Norvado became one of the first — but likely not the last — cooperatives to hold its annual meeting virtually. How did they pull it off?
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What does it look like to have your annual meeting virtually? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns with WordSouth, your host once again. And I’m joined on this episode by Chad Mix, who is the marketing director up at Norvado in northern Wisconsin. So, Chad, thanks for joining me.
Chad Mix: Well, thank you for having me.
Andy Johns: What we’ll be talking about Chad and his group up there at Norvado, as far as I know, is either the first or one of the first cooperatives to have their annual meeting completely virtually. Which is something that — in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic going around — a lot of folks are probably looking at in the future, if they’re not already taking steps in that direction. So I wanted to be sure to have Chad on to talk about how they did things up at Norvado. So I appreciate you being willing to share your ideas. So the annual meeting overall, before we get into specifics, how do you feel it went?
Chad Mix: I think it went really well. You know, from an attendance perspective, it was the largest event we’ve ever had, and by a factor of three. So it was a big increase. So I think, from an attendance perspective, it was great. We did have a couple of issues that we experienced because we had so many people. We thought that our website resources were up to the challenge. But with the number of folks that we had accessing at the same time, we had to make some adjustments on the fly. There might have been a couple of people that didn’t get in, and we still took care of them. But for the most part, we’re still able to get everyone in.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Well, that’s a pretty good response, and it’s a good problem to have, I guess. That’s great. Well, let’s talk about the timeline. Let’s start there. Let’s start back at when you guys first started thinking about [having the annual meeting virtually]. Because you’ve only been in Norvado a couple of months, you’re still fairly new up there. When did the process start, or when did you guys start thinking, “you know, hey, we may have to do this virtually. What are our options?”
Chad Mix: Yeah, it started pretty much when I started with the company, which was early March. So I think by mid-March, we had made the determination that we were not going to be able to have an in-person annual meeting, and we had to come up with a solution. Obviously, a virtual annual meeting is, you know, we could have done something recorded maybe. But we really wanted to keep it in the same vein as a live meeting where people could interact with the moderator, where beforehand they could talk to our employees. And so we thought a virtual annual meeting would be the best choice. So around mid-March is when we started.
Andy Johns: And then to do that, it wasn’t just as simple as crossing out the location on the posters. You guys had to change the bylaws to allow that to happen.
Chad Mix: We did. We changed the bylaws to allow for a virtual annual meeting so that it was legal and everything done the proper way. But we did have to change the bylaws. So our CEO worked with our board to make those changes in pretty quick time because our meeting was at the end of last month, at the end of April. So, you know, we had to work quickly.
Andy Johns: Definitely. Was there — and if you can talk to us in a little bit of the decision-making process — was there talk of canceling or postponing as opposed to doing it virtually?
Chad Mix: You know, I mean, there was talk of it. It didn’t last very long. And I think our reaction was we want to put this meeting on. You know, we know our members look forward to it. We’ve had good attendance in person, and we want to take care of it. So there was some discussion around “do we cancel? Do we postpone it? What are the legalities of that?” And that quickly moved to “let’s just keep it the same date, same time and do it virtually.”
Andy Johns: Excellent. And, of course, being the telecom, being the Internet provider up there, it’s a chance to showcase your network, to showcase what the technology can do.
So let’s get into that a little bit. Obviously, you guys have a fiber network up there, which I’m sure helped. But if you can, talk me through some of what you had to do to get ready. In the thinking, you know, did you have to learn some new software to do it, and then kind of map it out how things will work virtually? I guess there are a couple of questions in there. So let’s start with the staging, the programming, and all that. What were some things that you decided that you needed to do virtually, but they had to be a little different in terms of staging programming and that kind of stuff?
Chad Mix: Yes, so I think in terms of how we put the platform together to be able to accomplish this, you know, our choices were use a webpack type of tool, which we don’t have webpacks. We use Microsoft teams, and that has a limit on the number of votes. So there were some problems there. And we could have used just something like YouTube or Facebook or something like that to go live. But then you don’t have the control to manage who’s logging in to keep it private, to award incentives for people to show up. We give a bill credit for people to show up, so we had to manage that process. And so we quickly got to the conclusion that we had to build something. So we built using existing tools. You know, we didn’t custom build it; we used things that were out there. But we put them together on our website to be able to manage the meeting. And so we did it in a semi-custom way, I would say.
Andy Johns: Ok. And did you guys have a vote in this one in particular? So that presents its own set of challenges.
Chad Mix: Yeah. There was voting. There were no major votes, I would say. But they voted on, accepting the minutes from the prior year and opening and closing or concluding the meeting. And should something have come up in like new business where it had to be taken to a vote, we were able to do that. And so that’s one of the tools that we added when we built this sort of platform, was the ability to moderate questions that were coming in and answer those people. Obviously, you know, it’s through a chat type of tool, and then be able to launch polls or voting with options for people to be able to say “yay” or “nay,” and record those votes.
Andy Johns: So talk me through the different components of it. I’m assuming you had a welcome or a speech and an update from the general manager. What were some of the other parts of the meeting that you had, and how did that translate to virtual?
Chad Mix: Yeah. I mean, I think the meeting was very similar to an in-person meeting that we’ve held in the past. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told, I haven’t attended one personally. I think we followed a very similar agenda where our CEO welcomed folks in. Some of the board members spoke. We introduced those people. And then followed through the normal agenda, which was, I may miss a couple of things here, but approving the minutes, going over our financials, talking about anything that will change in 2020 that would affect the member like price increases or channel changing or things like that, opening up to new business to be discussed, and those kinds of things. What we didn’t do on the virtual annual meeting was vote for the board of directors. We took care of that in advance. So we knew in advance if there were any contested seats who won. And we announced that during the virtual annual meeting, but we didn’t vote on that big of an issue on our virtual platform.
Andy Johns: That was done by mail or something ahead of time?
Chad Mix: It was, yeah. It was done in advance by mail. And they could do it online too, but we sent the mailer, and they could send it in or do it online.
Andy Johns: Sure, on the back end where you guys were, what did the speeches look like? Were they all together with the video going? Or were they on their own computer their own webcams for the board members and the general manager?
Chad Mix: Well, they were together in our training room. So we had the board of directors — or rightly some of them — and our CEO or general manager there, along with some of our marketing staff that was running the back end of the system. So it looked pretty seamless. I was at home answering questions and moderating, but watching virtually. And I found it looked pretty smooth. As you’re waiting to get people in — because there’s one-way audio only — there’s a little bit of awkwardness where you’re saying, “Well, hi, everybody. You know, it’s five o’clock. We’re going to start in two minutes. We see a lot of people still coming in, and we want to give them a chance. We’re going to mute.” You know, there’s a little bit of awkwardness, because you don’t get a response. Now, I was getting a response on the moderation where people were saying, “oh, I can hear it just fine” and just kind of talking to me. And so I thought it went well. We did have one call-in, our accountant. [Our accountant] called in and gave his report over the phone and that worked fine, too. We just played it on the conference phone in the training room. The broadcast was fine.
Andy Johns: Now, I know the usual demographic that attends annual meetings probably skews a little bit older. And that’s where, at times, there is a little bit of the learning curve with technology. What kind of response did you hear from folks? It sounds like if you had that many people joining, you guys apparently made it very easy for them to get going.
Chad Mix: Yeah, I mean, I think it was relatively easy. We got the notices out early. We started receiving questions in advance so that we could help. In the notice, we published that your access to the meeting is your member number. And their member number was right on the notice. But we also opened it up on the back end so that if they put in their account number, they could access the meeting as well. So we tried to do some things to make it as easy as possible. Certainly people had some difficulty, especially when you’re in a demographic that’s not used to the technology. And part of their difficulty wasn’t that, “hey, I go to this website, and I log in, and that’s hard.” They had that figured out. What was difficult is when we started to maximize our web hosting resources, they didn’t know what they were doing wrong. And it turns out they weren’t doing anything wrong. They just had to wait a little bit for it to catch up and allow them to also join. And so we would receive calls and chats and in the moderation chat, we would also get messages that “hey, I can’t see the video” or whatever was happening to them. And certainly, for some people, this was a challenge for them, because they are not used to it. But I would say, for the most part, people were able to access. It was fairly easy. Where they had difficulty, it was more our fault and could have easily been corrected had we expected the number of folks that attended.
Andy Johns: That leads right into my next question. What are some things that you learned that you’ll do differently next time? Or what are some things that really worked well or what are some things that you’ll do differently? And what were you really pleasantly surprised that went well?
Chad Mix: Yeah, I think overall I felt really good going in and having kind of built something from scratch or pieced together the parts to make it work. You know, we were a little nervous from a marketing group’s perspective, but we had tested it. We did a lot of testing with our marketing group and with our whole employee base. And so we had a pretty good sense of what we were going to expect. And we made some corrections based on the employee test and how they were trying to log in and where they had difficulties. So that was really helpful. Overall, I think the system worked really, really well, and we all were very happy with its functionality. So our website, from going to our website to log in, then logging in with your member number and us being able to track that on the back end to say, “OK, they logged in, and we need to sign a bill credit to them for doing so.” And then the voting and moderating worked really well. The one thing that we could do a little better in that regard is to have our board give people more time. Because they voted, but then they’re not used to waiting for something that they can’t see happening. So we had a slow them down a little bit during the meeting.
But I think all those things are just things that can get corrected. So the tools and the way the site worked, the way the system was built, I think worked great. What was problematic for us, really was that we did not increase our Web hosting resources, our CPU. And we were maxing it out because of the number of folks, which caused delays in them getting in. We pivoted and sent some folks directly to YouTube and manually tracked who was watching from there so that we could still give them the bill credit. And that’s what we did, we used YouTube live streaming on our site. We broadcasted on our site, but it was also available on our channel, if you had the link to log in. So we did that in a worst-case scenario. But if we would — and we would in previous years — increase our resources on the Web hosting, I don’t think we would have had an issue with people logging in. That’s always a guess. How many people are going to attend? How much should we buy? But I think we could oversubscribe for a month or two and make sure that we’re taking care of our members and things would have been fine. And it will be in the future.
Andy Johns: Sure. This is good. We’ve got a good thing going because that’s right where I was headed next. Do you think this changes anything in the future? I suppose by this time next year, everything is back to people being able to gather together, that sort of thing. Do you think this changes anything, big picture about the way you guys do annual meetings or other events in the future?
Chad Mix: Yeah, I think it does. The final decisions on what we do in the future have not yet been made. But there has been discussion in our wrap-up meetings that we’d like to continue to do this from a virtual perspective due to the number of people that attended. You know, we want to get the message out to our members. So the more people that are there, the more we’re accomplishing the goal of the annual meeting. There are some downsides, some of that personal touch and talking to folks, but we did a lot of it just virtually. And I think we can take care of it in other ways throughout the year, and then use the virtual annual meeting platform to really grow the audience. So the thought is, is that we would continue to do this moving forward. Our CEO needs to work with our board of directors on that, but the thought is that we would continue.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Last thing for you here. If there is somebody out there at another co-op who is looking at their annual meeting coming up in a couple of months, like you were, and they’re on the fence. Do you try to postpone, or what do we do? Do we try virtual? What would you say to those folks, or what advice could you give them on making that decision and on taking steps to move forward?
Chad Mix: I would do it virtually. I would recommend that they move forward in doing it virtually. And just keep doing business as usual, right, instead of postponing and changing. Who knows? When they postpone it, it could have to be postponed again, right? Hopefully not, but I think just do it virtually. My recommendation would be to make sure you get the tools that accomplish the objectives that your seeking. So if it’s private and you want it to be live and you’re giving a bill credit or some reward for attending, then you need to get the tools to manage that, right? And if you want to have questions, you need to have the moderation tools. And if you want to vote, you need the voting tools. And so I would say just make sure you understand those objectives that you’re trying to accomplish. Get the tools that enable you to do that, and then test it. Because we learned a lot through our testing, and we did a lot more testing than we originally thought we would. We thought we would do a marketing test, an employee test, and off we go. But we did about ten marketing tests, two employee tests, and then off we go. But in the future, you know, we wouldn’t have to do that. We’d probably run a test or two. The foundation has been built. I would say make sure you test, work out the bugs in advance before you have a big audience, and then you’ll be ready to go. And I think that everybody will experience something similar where their audience increases exponentially because it’s a lot easier. It’s a lot easier to log in and during this time to sit and listen to it.
Andy Johns: Excellent. And I know I said that was the last bit, but as I’m thinking, do you think that two months is enough time? Because you guys started to think about it in early March, made the decision in mid-March, and then had the meeting at the end of April. Was that enough time? Is that about right? Did you guys feel really rushed? Or would you, if you’re somebody else, would you give yourself a little more time? Or does that seem about the right window?
Chad Mix: You know, it’s always hard to say. I think it’s a little bit dependent on your staff and your contractors, you know. For me and for our staff, I felt like it was perfect. You know, we had to move quickly, but we weren’t totally under the gun. We had enough time to do the research and get it put together. You know, if we had more time, we probably would have done more testing and tweaking, and we could have added different things. But overall, I think that was plenty of time to accomplish what we needed.
Andy Johns: Got it. I appreciate you allowing that bonus question there at the end. So thanks for that. He is Chad Mix. He is the marketing director at Norvado up in Wisconsin. Chad, thanks for joining me.
Chad Mix: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Andy Johns: I’m your host, Andy Johns. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.