Create new physical or emotional dimensions. To make your event memorable, you have to take people out of their normal environment — physically or emotionally. With our virtual charity fun run, the Merrython, we asked participants to physically get outside and get active. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people were itching for any good reason to go outside and do something good. Our Merrython proved to be a positive outlet for pent up energy folks had, while getting them in the holiday spirit. Our virtual benefit concert on the other hand was an example of how we transported participants to a new emotional dimension. Music has the power to transform your emotional state. Our virtual concert used this power to transport our listeners to a music-filled escape for an hour.
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 Jayson Schkloven, executive vice president and partner at Merritt Group.
During his time at Merritt Group, Jayson has taken on many unique strategic roles in support of Merritt Group’s clients while helping to drive the agency’s growth. He started his career at Merritt as a senior public relations account executive in the firm’s Government and Enterprise Technology practice. Jayson rose up through the agency to become a partner and a key member of the firm’s senior leadership team. Along the way, Jayson led the agency’s Enterprise Technology Group, servicing major B2B public relations clients including Teradata, Microsoft, Software AG and Unisys. More than a decade ago, Jayson took Merritt in a new direction by founding the agency’s award-winning Marketing and Digital Services practice. Under his leadership, the emerging practice helped clients including Booz Allen Hamilton, Battelle, Deloitte, General Dynamics and others communicate their messages effectively through the right mix of earned, owned and paid media channels. Today, Jayson serves as a senior marketing strategist to Merritt Group’s industry-leading global technology clients including Samsung Electronics America and others. For the last two decades, Jayson has built a career providing a unique blend of marketing strategy, business development, digital and social media and public relations counsel to companies ranging from venture-funded start-ups to global organizations. He graduated from Salisbury University with a BA in Mass Communications and Business Administration. When he is not busy working with clients, Jayson enjoys spending his free time cycling, sailing and relaxing with his family.
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”?
Growing up, my family emphasized social responsibility. From childhood to now, I have always spent my time participating in organizations that give back and benefit underserved communities. For example, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to refurbish homes for those in need. Through this work, I was able to effect positive change as a part of a bigger group and witness the impact it had. Not only was this work critical to those who needed it, I also benefited personally. I developed friendships, interpersonal skills and felt fellowship in volunteer work. Throughout my career, it has been important to me to work for a company that shares those values, like Merritt Group does. Giving back and encouraging social responsibility is core to Merritt Group and is ingrained in their culture.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
In college, I originally majored in management and information systems but all of that changed when the then director of communications at the Salvation Army came to speak at my campus. He explained how communications can benefit and serve a community. After that, I changed my major from information management to communications. Over the past 18 years I’ve built a career at Merritt Group, where I see first-hand how our clients’ technologies are impacting positive change. We help them bring these innovative technologies to market by working with them to develop their message to the right audience to have the greatest impact.
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?
Always be ready for a wardrobe change. Early on in my time at Merritt Group, I was suddenly called to Aruba to support a client that was in the midst of a developing story of global interest. Their technology was being used in the course of an international criminal investigation and I was called upon to help them manage press relations onsite. I packed my standard suitcase full of dark suits, ties and dress clothes. When I arrived in Aruba, it was 90 degrees on the ground and I was running from press conferences to media briefings, dying from the heat. Halfway through my trip, I ditched the suits in favor of lighter “island wear.” So, always be prepared with a wardrobe change and maybe even a Hawaiian shirt or two.
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?
The book that has had the biggest impact on me professionally is Radical Candor by Kim Scott. It focuses on how to be open and honest with peers and staff, using different communications styles to have a positive impact without being overly critical. The chapter in the book that resonated with me the most focused on Bringing Your Whole Self to Work. It acknowledges that the lines between our personal and professional lives have blurred over the years, and our time outside the workplace impacts how we perform from 9-to-5. Trying to keep the two worlds separate has become virtually impossible. At Merritt Group, this mindset has helped me evolve as a leader and view my work relationships differently. By communicating openly and honestly without being critical, I can have a positive impact on colleagues and their experience at work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I mentioned my mentor at the Salvation Army previously. He had a framed quote on his desk that always stuck with me. It is from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, “Citizenship in a Republic” where he refers to the “man in the arena.” In the speech, he states that the credit belongs not to the critic on the sidelines but to the person who strives valiantly, makes mistakes and continues to persevere. He encourages the listener to dare greatly and to attempt great things secure in the knowledge that, whether they fail or succeed, their place in history will never be with those who don’t risk anything and, therefore, never had the chance of knowing great triumph. This is how I choose to live my life and it has guided my career at Merritt Group, which has been filled with both great successes and major setbacks. There is now a framed copy of that speech hanging on the wall of my office too.
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?
In the midst of the pandemic, as we prepared to host our first-ever virtual events, we knew there would be hiccups along the way, as this was new territory for us. It was important that we keep moving forward and adapting to challenges to ultimately provide the best experience we could to benefit our staff and the important causes we were supporting.
At Merritt Group, we’ve put on two virtual events during the past year while our employees remained completely remote. The first was our Merrython, a virtual run in December 2020 to benefit No Kid Hungry and the second was our Spring into Service benefit concert in April of this year to support the Save the Music Foundation. At Merritt Group, we’ve always valued activities where we can get out together and serve the community. Togetherness and relationship building have been cultural pillars of our company since the beginning. After COVID hit, we wanted to continue to infuse a sense of togetherness into our culture. When planning the Merrython and the Spring into Service concert, we wanted to create tactile experiences that reinforced a virtual sense of togetherness for our employees and their loved ones, even though we were participating separately.
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?
When we came up with the idea to do a virtual run, others had done it before and we had examples to look to. Specifically, the MS Society had recently put on a virtual run that one of our employees was heavily involved in. We were able to look to others who had paved the way and because of this, we knew the importance of having information centrally located, easy payment processing and social media promotion. We also partnered with organizations that the event benefited to leverage their social media and tap into their networks.
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 a lot of people try to compare their virtual event with the “real thing.” This will always lead to disappointment and false expectations. Instead, you should rethink your approach and identify the new opportunities created by hosting your event in a virtual setting that just wouldn’t be possible in-person. For example, we were able to recruit staff and clients based in California and across the country to participate in the Merrython that would not have been able to join us for an in-person run. Capitalize on these opportunities and don’t be afraid to do things differently. The ability to reach a wider audience allowed us to raise more money for causes that mattered to our company and employees.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
When choosing a virtual platform to host your event, there are a few things that you need to consider. First, you should identify what exactly you need the platform to accomplish based on the type of event you are hosting. For example, if you are hosting a virtual concert, you would need a platform that can seamlessly stream live content to participants and allow them to engage with performers. If you need a platform exclusively for collecting donations or registration fees, I would recommend one that has the best reputation for being secure and reliable. If possible, select a platform that can handle all your virtual event requirements in one customer interface. Using multiple platforms for multiple functions can get confusing for attendees. My team and I have used Classy in the past, and it was a success.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Aside from a platform to host event registration and facilitate financial transactions associated with fees and donations, it is important to harness the power of social media to raise awareness and drive participation. You should actively promote your event before, during and after it takes place. Sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have event pages where you can simply create and share upcoming events. Partner closely with the organization that your event benefits to cross-promote to their audience and be sure that your organization’s primary stakeholders, whether that be employees, members, volunteers, etc., are sharing and promoting the event on their social media pages. This not only increases engagement but also adds a level of third-party validation.
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. Create new physical or emotional dimensions. To make your event memorable, you have to take people out of their normal environment — physically or emotionally. With our virtual charity fun run, the Merrython, we asked participants to physically get outside and get active. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people were itching for any good reason to go outside and do something good. Our Merrython proved to be a positive outlet for pent up energy folks had, while getting them in the holiday spirit. Our virtual benefit concert on the other hand was an example of how we transported participants to a new emotional dimension. Music has the power to transform your emotional state. Our virtual concert used this power to transport our listeners to a music-filled escape for an hour.
2. Fully embrace virtual. Instead of trying to compete with the “real thing,” be creative in finding new opportunities that wouldn’t be possible with an in-person event.
3. Take advantage of technology. Leverage technology that makes virtual event execution easier — even if the cost is slightly higher. Your event will be more successful if you use the best platform that accomplishes your goals and assists in making your event a success.
4. Amplify awareness with the network effect. Virtual events obliterate all physical boundaries so there is nothing standing in the way of reaching out to an expanded network of contacts who wouldn’t normally be able to participate. Their virtual nature often makes them infinitely scalable. Do not be afraid to invite more participants than you normally would to a physical event and empower participants to easily extend invitations to their networks as well.
5. Use the power of social media to promote your event. Make it easy for key stakeholders, employees, participants and others to share and promote your event via social media channels. Create a hashtag and consider paid social ads on Facebook and other sites to get your event in front of people that might be interested in attending.
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?
- Build a powerful planning committee. Bring together a group of individuals that have a common purpose, but different ideas/interests and skill sets. A diverse team will spark the most creativity and complementary skills will bring it to life.
- Define a clear goal for the event. Ask yourself: What is the purpose of the event? What is your end goal that you hope to achieve and how can you achieve it? As you get into planning and execution, do not stray from that idea. It will be tempting to expand the scope or add new aspects to your virtual event along the way. Never lose focus on your original goal.
- Be creative. Take a “nothing is off the table” mindset at the outset of your planning. Write down and consider every idea and then ground the best of those ideas in reality to decide what is truly possible.
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 personally, I have seen and experienced the benefits of physical fitness. This has been amplified exponentially during the pandemic. I believe the most effective way to bring the greatest amount of good to the largest group of people is by encouraging physical wellness. Aside from obvious benefits on our personal health, physical activities improve mental wellness and solidify feelings of community among participants when done as a group, in-person or virtually. Over the years, my partners and I have invested time and resources to implement this philosophy at Merritt Group. We started the InBalance program to get our staff collectively active and sweating together, which makes us a better, stronger team. Over the years, InBalance has expanded to encompass three core tenets — physical fitness, mental wellness and giving back.
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.
In college, my roommate introduced me to the music of Jimmy Buffet. The narratives and melodies captured in his songs have provided the soundtrack to many of my favorite moments. They also have offered some good direction in life and in business, believe it or not. His personal story is inspiring to me as well. I would love to sit down with Jimmy at a tiki bar in that one particular harbor to share stories and life lessons over an umbrella drink and a cheeseburger.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.