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61: Mike Whitaker Pt. 1, On the Role of Education at Virtual Events

Written by Rob Stott

March 16, 2021

virtual events whitaker

In the first of a two-part series, we sit down with the architect of Nationwide Learning Academy Mike Whitaker. In this interview, Whitaker goes into the evolution of NLA as the shift to virtual events takes hold.

Rob Stott: All right. And we are back in on the Independent Thinking Podcast and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more difficult challenge ahead of me, of keeping us on track and on topic, but we’re going to try. I held you off. I fended you off for 61 episodes, Mike Whitaker, but here we are, it’s happening.

Mike Whitaker: They eventually always let the guy on the podcast who can’t stop chasing the squirrel. That’s all I care about.

Rob Stott: So you finally caught it and you’re here. First of all, we’re talking a couple of days here, this podcast will drop during the start of PrimeTime, but a couple of days before PrimeTime. So I understand what your schedule’s like and what our schedules are like. So the fact that I even got any couple minutes of your time, I appreciate. So first of all, thank you. And let’s have some fun.

Mike Whitaker: Well, Rob, thank you for inviting me on. I do want to say thank you for what you’re doing here and getting this great information out to members. I will tell you, as we look at the forecast, late-breaking going into PrimeTime, we all wanted to be together in Denver so bad this week. That was the goal. And unfortunately, pandemic continues. We’re not quite there where we can get together a lot, but here’s the fun part, we are not in Denver as they sit, expecting their heaviest snowfall since 1890.

Rob Stott: Oh, boy. Yeah. So let’s just say everything happens for a reason, right?

Mike Whitaker: Yes. Virtual is definitely not all bad, so many great things that are going to be coming next week. Some members are listening to this podcast. They are in the midst of what I believe will be the single greatest virtual PrimeTime ever.

Rob Stott: Well, the second, so it will certainly top October and-

Mike Whitaker: Rob, Rob, Rob. It’s not about what number it is, it’s about the fact that it is the best virtual PrimeTime to date.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. Well, one thing we have learned whether it’s PrimeTime or any other show that we’ve had the chance to attend virtually over these past 12, 13 months, crazy to think it’s already been a year, but it’s that education and the chance to learn has really taken sort of the center stage, the main stage, if you will, of what happens at these virtual events and sort of where the focus becomes. And I mean, who better to talk to than the guy that has been leading Nationwide Learning Academy over the years and now into this virtual era of trade shows. So I want to start right there with you talking about, like we said, two PrimeTimes in, what have you learned about planning for a virtual show and everything that you’re doing with Nationwide Learning Academy from that virtual aspect?

Mike Whitaker: So Rob, it’s a great question. And I’ll say this, what we learned is the same thing that our retailers have learned in the past year. And that’s everything you knew up to this point really doesn’t apply anymore.

Rob Stott: Throw it out.

Mike Whitaker: You got to throw it out and you got to relearn. There’s been so many challenges with the pandemic, but as you mentioned, one of the great things that’s come out of this learning that we’ve had over the past year is that when we have the right content available on demand and ready to consume, the consumption of it and the impact of that content goes up exponentially. I’m going to really go old school on you here. I know you are far younger than I am. So I’m going to use some words you may not have heard of, but when we first started education and Nationwide’s commitment to the members in that area, it was so far back that those first trainings programs went out on VHS tapes.

Rob Stott: Hey, I know what those are.

Mike Whitaker: …shipping plants were all across the country, and here’s the fun part, to take those certification exams and earn those early MemberNet Reward prizes, you had to take your test on paper with a number two pencil.

Rob Stott: I might have some trouble identifying a number two pencil.

Mike Whitaker: There were these things called fax machines. They were a little like scanners…and those came back. And as we’ve had that evolution, Nationwide learned very early on, we took education online in 2003. So a very early opportunity for members to engage through MemberNet. So with our current Nationwide Learning Academy online, that’s been in place, the platform we’ve been on for the past about six years, mobile optimized all of the little bells and whistles that make it easy for folks to consume content, we’ve seen a phenomenal engagement from the frontline sales teams and delivery teams within our membership. We’re averaging around 250 to 300,000 certifications a year. COVID hit, that number went up to about 350,000 certifications. But where it really was magical, we’ve always wanted our teams to train online and we’ve always had the resources to do, but as leaders, as executives throughout the integrated channel, our learning typically came at PrimeTime.

It came at an event where we learned live and that’s blown up over the past few years live. Well, we chartered the Nationwide Learning Academy to bring all Nationwide’s educational initiatives together in 2016, we were averaging around 1,000 session attendees per show. We thought that was great. We listened to our dealers feedback, we made a lot of modifications as we went into that first show in 2016 as the Nationwide Learning Academy. And since then, we thought we really discovered the secret. We averaged about 5,000 session attendees per show, and then the pandemic hit and we took it out of that live format. We had no choice. Sometimes we learn because we chose to innovate. Sometimes we learn because we’re forced to innovate, but we went to the show in October with over 100 educational opportunities for owners, executives and key decision makers. And by the time the show had wrapped and the dust had settled, there were over 16,700 session attendees.

Rob Stott: Wow, it’s unbelievable.

Mike Whitaker: That’s a lot of education. And a lot of that, as we listened to the dealers’ feedback, as we asked them about that, there were several factors. Number one, we knew the sessions online had to be short. So we kept those sessions under 30 minutes. The folks at TED really figured it out. If you can make your point in 18 minutes, you can maintain great attention span and retention of the information. So they’re shorter sessions. And what might’ve been a 75 or a 90 minute session at a previous show, we’ve learned to take that content and make it three digestible sessions, three more tactically planned sessions that lasts 20 minutes. So as presenters, which we have many experienced experts throughout the Nationwide team and all the great folks in the industry that we work with, we’re all learning to get it up and get it down a lot faster. A little more podcast style, if you will.

Make it a little conversational, make it enjoyable. Nothing wrong with having a smile as we learn new ideas, new concepts, and then it confirmed a strategy that was implemented at the end of 2019. And at the end of 2019, we started to look at our current LMS, which is where we house our content for frontline sales users. And for those frontline folks in our member companies. And we knew there was a desire from owners, executives, key decision makers to be a little more tactical and to have content just for them. So we knew that with the platform we had built, it had been alive for six years, which in the world of technology is-

Rob Stott: It’s a longtime.

Mike Whitaker: … it is a senior citizen at that point. So we sent Chris Bryant and his team kind of into the development lab and said, “We need a brand new LMS.”

Now, one of the things we know in working with a network as unique as Nationwide is that there’s nothing off the shelf that works. There’s nothing off the shelf that has capabilities that you need to truly serve our members, truly live out our promise to them and help them thrive on their own terms. So we went into the development process of a totally custom LMS. As we come out of that, we’re so excited to launch that at PrimeTime.

One of those last second “Hey, but did you know we’re launching this year show.” It’s now very, very intuitive in working with MemberNet. So it knows as a user enters the Academy, are they an owner, executive, key decision maker? If so, there’s a library of content just for them. Are they a member of the frontline team? They still get that great content in product training. It’s going to take what we do at PrimeTime and make that an always on, on demand, year-round learning environment for the folks leading the independent channel to give them a level playing field with any executive in America, with relevant, very focused content, to help them continually maintain their status as the best and most knowledgeable at what they do.

Rob Stott: And with that platform, because I know, like you said, we love late breaking news here at Nationwide and getting things ready for PrimeTime at PrimeTime and launching during PrimeTime. For someone who may only know education from going to the shows, how would you describe the education that they’ll see in this new LMS platform as opposed to what they see at PrimeTime?

Mike Whitaker: So Rob, that’s a great question. And it’s really about the format. It’s about making it formatted to fit into their professional life. So I always make the analogy when you go to PrimeTime and you engage in education, in so many ways, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. You’ve got so much content available, so many experts in that three-day period, that number one, it’s hard to make all the sessions you want and it’s hard to retain all the information you’re exposed to. So we’re going to continue to do that. The fire hose is alive and well and it will be at every PrimeTime. But at this show, you’ll see some of that content that’s available in those tracks for owners, executives, and key decision makers make its way over to the Nationwide Learning Academy and be available there for a longer shelf lifetime.

You’ll also see the ability to have continuing conversations on education. So I’ll use Kris Kuester as a great example. Kris is a phenomenal speaker on developing your team, on developing your culture. And that’s something you need to do year round. You can’t just focus on that when you’re energized and coming out of PrimeTime. So there’ll be some sessions Kris will do at the show and leave the show. You’ll see content coming into the Nationwide Learning Academy online that’ll continue that learning track, that’ll build off where we started. And if you’re jumping in late, if you didn’t attend that session at PrimeTime and you get on the LMS, those sessions from PrimeTime will be there as well. So it gives you the ability to track where you really have the most hunger for knowledge and go through a continuing plan that fits your schedule and allows you to build those great habits like taking 15, 20 minutes a day and dedicating it to your own development, your own learning. All those things that we know are best practices, this system’s designed to enable you to do that very simply.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And to the education at PrimeTime, we’ve kind of talked about this just in general at Nationwide. And I think in the meetings industry and space, we’ve recently published an article by Melissa Stenson, our VP of Member Experience and PrimeTime guru, about the future of trade shows. And we kind of understand that there’s going to be hybrid events and we all crave to get back in person. But there’s still going to be that… Now that there’s hybrid events or these virtual events, we’re seeing people that don’t typically have access or aren’t able to get to PrimeTime or any other show, really, they’re able to attend in some way. So that being the case, what do you sort of see being the future moving forward of NLA at PrimeTime and how do you think that sort of evolves as the show continues to evolve?

Mike Whitaker: So Rob, what we see there is that we’ve built ourselves a great challenge from an educational standpoint. There’s a different format that’s necessary online than there is in-person. Now we tried in the past, we have done several shows where we recorded at the show and we made those available online. And then we asked members for feedback. What did you think? And they said, “It was kind of strange.” Because there’s a totally different format you use when you’re live together and we will be together in Nashville. I’m going to go and say it right now, I’m going to put it on the record on the Independent Thinking Podcast. If I have to stand on a street corner in Nashville, Tennessee with a mattress, a refrigerator, a grill, a nightstand, we’re going to have a PrimeTime.

Rob Stott: We’ll be there.

Mike Whitaker: Whatever… But we know that we can’t simply simulcast that part of the event. Now there’s learnings from what we know and where the world has been moving already. It’s kind of like digital we’ve had that conversation. There wasn’t a change in trajectory with consumers’ adaptation and adoption of digital, we just press the accelerator and we move forward years in a matter of months. The same thing’s happened with education. And I mentioned TED earlier, TED Talks are extremely popular for a reason, because they give you great actionable information and they do it very quickly. Our attention spans are shrinking. Just as a society, our attention spans are shrinking and the room for fluff’s gone. So you’ll see at live shows, you’ll see more educational opportunities in shorter sessions. So the days of a 90 minute NLA, I’ll go and say, those are over. Those are gone. They will be done in more digestible, smaller duration sessions, but we’re also not going to push the easy button. And that’s something that at Nationwide, from the top down, from Tom all the way down, there’s a dedication there.

We don’t push the easy button. We push the do it right button, the execute with excellence button. And we know we have dealers that… I mean, I’ll tell you, growing up, my dad was GM of a furniture store and when they were small, when I was younger, there was no way they could go to a trade show because there was nobody left to watch the store. So we have members that are up and coming members that are very comfortable in that spot and they just don’t have a team big enough to go, “Hey, we’re going to leave for four days and go to PrimeTime.” They deserve that same access to education, that same quality of content as dealers that are able to get up and come to the show. So we’ll still have a live Nationwide Learning Academy, designed, structured and curated for a live audience, we’ll have the same valuable content done in a virtual format, done for those dealers who attend online.

Now, is it double work for the presenters? You betcha. But as a presenter yourself, one of our experts on… I’ve yet to talk to anybody who serves as an expert in the Nationwide Learning Academy and say, “Here’s why we’re doing it.” And they go, “No, no, no. I don’t want to do that.” Everybody’s embracing that idea, embracing the idea of being able to touch dealers both ways and yours is a special area. And I’m kind of letting the cat out of the bag… One of my favorite sessions because for those of you that I have great relationships with, that have known me for a while, you know that I don’t do social media. I’ve never had a social media profile and I’m keeping it that way. There are a few of us out there still.

Rob Stott: That hurts my ears. That hurts my ears.

Mike Whitaker: Trying to imagine life with no social media. But one of the things that’s been great for me, obviously, it matters in business, right? You did a session that’s going to take that and simplify that for us and help us to understand that there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a huge fan. I hop on YouTube from time to time and I will absolutely go attend a such-and-such for dummies because there’s a lot of things in the world I’m just ignorant of and I want to learn about, so those are phenomenal resources. So guys, if you don’t know a lot about social media, come join me. I’ll be at Rob’s session, learning some of those great things you need to know, but being able to take that and touch dealers of all sizes, whether they travel or not. And in your case, a lot of times, our social media managers within the membership, don’t come to PrimeTime.

We have to make those investment decisions in time and travel very strategically. And that person may not be at a show. So I can tell you with no hesitation, when I was a retail operator, I had three social media managers and any of them individually has forgotten more than I ever knew about social media. So having an opportunity to plug those folks in with experts like you, to have those conversations, attend those educational sessions, is priceless. And even though they weren’t going to PrimeTime. Bring PrimeTime to them, let’s get them in touch with those right experts on those right topics.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And I love that you’re kind of weaving in your background because that’s where I wanted to go next. Because for those that don’t know you, I don’t know who they are because I feel like everyone at this point, at least in the Nationwide family, knows who Mike Whitaker is, but for those that don’t, or even those that do and want to learn a little bit more, your retail background, talk about how that sort of helped you with what you’re doing with Nationwide Learning Academy and sort of what you’re trying to build and create there.

Mike Whitaker: Absolutely, Rob. And if you’re there, I’ve probably thrown my face into so many rooms that it’s hard to have avoided this. So they thought they were safe to come to the Independent Thinking Podcast… anymore, either. And it really is a great question. It’s kind of how Nationwide PrimeMedia! got started and education has always been facilitated here by Nationwide PrimeMedia!, just outside of Atlanta. And Mr. Steve Bryant started that back in the late ’90s. And I was able to take Steve’s mantra that he started Nationwide PrimeMedia! with and really take ownership of that.

And that was taking everything we’d experienced in retail. Running large independent retail operations, and there were always those wish lists that we had in a corner of a desk drawer that said, “Man, I really wish we had access to this. I really wish there was somebody out there that could help me do that.” And that’s where our educational program started. The ability to pick that up and go, “You know what, there’s so many areas in the membership and in an independent retail company where there’s not a lot of support out there, there’s not a lot of folks talking to how best do we communicate with customers during a delivery or an installation experience?

There’s not a lot of folks who are saying, “Let’s talk about how we best address our culture. How do we continually have conversations about making this a great place to work? And how does that impact our ability to hire talent in the market?” So being able to come here with a wish list, and then most importantly, the relationships that came from being a retailer, that’s the great thing about independent retailers. It’s a big family and those relationships that I got to build as a retailer, being able to call those folks who aren’t just colleagues, they’re friends and say, “Hey guys, would you mind talking to me about that wish list that’s in your desk drawer?” And putting those together to say, “This is a place where we know there’s need.”

And that’s true, not just in education, but that’s true throughout all of Nationwide. Here at PrimeTime, you’ll see a lot of buzz around the service leaders network. Where did that come from? Retailers. Retailers saying, “Hey, this is a need.” And it’s already worked its way into education. I had a great conversation with our brand new service director, our brand new member of the team focused solely on self-servicing dealers. And one of the first things he said out of the gate is “Dealers need more training on service. Dealers need more training on text.” And while there’s some things that we certainly lean into our manufacturing partners, I’ll be the first one to tell you, I have absolutely no idea how to fix a dishwasher. Matter of fact, I have a service tech going to my house tomorrow because mine’s broken.

But what we do know is we do know all the resources and we have all of the folks in our panel of experts that we rely on regularly, they can talk about how do we best create an experience at that point. And then we have those connections to the folks that teach you which buttons to push and how to do the diagnostic. It’s providing that kind of support that it fills the gaps and it ultimately can help equip members to continue to humiliate the big box chains and the lumberyards in the experience that they can deliver to today’s consumer. And I think that’s only going to become even more important. Online reviews aren’t going away. We all know that. Great services like WebFronts Review that are helping you stay on top of that. But one of the fun things I would encourage everybody to do as they educate themselves about their market, go look at the online reviews of your competitors. Go look at the orange guys’ and the blue guys’ online reviews.

There’s so many things that come out that are really educationally based. They say, “Hey, I went in and I haven’t bought a new refrigerator in 20 years.” And there was nobody there that could have a conversation with me. Or they went in and said, “Hey I had folks come to my home to do a delivery and they left because they looked at the door and said, “No, no, we can’t bring that in.” Nobody had ever taught them how to take the doors off. So there’s so many areas where their experience suffers and it’s because they don’t invest in their people. They don’t invest in developing and educating their teams. It’s a place where we have every opportunity and every obligation to just spank the pants off of them.

And as we do that, it continues to become part of the independent story. We know everything’s trending local right now. I mean, we’re in a local wave and that’s great. And let’s all be honest, that’s ebbed and flowed over the years, let’s make this one the one where we keep that tide coming in to independence. And a lot of it boils down to consumers have less time than ever. And suddenly, they got used to being able to do things very efficiently during the pandemic. I’ll go and bet, did you go to a physical location to purchase that beautiful, beautiful microphone that I’m totally envious of?

Rob Stott: Absolutely not.

Mike Whitaker: Because we don’t have to anymore. And that’s becoming true for consumers as well. So that’s another place where the Nationwide Learning Academy is always and ever expanding. We’re in the process right now of going through discovery with our teams that [inaudible 00:21:48] on time and creating assets that help educate the consumer, help the consumer make their decisions very quickly, whether it’s measuring for your new refrigerator, whether it’s looking at what kind of laundry that you’re interested in. Consumers want to do so much more of that learning before they interact with our teams. When they go into the consideration and evaluation phase today, they’re spending more time there than ever.

And they’re looking to educate themselves. Now where we can be at a real disadvantage, if we don’t take the time to make sure our teams are immaculately educated, we’re all of a sudden dealing with a consumer who knows far more about the business we’re in than we do. Now that’s been true for a while with a lot of things available online. If I drill in on one specific dishwasher, I can know more than any salesperson ever about that specific model because they have to know about hundreds, but we have to be on the cutting edge of innovation, of product technology, just to be on a level playing field with our shoppers today.

Rob Stott: Right. And the unbelievable thing, I think, that gets often overlooked in terms of what we do and what you guys are doing with Nationwide Learning Academy is that it sounds like something that if you go anywhere else, you’d have to open up your pocket books and wallets and expect to fork over a decent chunk of change to get access to something like this. It’s a member benefit. This is a member benefit, something that you guys are providing at cost of membership to Nationwide to ensure that these guys have access to this education and all of this training.

Mike Whitaker: Now, Rob, that’s very true. And I will say this, I want to make sure that we clarify this point because we all know that in many, many cases in the world today, you get what you pay for, right? So here’s where it becomes another benefit of the scale of Nationwide when 5,200 independent dealers work together, because I’ll tell you, creating quality educational content, maintaining a user-friendly, intuitive and very functional platform, none of that comes cheap. And we haven’t even talked about MemberNet Rewards, which reward learners, not only with certifications, but with real world dollars and cents for honing their craft, becoming better at their profession. We don’t charge members a premium for that. And that requires investment from all of our partners. And if you think about it like this, if we all come together as 5,200 independent retailers, and we all throw a dollar at it, the dollar didn’t hurt us but the 5,200 bucks is certainly a significant amount of money to get something done.

That’s how education works. It’s through those manufacturer relationships and through our members, collectively at scale, that we can bring this to them as a benefit of their membership. Now that’s not universal. I won’t name names, I won’t point fingers, but there are other groups that will say, “Yes, we can get you education. Please write us a check.” We don’t believe that that should be an obstacle any member should have to surmount. Access to high quality, high impact education is so important. It’s a place where we invest. It’s a place where we really have a dedication. We’ve never charged a dime for it, we’re not going to charge a dime for it. We’re always going to give you access to education. It’s just like I’m at a PrimeTime. Yes, it’s not a cheap date to put that show together, but that’s why we have great relationships in the manufacturing community.

And that’s why we invest significantly in giving a great experience. It happens online as well. We want to bring this together for you. We’re not going to tell you, “Hey, there’s over 100 education sessions here at PrimeTime. And for the low, low price of $29 each, you can access these sessions.” That’s sort of become the model of learning at large now. You’re going to pay per session and you do, you pay per session. We’re going to charge you absolutely nothing more than your time and attention and give you that opportunity to learn, which is really important in today’s world.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. And I mean, you can see that it kind of feels like it took hold… Education always felt like a charge to it at shows, but especially in this virtual environment where you can register for shows, get at a look at… Even if you’re a member of an organization and go look at the trade show floor, browse around, but if you wanted access to those next level educational or opportunities to sit on some sessions with some speakers and things like that, it had a premium to it. So to see that Nationwide is not doing that, it just speaks to, I think, the important, but not only the value of the membership, but the cost of membership, but the value of education and making sure that everyone has access to it.

Mike Whitaker: And ladies and gentlemen, that is inclusive of all sessions at PrimeTime. Even those led by phenomenal experts like Rob Stott. Yes, Rob, we will not be charging you a fee.

Rob Stott: I tried. I tried to get a speaker’s fee, but I guess I don’t have that.

Mike Whitaker: right?

Rob Stott: I don’t have that kind of leverage yet in my life.

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