the Splash platform makes them even more effective.
  2. There are clear advantages to virtual-only events. For example, automatically capturing guest check-in and check-out times allows for more tailored follow-up with guests (read: smarter prospecting conversations).
  3. A little focus on design goes a very long way — certainly in terms of converting registrations.

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?

A great example would be Salesforce. In March 2020, Salesforce announced a global work from home policy and shifted its entire internal events strategy to virtual quickly. This included launching a weekly all-hands for their thousands of employees, building a virtual culture series called “B-Well Together,” where experts were brought in to share wellness tips while working from home, and a series of informative videos were published online that racked up millions of views.

With this work from home shift, many marketing professionals wondered what the fate of its Dreamforce event would be amid the pandemic. Salesforce had canceled its in-person events and began hosting smaller, bite-sized events. For months, the B2B world waited to find out what would happen. Then the official announcement dropped in October about Dreamforce To You, an ambitious virtual pivot from the company that built its empire on in-person interactions. The event would launch only a couple of weeks later. It would spread the typical four days of Dreamforce out across six weeks — all entirely online. Dreamforce was more accessible this year than it ever has been before, and it was free.

Salesforce acted quickly when the pandemic hit and was able to get its team up to speed quickly. Companies who understand that a shift has happened in the events industry and act on it can replicate this same success across their own virtual events. Our research found that 79% of companies plan to integrate virtual events into a hybrid strategy once in-person events resume. So, the bottom line is virtual events are here to stay.

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?

Mistake number one is not hosting all of your virtual events on the same platform. I’m not saying you need to host every single virtual event on an exclusive webinar or streaming platform. What I am saying is that all virtual event registration data should be gathered in an event marketing platform that integrates with the webinar or streaming platform you’re using for the event. Take the time to educate any teams responsible for hosting virtual events on how to effectively use the technology they have access to, how guest data should be collected, and any other process they should observe.

Mistake number two is not capturing check-in data. One of the biggest challenges event marketers are facing in the pivot to virtual events is capturing check-in data. Arguably the most important data to collect, so many organizations don’t have the tools in place to capture this data. That means they either use their best guess of who was in the room or in some cases, have no process in place for capturing virtual event check-ins. This issue is most prominent in virtual events that are set up as live streams or a Zoom video conference. If you’re only hosting on a traditional webinar platform, you’re probably not going to run into this problem. Make sure to create a secure, branded destination for a live stream event.

Mistake number three is not considering the attendee experience. For an event attendee, their experience is everything. The fact that your events are now virtual doesn’t give you a pass to make the attendee experience an afterthought. In reality, virtual events are saturating the market, meaning that your events need to stand out even more. Find an event marketing platform that supports a fully branded virtual event experience, from the event registration page to the day-of event room to the post-event page. By working with an event marketing platform that integrates with your existing tech stack, you can send personalized communications to your attendees, letting them know that they’re still your highest priority.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Event marketers eat, sleep, and breathe in-person event programs, but they traditionally haven’t been as closely involved in virtual event programs until recently. The most important thing to consider when choosing a webinar platform is its integration with your event marketing platform. Webinar platforms traditionally can’t double as an event marketing platform. Even if in-person events were canceled forever, which I don’t believe is the case, a webinar platform itself still won’t cut it.

You need five things from a webinar platform: The ability to create on-brand, engaging experiences. The ability to integrate with your other business systems. The ability to provide data visibility to your internal teams. The ability to ensure consistency between in-person and virtual events. The ability to scale your webinar programs.

Look for a webinar platform that can fully integrate with your event marketing platform, offers interactivity functionality, and meets your required attendee capacity.

While you’re researching webinar platforms, remember that it’s okay to acknowledge how difficult all of this is. Then, take a breath and start learning as much as you can about how this new world of events can help you engage your audience, support the business, and reach your goals.

Five webinar platforms that we’ve used and can fully recommend for most companies starting their webinar journey are BlueJeans, GoToWebinar, On24, Webex, and Zoom.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

Splash + Zoom Integration

Ask any event marketer to name a key, go-to tool in their tech stack, and they will likely mention Zoom. It’s everywhere. In a world of social distancing, Zoom is basically synonymous with video conferencing. We’ve come to rely on Zoom for everything from personal happy hours to business events. It brings people together. For event marketers, that’s step one. But our community reminded us that successful event programs require a second step: ensuring virtual guest experiences are engaging, adaptable, and translate into measurable business impact.

With Splash + Zoom, you can make data a key part of your virtual program strategy by collecting guest time stamps for check-in and check-out, and review duration, syncing event data across CRM and marketing automation systems, and analyzing virtual event trends with built-in, interactive dashboards.

Virtual Event Page Touchpoint

Our Virtual Event Page touchpoint allows event marketers to create a secure, branded destination for a live stream event. This means that when a registered guest clicks on their unique code in their confirmation email to join the live stream, that data is automatically recorded in Splash. If this doesn’t make you undeniably excited as a data-driven event marketer, I’m not sure what will.

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.)

Connect early. The beginning of an event sets the tone for everything to come, and you only have one chance to make a first impression. This is the moment to actively engage participants and get them to share something significant with each other. If you miss this window, attendees will go into “passive observer” mode, and it will be harder to get them to speak up and share later. The process of arrival is those few awkward minutes when people are arriving on the call, before you have begun the main program. Some suggestions to make the most of these initial moments together include playing music, sharing an intro prompt, or using ice-breaker questions.

Connect often. You don’t need to spend a lot of time facilitating connection, as long as you do it often. It’s more important to have multiple touchpoints, so it’s a consistent thread that ties your event together. These activities can take as little as five minutes and can be a profound way to connect attendees and drive your message forward. Ideal times to facilitate connection, in addition to the beginning of your event, are right after a speaker/panel/presentation, after a break or meal, or before you close.

Gradually invite deeper levels of vulnerability. At the beginning of your event, you can start with some simple questions like, “What brought you here?” or “What are you hoping to get from this experience?” As your event progresses, ask questions to invite deeper layers of self-disclosure.

One tried-and-true way of helping participants dig a bit deeper is to pair people up and ask them to use the prompt, “If you really knew me, you’d know…” It invites us to skip the initial layers of small talk and to share something significant beneath the surface. I usually share some personal examples first, as modeling vulnerability allows your participants to do the same. You can also hire a professional facilitator, have a tech platform do it for you, choose an ice breaker activity to lead yourself, or get training to design experiences that connect.

Consider the attendee experience. Take the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) for example. While the pandemic was unfolding, they were organizing their largest event, The AICP Awards. These multiple-day events culminated with a 2,000-person gathering at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Needless to say, they had to pivot sharply, while keeping attendee experience as their highest priority. AICP’s secret for a seamless online experience was removing as many barriers for entry and engagement as possible. The AICP’s team used Splash to “house” the entire awards show, with YouTube embedded for the live stream and chat technology to enhance attendee interaction. It wasn’t an easy feat, but AICP proved that event marketers are some of the most resilient and adaptable people out there by turning a virtual event into an engaging brand experience.

Scale up, not back. Event marketing technology is often disconnected from core business systems, redundant, or just plain old. It’s rarely adaptable or scalable enough to meet the design and data needs of event and conference teams, especially now. As so many events have transitioned online, you would think it’s become easier for event marketers to deliver a consistent brand experience, track interactions with online attendees, and collect relevant data. But with outdated technology, all those pre-pandemic problems persist.

All of these issues can be solved by having a centralized platform that empowers employees to create and market a branded event. This gives teams the flexibility to host the kinds of events that work best for them, while staying aligned with their brand and organizational goals. An events platform that also connects automatically to popular CRM and marketing automation programs ensures that vital data about attendees (that is, future customers) can be easily captured.

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?

I would first recommend they set their goals for the live virtual event. No matter the kind of event, your goals play a huge role in building, promoting, and running your event. If you do not define the purpose of your event, there is no way to effectively identify whether or not you are succeeding.

The next step would be deciding what kind of virtual event you want to run. Webinar, podcast, virtual workshop, virtual happy hour, virtual summit, and so on. The list of events you could run from behind a computer screen could go on and on. But just because the options are virtually endless, doesn’t mean you should pick whatever sounds fun and run with it. Now is a great time to experiment with events, but it’s still important that you run events with strategy and structure in mind. Most virtual business events in 2020 focused on keeping in touch with customers, but 30% of companies say driving revenue and sales growth through virtual events are their top goal over the next 6-to-12 months.

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.

As we’ve seen, something as small as a virus can transform the world, and right now, we need an empathy virus.

There has never been a better, safer, healthier time to be alive in all of human history, and we are on the verge of solving some of the most vexing problems, but these deep divisions are perpetuating a cycle of hate and fear of our fellow humans. There’s no easy answer and not just one path. But I believe that learning and embracing practices of empathy is part of the solution. Empathy isn’t that hard if you know some key phrases that make you think differently and, therefore, respond differently. I am reminded of the Queen’s Jubilee with the signs everywhere reading, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This became a meme, and suddenly we saw t-shirts reading all kinds of things — “Keep calm and call Batman” to “keep calm and carry diapers.” How about a simple movement where we emphasized empathetic statements like, “I hear you, and I want to understand more,” and “I hear you, and this must really hurt.” We all want to be heard, even — especially — when we disagree. My movement would be an empathy virus that brings us closer together as humans.

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’d enjoy some time with Marc Benioff. I’ve spent much of my career in SaaS, which I give him credit for transforming from a simple idea about software distribution into a movement and ecosystem in business. I’d love a better understanding of how he thinks about scale during the many phases of I’m also very interested in one of his recent private initiatives and investments to find an end to homelessness — a very complex and sad problem that is long overdue for extinction.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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