FTC hosted its 2020 annual meeting in a drive-through format. Brandi Lyles, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations, joined the show to discuss what lessons they learned from the meeting, how they kept members engaged, and the history-making member participation.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Stephen Smith: Welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and I am welcoming to the podcast today, Ms. Brandi Lyles. Brandi is the Manager of Marketing and Public Relations at FTC, which is the broadband provider not only of our business at WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company, but it is also here at my home.
Stephen Smith: FTC does a great job, and they really like so many other cooperatives across the country, both telco and electric cooperatives, were faced with the challenge of what to do about our annual meeting. The pandemic presented a lot of challenges, particularly for cooperatives. Do we host our annual meeting as normal, but try to use some social distancing and put some precautions into place? Do we scrap it? Just reschedule for next year? What do our bylaws say? I think if you’re cooperative listening, you’ll gain some real insight from the way Brandi and her team handled this. And you might just learn some things like Brandi did that you can apply to your annual meeting for next year. So let’s listen in to my conversation with Brandi Lyles.
Stephen Smith: And welcome to Rural Broadband Today. Thanks for joining us, Brandi. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
Brandi Lyles: Thank you for having me.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, we’ve been looking forward to this. We are going to be talking about the annual meeting. And, of course, FTC is our local provider, and we participated in this annual meeting. It was a great event, and I was very impressed with how you had structured that to accommodate certainly during these crazy times with social distancing requirements and things that created a situation where you could not have your annual meeting in a normal fashion. You know, some companies, they’ve taken different routes and some postponed and even canceled. And so you really jumped in there and tried to make something new and different out of this, and I think the results speak for themselves. So we’ll just jump in here and let you kind of give us an overview of what you did with your annual meeting, and then we’ll dive down in some details.
Brandi Lyles: Ok, great. So our bylaws state that we must have an annual meeting in the month of August or September, and we typically have our annual meeting on the first Saturday in August. And so this year, we were able to provide an annual meeting and a special order of business, and that would meet. Our bylaw requirement. In doing so, we decided to have an annual meeting over a two-week period Customers would be able to come by our office and register and vote by secret ballot on the business and the election of trustees. And this way we were able to provide a contact-less registration and voting method.
Stephen Smith: So how was the decision made? Take us kind of behind the curtains as you were looking at all your options and you said, “well, let’s give this a try.”
Brandi Lyles: Yes. So we definitely wanted to just go ahead and have an annual meeting. That’s a big deal each year, and we just couldn’t stand the thoughts of not having one. And obviously, with the pandemic going on, we were not going to host an event that we normally do because you do not want to have a mass gathering and be responsible for the spread of Covid. So we decided under the special order that we would do a two-week annual meeting, and our board of trustees went along with it. And so I guess the decision was made, and so we said we could try it. I set a goal of having a 1,000 registered members. And obviously you’ve got to do something to entice people to come, and you’ve got to give them a benefit the come. So we did that by offering great, great daily door prizes and additional door prizes, grand prize and also a $20 bill credit. We did the $20 bill credit so that we wouldn’t have to touch a gift. And also we were trying to do that through the drive-through. So obviously we didn’t have the means, you know, logistically that hand them to get through the drive-through.
Stephen Smith: Right. Everyone that showed up and participated, registered, came away with something and kept you from having to pass a cutting board or an iron skillet or something that large through the drive-through.
Brandi Lyles: Exactly. Now, we did give them one treat. We did go ahead and give them some hand sanitizer.
Stephen Smith: Right. Normally you go to an annual meeting. You register. You go through the entertainment, the business meeting, and then there’s door prizes at the end. But I thought that was a great approach, that instead of waiting until the end of the thing, when it was all wrapped up across two weeks, that you gave door prizes actually at the end of every day. Talk a little bit about how you did those. I thought that was a clever approach using using Facebook. So tell us about that.
Brandi Lyles: Ok, so this year you had a “2020. It’s been business unusual.” That was our theme. And then we also wanted to have a theme of 20 for 2020. So with that there comes the $20 bill credit. And then also we gave away 20 door prizes. And so each day we gave a daily door prize away. So all customers that came by and registered that day was in the drawing for that daily door prize. And we did that every day at the end of the day through Facebook live. And we experienced the Facebook live deal for the first time. And let me just say, it’s much harder than it looks, especially when you have an audience, an internal audience. So then we gave away nine additional door prizes on the last day. So if you didn’t win any of the daily door prizes then you was in the drawing for the nine additional door prizes on the very last day. And then every one, even if you won a daily door prize, went back in the drawing for the grand prize in which we always give, or typically, give a surplus vehicle away as a grand prize. So we gave away 20 prizes. Now we do typically try to do a an electronic gift that customers have to use their Wi-Fi for, so.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, that’s a great tie in. And you had some really good prizes. Tell us what some of those were.
Brandi Lyles: Okay, so we had an iPad and a smart TV. We had a one year of gig Internet service, Roomba vacuum, a FTC Total Security Services with one year monitoring, an Apple Watch, and a locked box. And not many people knew that what that was, but that is a box that you control with your Wi-Fi. You order things online, and it ships. And you can prevent people from stealing your packages, so you can control it with your Wi-Fi, open it up, and lock it after your FedEx guy or mail person drops off your packages. We had a Google Chromebook, Wi-Fi coffeemaker, and a Wi-Fi tele-grill. That was the gift we would have loved, the Traeger. And then because of the pandemic, you know, money is a little tight. So we bought some $250 gift cards for our local grocery store. That went over really well. Wireless bluetooth speaker, a smart Insta Pot, a Roku ultra, and a Wi-Fi grilling thermometer. And then our grand prize was a surplus, which was that 2007 Chevrolet’s extended cab Colorado truck. So all the gifts are something that I would have wanted. And that’s what I heard from everyone. There’s not there’s not a gift down there that I wouldn’t want, so.
Stephen Smith: Well, you mentioned it went across two weeks. Tell us a little bit about why you chose two weeks and what lessons you learned from that time span.
Brandi Lyles: So the Covid was the first time that we entertained having an annual meeting in this manner. We just wanted to ensure that we gave people the opportunity to participate in the business of the cooperative. And so we just elected to do it over a two-week period. But a valuable lesson was learned: we didn’t need that two-week period. We can definitely get that over in one week, so we can host the annual meeting because we met quorum on our very first day.
Stephen Smith: Wow, that’s great. So how many did you end up registering across those two weeks?
Brandi Lyles: We ended up registering 2,060 members. That is the most participation we’ve had in the history of the cooperative.
Stephen Smith: Wow, double your goal.
Brandi Lyles: Yes, absolutely.
Stephen Smith: So what do you attribute that to, Brandi? What do you think brought out
Brandi Lyles: Well, I think it made it easier and more convenient because I feel like many people are extremely busy, and it’s hard for people to want to give up a Saturday morning. You know, we provided them a benefit with the $20 bill credit, [that] definitely attributed to the participation. Then the door prizes that we also made it very, very convenient for customers. They could just sit through our drive-through. They were in and out, except for the first day, I mean, essentially in minutes. The first day we had a line that was backed up early morning. But other than that, it was pretty painless and quick. We also extended our business hours a couple hours. We typically close that at 4:00 and extended that to 6:00 p.m. That way people that worked until 5:00 had an opportunity to drop down and go through the dive-through.
Stephen Smith: Ok, that was great. So very customer-centric there. That’s good taking care of the members.
Brandi Lyles: Yes.
Stephen Smith: So you’re walking into a situation that you have no idea what to expect. 1,000 was your goal, but you didn’t know if you would get half of that, if it would take two weeks. Obviously, you extended it two weeks, hoping that you would get that, having no idea what the participation was going to be. How do you prepare your staff for that? Take us a little peek behind the curtain for others that might be looking at doing something like this. What are some lessons learned, and how do you get your staff ready for that?
Brandi Lyles: Okay. Well, we definitely did learn a few lessons. We did have a meeting with the CSRs and the cashiers ahead of time and went over the registration packet, what it was going to look like, what our tickets were going to look like that was being mailed to the members. And it has a QR code on it. We used NISC’s AppSuite to register our annual meeting members. And so some key things would be to make sure that CSRs practice or whomever is going to register your members. Next year, with that said, we’re going to pull some other people in within the company to help with that registration process so that we don’t just overwhelm the cashiers and CSRs. Because the CSRs still had to do, obviously, their regular order of business each day. They weren’t just dedicated to the annual meeting. So we will have more detail meetings to train employees how to use AppSuite and practice before the day. Even though you’re trained on it, sometimes you panic until you actually go through that process.
Stephen Smith: All right. So hands on. It really helps with that, I’m sure.
Brandi Lyles: Absolutely. So have some practice sheets. So an account where everybody gets to go through that process ahead of time.
Stephen Smith: So you mentioned there was a long line on the first day. Did you run into any other challenges that you didn’t anticipate? And how did you overcome those?
Brandi Lyles: Well, making sure everybody that’s using the AppSuite definitely has the right credentials, so it’s an easy process. Make sure all that is handled ahead of time. We did have a tent outside to help with some of that traffic, the first few [days] and during busy times. Then also making sure that you have proper signage to guide people and/or people out there directing traffic a little bit if there is a line.
Stephen Smith: Wow, great idea. So you had a tent, so not everyone had to go through the actual drive-through window; you could take more than one person at a time?
Brandi Lyles: Yes, we actually have multiple drive-through windows. So we had two windows open and then a tent where people could go through that line, and we did have signage out there that said “annual meeting, registration and voting line only.”
Stephen Smith: Oh, good idea.
Brandi Lyles: So if that’s the only order of business that you were coming to do, you could just zip through that line and not have to go through the other line. Then if you had other orders of business with the cooperative, you could go through the other line because some people were coming by to pay their bill. And that is one thing. We ended up having the dates near our cutoff date. So lesson learned: make sure you properly plan around your cutoff dates, and you wouldn’t have a meeting during those dates. It’s pretty busy on those days.
Stephen Smith: And so with the lobby closed because of the pandemic, those people coming to pay on the cutoff dates are having to go through the drive-through in addition to your normal traffic, people coming to pay their bill.
Brandi Lyles: Yes, now we did open up our business office because this was the first time, and we wanted to make sure that we were given everybody the opportunity to participate in the annual meeting. We didn’t want it to look like we were having any barriers up whatsoever. Because we were a little worried about that. But we did open up a lobby for in-person registration, but we really did focus on contact-less registration through the drive-through. I think people appreciated that. But we did have a lot of people walk-in; I think people were eager to get out.
Stephen Smith: So now that you’ve gone through this, and you’ve got one year under your belt and you’re thinking about next year, because I know that planning for the next annual meeting always happens a couple of days after the last one is over. So are you guys considering doing the same format for 2021?
Brandi Lyles: Yes, we are. We have actually met, and then I will create a proposal for our board of trustees to vote on. And we are hopeful that we will get to continue this format in 2021.
Stephen Smith: And I guess as you’re doing the proposal, you’re certainly looking at the feedback that you’ve gotten from members. Tell us about what that’s been like. What kind of feedback have you gotten?
Brandi Lyles: We had all positive feedback. Everyone loved it. They loved — I guess, it’s hard to get somewhere that one day for a four-hour period, which is what’s typical. And so with a multi-day format, you have a better opportunity to come and participate. So obviously we’re not going to have it over a two-week period, but we do want to have it in two weeks. So our proposed format will be from a Wednesday until the Tuesday of the following week. That way it allows people if they’re unavailable one week, hopefully they’re available the next week.
Stephen Smith: Ok. Well, good luck with that. Did you see any changes, Brandi, in maybe the demographics that you would normally see coming to that annual meeting in-person on Saturdays? Was there different age ranges that you might have not seen before?
Brandi Lyles: Yes. I mean, this was beneficial for everyone. Typically in a traditional format at annual meetings, the demographics are probably ranging from — the majority of attendees are probably 60 years and up. And this year I would say, we had all ages because everyone was excited. We had more buzz about this year’s annual meeting than we have ever had. Employees said that none of my friends have ever messaged me about the annual meeting, and I’ve got more messages than I ever have regarding our annual meeting this week asking questions. I think social media played a huge part in that.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, well, that’s very insightful and might be a way to — I know as lot of cooperative’s look at, you know, the concern with the aging demographic that is active and really engaged with the cooperative in terms of the annual meeting anyway. And they they look at that and wonder, how can we reach out to you and engage a younger crowd? This might this might be a key to that.
Brandi Lyles: It definitely was for us.
Stephen Smith: So there are some of the cooperative’s listening to this show, and they think, oh, that sounds like a great idea. I would definitely want to try that for next year. Do you have any advice for them to consider?
Brandi Lyles: I say try it. You have to try stuff to know if it would work. So I started looking at a 1,000 members, and then I don’t remember having the conversation with our CFO. I said, “Now, I think at best, I think at best, we would have 2000 members.” So we even beat that. So you won’t know if you don’t try.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely, that’s absolutely right. And FTC has always been cutting edge in trying new things. This is certainly out there. But I think the the theme of the annual meeting, as you mentioned earlier, was “business unusual.” And I think that sums up not just your approach to it, but so many things that’s happening in this current state. So hats off to you guys for pulling off a very successful event, going out on a limb, trying something new, and it being a great service to your members.
Brandi Lyles: Oh, thank you.
Stephen Smith: Well, Brandi, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. And thank you to our listeners to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thanks for listening.