In 2020, virtual advisory boards were our only option. For 20 years I’ve been facilitating Customer Advisory Board (CAB) and Partner Advisory Board (PAB) meetings. As our world paused, I too, needed to change. How could I continue to help executives stay in touch with their best customers when meeting in person was no longer an option? Virtual engagement didn’t feel like a good option; but, it was the only one we had. In 2020, I designed and facilitated 20 virtual advisory board meetings; I’m working on 26 in 2021. And I learned a lot.
Bottom line: they work! But they work in a different way and they come with a set of very different expectations and rules of engagement. Here are my top 3 takeaways of where and why they’ve become so successful.
1. Schmoozing is easy; planning is hard
In the “before” time, Advisory Board programs typically included a networking dinner followed by a day of discussions. While designing a relevant agenda was always the first priority in planning, executives knew (and they were not wrong) that often the best, most insightful moments would come in the networking session or casual sidebar conversations over meal times.
Virtual advisory boards do not allow for any networking. So, where will these great sidebar conversations come from?
Answer: they come between the virtual CAB meetings.
“We continue to get great value out of our virtual CAB program in between the meetings. Our 2020 CAB program consisted of CAB member interviews and four virtual sessions. In between each session, we created opportunities to connect with CAB members for deeper discussions. They helped us shape our roadmap and guide our priority list. And, we’re continuing to learn things. We have deeper relationships now than we had in 2019 when our CAB was conducted in person on only a single day.”
SVP, Chief Strategy Officer, 2020
In 2020 virtual advisory boards became truly programmatic. It was not a single day-long meeting. I have clients who invest in programs that included two, four, six, or even eight 90-minute virtual CAB meetings spanning several months or quarters. (In 2020, the average length of a program included 4 virtual meetings.) This requires a new approach to planning. It is hard because it requires a company to compartmentalize themes and topics, then space them out so each virtual meeting can build off of the one that came before.
2. Make the most of the limited time you have
Humans multitask. In Advisory Board settings this is incredibly bad. If we don’t have their full attention, then why bother? So, how do we create an impactful, engaging virtual session?
Through trial and error, I discovered that 90 minutes is the sweet spot. Getting members to commit to a 90-minute virtual session has not been difficult; however, members were visibly less enthusiastic about committing to longer sessions. And, when they did, you could be sure that they (and the host company executives!) would be checking their email during the meeting. This must be avoided. So, I designed 3 rules of etiquette:
- Separate the lecture/updating part of the agenda from the discussion
We want the bulk of our 90 minutes to allow members to respond to the host company’s questions. This means we need to set up the topic/question ahead of time. During the meeting, there are very few slides. No lecturing. No defending. Just open, honest dialog.
- Provide homework for members: watch this video; read this paper
To accomplish #1, the discussion leader produces a short video for members. One example: the CEO gave a 5-10 minute business update, coupled with the chief strategy/product officer sharing a 15-20 minute (high level) roadmap overview. The total video is less than 30 minutes. The final element of the video and executive summary is a call-to-action: Watch the video and come prepared to answer this question . . .
* Be focused
Programs contain several themes of topics; but, each virtual meeting is limited to only one primary topic. The aim is for a quality conversation. Thinking programmatically, each meeting builds off of the one that came before. When executed in this fashion, by the time you complete the last session you will have covered just as much material as you would have in a full-day in-person meeting (if not more)! But you have to pace yourself and stay focused.
3. Engage AB members before, during, and after each virtual meeting
Before: CAB & PAB members want to be meaningfully engaged; they want to know you value their time. They will watch the video; they will be prepared if you clearly communicate your expectations and give them enough time.
During: Each meeting is kicked off in the usual way: welcome, introductions, restating the program’s objective. Then we immediately jump into discussion mode. I invite the discussion leader to share one slide (yep, they get just one slide!) to summarize the key points in the video. They turn it over to me where I share the “trigger” question — a key question that starts the dialog. Then, in round robin format, I invite each customer or partner to answer that question.
Once all members have spoken, I return to the discussion leader and invite them to move the discussion further. This opens the floor for a great dialog where I can get customers or partners sharing with each other as they address follow-on questions from the host company’s executive team. The pace of the meeting moves quickly and it is very engaging. Keeping the format simple and on task works; no gimmicks are needed.
After: But it is after the meeting where the real magic happens. You and your team will be listening for the “a ha!” moments where further one-on-one conversation is merited. This is why you have the CAB in the first place: to build stickiness, strengthen relationships, and to create opportunities for follow-on discussions that may yield clues to new revenue streams.
Get ready for CAB 3.0: the hybrid model
As you complete your 2021 Advisory Board season, it is very important that you get comfortable with a new set of expectations. At the moment, virtual advisory boards are the only option. But the game will change again in 2022.
How will we manage a program where some members attend in person and others virtually? How do we balance two experiences with the same program? These are the questions that weigh heavy on my mind. I’m creating and testing several new models and will share them in the months ahead.
Until then, whether virtual or in-person, let these four elements guide your engagement strategy:
- Be there to listen to your customers.
- The most effective CAB programs are never events; they are multifaceted programs.
- Be curious: the buying process of your customers have changed. Do you know how? Find out and explore how you can help.
- Always be thinking about three types of questions: Why? What if . . . ? How?