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Deb Lemon of ‘On Board Experiential’: “Test, Test, Test”

Test, Test, Test. — You don’t want to get to event day before realizing your event website doesn’t work properly on mobile devices, or that your registration flow is too difficult. Instead, have a dedicated QA/QC team that is focused on the user journey and identifying pain points in advance of your event before it’s too late. […]

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Test, Test, Test. — You don’t want to get to event day before realizing your event website doesn’t work properly on mobile devices, or that your registration flow is too difficult. Instead, have a dedicated QA/QC team that is focused on the user journey and identifying pain points in advance of your event before it’s too late. In addition, get a plan in place for full end-to-end testing to ensure your video, audio, closed captioning and other technical elements of your show run smoothly. You can never over prepare.


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 Deb Lemon, Co-CEO and Partner, On Board Experiential (OBE).

On Board Experiential CEO Deb Lemon brings straight talk and smart strategy to every client partnership. She believes in the long game: making sure brand experiences add up to real business impact. And she takes pride in building (and leading) the dream teams to do it, thanks to instincts she sharpened as both a marketer and a true brand believer. A former college athlete, Lemon started her career working at a Nike store. Why? Because the brand spoke to her. She never forgot the authenticity of that connection as she rose through the ranks at Nike (Sports Marketing, Events, Brand), where her crowning achievements included activations at four straight Olympic Games and the creation of the Nike Women’s Marathon. At OBE, Lemon now keeps Facebook, JPMorgan Chase, Activision, and, yes, Nike (she’s a lifer) connected to their brand communities. She welcomes every chance to build OBE’s “Work Hard, Play Harder” culture, and she never loses her curious sense of adventure. Did you know? There are only two U.S. states “Fun Debbie” hasn’t hit. Arkansas and Nebraska: get ready.


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 Fredericksburg, Virginia as the only daughter of four kids. My three brothers and I were very competitive with each other, especially when it came to sports, so naturally I developed into an athlete. In high school, I was on the swim, basketball and track teams. I felt a true kinship with my teammates as we worked together to achieve shared goals (and win, of course!). This drive to succeed also permeated my dedication to schoolwork, and as a result, I received an academic scholarship in Mathematics to Roanoke College, where I also played basketball.

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

After college, I worked in accounting at a law firm in Washington, D.C. for two years. I considered going back to school to get my MBA, but ultimately decided to invest in an epic life experience instead; I traveled across the USA in my Jeep with a college friend. We had an amazing time exploring the country, hiking, camping and sightseeing on a tight budget. Needing a job but not wanting the adventure to end, I landed in Summit County, Colorado where I was lucky enough to get hired at a Nike Factory Store as a sales associate. At the same time, I also started working on local snowshoe races in the winter and triathlons in the summer. Because of this experience, Nike gave me the opportunity to work on the Honolulu Marathon, which turned out to be the gateway event that set me on the path towards my soon-to-be new career in event marketing. When a position opened up on the Running Events team at Nike, I applied and got the job. From there, I worked my way up and eventually helped create the Nike Women’s Marathon, which On Board Experiential (OBE) produced. That’s when I met Dan, the founder of OBE. Just a few years later in 2006, he convinced me to be his business partner.

It has been quite a ride for us since then. We have learned so much about curating experiences for brands, however my favorite part of the business is creating a business culture that allows our people to become the best version of themselves. This is what truly drives the dynamic campaigns and experiences we create for clients.

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’ve made many mistakes…that’s what experiences are for, right? I’ll share one from my first year in the events job at Nike. In 1996, I traveled to the NYC Marathon and rented a minivan to drive the team around the city. Clearly I hadn’t been to New York much. Of course, we taxied, walked and subway-ed to all our locations, and I completely forgot about the van. A week passed and I returned to Portland after a successful event. A month later, I got a call about an unreturned minivan. I had to sweet talk a garage attendant at our hotel to help me return the van and avoid a month’s worth of parking lot rates :). I learned a key lesson: value your hotel staff partners and tip them during event weeks, especially during close out.

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?

A book that I loved reading/listening to was Grit, by Angela Duckworth. Her emphasis on hands-on learning and leaving it all on the field is something we preach at OBE. My favorite quote is, “As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”

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

My favorite life lesson is: do the hardest thing first. Every decision afterwards becomes much easier to make, and you can accomplish more in the day without worrying about the tough task that you already knocked out.

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?

I’ve been creating brand experiences for most of my career, starting with the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Atlanta in 1996. From there, my job expanded to running events and Olympics. During my time at Nike, we went from sponsoring events to creating proprietary experiences for consumers, such as Nike Run London, Nike Training Club (NTC), King of the Court and the Nike Women’s Marathon. When I joined OBE after the Nike Women’s Marathon, I shifted from sports events to brand campaigns. The first project Dan and I won together was for Lego called Freetheband.com, which won a Reggie Award as a fully integrated campaign. That’s when Dan and I knew we had a special thing going on at OBE.

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

Throughout the pandemic, we have partnered with our long-standing clients such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Facebook and MuleSoft to reimagine their physical events into a digital context. There have been many memorable moments during this transition to virtual, but the one that stands out the most happened during Facebook’s Summer of Support program — a virtual six-week program to help small business owners adapt and thrive in this new environment. In the middle of event week, we got word that Tom, a small business owner in Iowa, was excited to participate but did not have a functioning computer. That’s when our Technology team stepped up. In 1.5 hours, they figured out what he needed, which vendors had the gear and how to ship him a computer that would be ready to go right out of the box. When it arrived in Iowa at 7:00am, just a few hours before the event, our IT manager and fulfillment lead got on a call with Tom to ensure he was comfortable. Later on that day, Tom reached out to our client to say how moved he was, and he sent a hand-written thank you letter to our team for helping him in a time of need. It’s moments like these that keep us coming back each day and remind me why I got into this business.

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?

There have been so many great virtual events and many moments of innovation during this time, but the ones that rose to the top for me are those that authentically captured the feeling of their company or purpose. Apple and Snapchat both created great events that felt true to their brands in 2020: Apple showed their signature swagger and polish, and Snapchat pushed the limits with an AR stage.

Looking beyond brands, the purpose-driven events of this past year really broke through in terms of authenticity and innovation. From Black Lives Matter protests inside video games like NBA 2K and Animal Crossing, to art and culture auctions opening up to the masses, so many barriers to participation melted away.

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?

The most common mistake when producing a live virtual event is underestimating the amount of time and resources it will take to put together. Since it’s virtual, you may think it should be quicker, easier and cheaper, but that can’t be further from the truth. In reality, it takes just as much (if not more) time because of the intangibles and details you can’t always measure.

In order to navigate the virtual event space, you have to ask things like: What does our team or talent need when setting up their remote kits? What is our plan b, c and d if something goes wrong on show day? Proper strategy and planning are a must, but I also recommend having a “what could go wrong?” brainstorm and prepping accordingly.

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

There is never a perfect platform that checks all the boxes, which is why our Technology team takes a platform-agnostic approach, while at the same time becoming masters of the platforms available. You must identify your project and clients’ needs and match them with the platform that best serves these needs. It could be an existing turnkey solution or something that requires an original IP — there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every audience. You have to know who you are bringing together first and what you want them to feel before you can identify your platform. You wouldn’t hold an AARP meeting on Twitch, after all. Well, actually, that’s not a bad idea.

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

There are so many apps, tools and software available to virtual event producers, but the most effective tool while working remotely is clear communication. Your “comms” plan and strategy is vital to the success of the show. This includes ensuring you have a system for communication between your client, talent and production teams. In some cases, you might want the client to have a direct line to the talent. In other cases, a one-way channel where people can only listen in may be useful. In the end, it’s about finding what works for your team, which brings me to perhaps the most effective tool of all: a committed team that is aligned on your process and works together to accomplish the goal. If you have this, you can do just about anything.

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.)

  1. Align on Objectives & KPIs. — Virtual events generate a ton of data, but it’s important to identify which metrics will be most useful to your clients and stakeholders. Set a plan from the get-go to outline what you’re tracking and how. Who counts as an attendee? What counts as an engagement? How are you tracking user behavior and satisfaction? If you don’t align on those definitions early on, you may end up with data that doesn’t fit a client’s needs.
  2. Create a Holistic Journey. — For our in-person events, we pride ourselves on thinking through every detail of the consumer/attendee journey. For virtual events, this is just as, if not more, important. To be effective, you must take a truly 360-degree deep dive into all touchpoints of the experience, keeping your attendees at the center of every decision you make — from how they find out about the activation, to what hiccups they might experience in navigating the virtual event space to when they’d be most willing to provide feedback and input. In addition, it’s important to inspire your audience to be part of a brand’s story by facilitating authentic, personalized moments and inviting dynamic interaction. We’ve found that at-home attendees are more easily distracted and prone to multi-tasking, so it’s even more imperative to create an engaging and immersive experience that considers every moment where people are interacting with your brand and the event property.
  3. Test, Test, Test. — You don’t want to get to event day before realizing your event website doesn’t work properly on mobile devices, or that your registration flow is too difficult. Instead, have a dedicated QA/QC team that is focused on the user journey and identifying pain points in advance of your event before it’s too late. In addition, get a plan in place for full end-to-end testing to ensure your video, audio, closed captioning and other technical elements of your show run smoothly. You can never over prepare.
  4. Involve the Audience — And not just through polling and traditional Q&A and chatbots. Bring them in as guests, as hosts and as authentic voices at your event.
  5. Accept Distractions. You don’t have to like it, but you have to accept that when it comes to virtual events, you have much less control over the environment of your attendees. They are going to get distracted, and it’s your job to keep them engaged and coming back. This is especially true for long-term virtual events, like our Currency Conversations program with Chase and ESSENCE, where we continued to adapt our approach from one event to the next based on key learnings and insights.

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?

The first steps in developing a virtual event are like any other marketing activity and/or event:

  1. Establish your objectives.
  2. Define what success looks like for the event.
  3. Secure sufficient budget.
  4. Identify your target audience and develop a deep understanding of their needs, expectations and desires to ensure the experience is worthwhile for both the brand and its audience.

From there, you should evaluate the context around the virtual experience to define what type of virtual event serves your audience and effectively helps your brand reach its goals:

  • What are the pros and cons of live versus pre-recorded? Which is the better choice for my objectives?
  • Will I stream to multiple platforms? Will the content be available on-demand, and how soon afterwards will it be available?
  • How does my audience want to interact with the event content? With each other? With the brand?
  • What are the key elements of the experience that I need a virtual venue or platform to deliver? Do those elements all have to be housed in the same space, or can I leverage several platforms in a way that still feels cohesive?
  • What are my company’s cyber security requirements that I need to take into consideration? Are there contracts or SAAS products that are pre-approved by DevOps and legal? Can we leverage those existing tools or platforms?

Asking yourself these questions can help steer you in the right direction.

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.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us more time to focus on ourselves, and health has become more important. To me, healthcare is self care, and we try to instill this sentiment in our company culture at OBE. Supporting your employees, providing resources to support their mental and physical health and prioritizing their needs as human beings is not only the right thing to do, but also helps your business succeed. When your people feel taken care of, your business will be healthy as well. I hope business leaders embrace this people-first mindset in 2021 and beyond.

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.

Oprah Winfrey. She is the ultimate trailblazer. I admire her business savvy and unwavering quest for knowledge, which enables her to live her life fully while sharing in service with others.

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