How to Have the Best Project Kickoff Meeting Ever
A project kickoff meeting is your opportunity to launch a digital marketing or web development engagement with energy and clarity. But handled inappropriately, it can set the wrong tone and drive a wedge between your agency and your clients from the very start. Ouch.
You don’t have to worry about that. Your next kickoff meeting is going to be the best one ever.
After spending many hours of my life in project kickoff meetings and calls, I’ve come to enjoy them. In fact, I rely on them as a critical client touchpoint that drives the success of every project. Here’s what I learned about kickoffs from 15 years in the digital marketing, online media, and web development fields.
First things first — What is a project kickoff meeting?
A kickoff meeting is the genesis of any new project at Big Sea, and it’s usually an inspiring, exciting event. Yes, I just said that a meeting is inspiring. Exciting even!
We gain an amazing understanding of your business and team dynamics, and leave the meeting ready to explore all kinds of creative solutions. You get to dive deeply into your own organization’s needs and desires, problems and successes. We all get to know each other, get familiar with the process in front of us, and get to build a shared vision.
What should a project kickoff meeting include?
I like to prepare the agenda a few days in advance and share it with the client so that they know what to expect. We design a pretty version for your team, then keep a more gritty, note-filled version for ourselves on Google Drive. Depending on the project and what we know or don’t already, the agenda generally looks something like this:
- Introductions: Go around the room and introduce ourselves and describe our role in the project.
- Discussion Questions: We dive next into actual discussion questions that we prepare ahead of time and throw in any exercises that might be necessary to help answer the questions. We focus on our strategic approach and a goals analysis, project priorities, content and information architecture, and finally, some aesthetics.
- Activities: Well-planned activities can get great discussion going, surfacing key challenges from every perspective. We use activities whenever time permits, and we have a few favorites that we choose from, depending on the needs of the project.
- Risks and Tradeoffs: We try to lead a very frank discussion about what we see as inhibiting our project success, what elements of the project might prove troublesome or difficult, and how we’ll approach problems when they arise.
- Process: We review our preliminary project plan and approach, demo some of our project management tools like Asanas, and review logistical issues like hosting, security or internal tools.
- Dates and Milestones: At this point, our project plan is pretty loose, but we try to give you an idea of when to expect things from us, and when we need things from you.
How to run a successful project kickoff meeting
Change your perspective
We’ve all fallen into a negative mindset about long meetings. No one looks at their weekly calendar and draws hearts and stars around every meeting. So change your brain. Don’t think of a kickoff as a simple meeting. Think of it as a retreat or a workshop.
As an agency, you understand the power of re-branding and perspective shifts. Use that power on yourself. Be positive. If you don’t embrace (and believe in) the value of a kickoff meeting, your clients won’t either.
Invite the right people
This may be your only physical touchpoint with your client, or it may be the beginning of a long series of huddles. Either way, it’s crucial to get the right people around the table from the very start.
Oftentimes this entails meeting with a bigger group than you will throughout the rest of your engagement. When you’re working with a board or group of decision makers, it’s especially important to make sure you’re getting buy-in and energy from the very start.
I find tremendous value in bringing together client teams who don’t typically interface. When given a platform and given the opportunity to collaborate, client teams often surprise themselves with fresh perspectives and ideas. Everyone wins when you have this opportunity to nail down key goals, messaging, and values.
Conduct research before the meeting
You have a signed proposal. You have a scope of work. You’re excited to get started. Now’s the time to dig in and learn as much as you can before your first big face to face with the client team.
Last year we began sending client surveys — and in some cases, surveys to the client’s customers. By connecting with clients before the kickoff, we sow the seeds of a fruitful relationship and knock off some of what might seem like “busy work” during a meeting.
Solid questionnaires let clients know that you’re thinking about their engagement and their brand. Answering a survey helps them focus their goals and messages. Results focus what you want to accomplish during your kickoff and throughout the engagement.
Touch on competitors, challenges, adjectives around brand and voice, and key differentiators. With this information in hand before a meeting, you can pick and choose where to dig in and expand on what you’ve learned.
Set clear goals for your kickoff
Goals are different from an agenda. An agenda may shift throughout the course of a long meeting. In this case, that isn’t bad. But you should still have clear goals. What must you walk away with to consider this meeting a success?
I often focus on building buyer personas and digging into the client’s audience. As content director, I rely on these insights to craft effective messaging and campaigns. But if we’re building an app or an ecommerce platform, our goals may be related to user stories and hammering out the right features.
Before your meeting begins, make sure your internal team is in alignment on the goals and priorities.
Your agency is awesome. Make sure your project kickoff meeting reflects that. Consider delightful touches like offering agency swag (preferably useful swag) to the attendees. Make sure your meeting space is set up for the size of the meeting. Make sure A/V is in working order.
Make your guests feel welcome. Offer coffee, water and snacks. Let your guests know where the restroom facilities are. Pay attention to the little details. For example, we have an office dog, so we quickly ensure that all attendees are okay with small dogs. If not, he hangs out in another wing of the office.
For meetings involving six or more people, consider using name tags. And speaking of names, give everyone from the client team the opportunity for an introduction at the beginning of the meeting.
Oftentimes learning more about client roles within their organization kicks off meaningful conversation from the very start. (But keep your own introductions short and sweet: Who are you, what do you do, and how will that affect their project.)
Ready, set, listen
A kickoff meeting isn’t about you. You’ve already sold the client on the capabilities of your agency. That’s why they signed a proposal. Now it’s time to learn all about them.
By all means, take time for your Project Manager to get everyone in alignment on scope, communication processes and next steps — but don’t spend too much time talking about what you do as an agency. They know!
Using a lightly structured agenda, dig in and get the client talking. This is their chance to step outside of the daily grind and think about and talk about their brand. Without fail, I observe clients opening up and surprising themselves with deep insights into their brand, messaging, and goals. This is solid gold.
Take detailed notes or record the meeting. In the best case scenario, what you’ll discover during these organic conversations will drive messaging and tactics throughout the engagement.
Don’t drift too far from the most important topic
While I love and prefer a somewhat unstructured kickoff that gives the client plenty of time to dig into topics and concepts that rise to the surface, it’s sometimes necessary to bring the focus back to the most critical topic: the end user.
Depending on the type of business or organization your client runs, it may take a gentle perspective shift to turn the focus from what they do and why they’re great to how they benefit the end user. What’s the value proposition? What’s in it for their leads or customers?
Focusing on the end user keeps everyone moving in the right direction. You can’t succeed with a website or business without centering the interests of the customer. This focus will drive design, UX, content, development and marketing. Because it’s all about giving the end user a delightful experience. Delightful, easy to use websites convert. They get the job done. That benefits your client, ultimately. (So remind your client during the kickoff that focusing on their end user is a win-win.)
Be an active listener
When the client is talking for large chunks of a kickoff meeting, you need to stay actively engaged. Listen and look for opportunities to dig a little deeper. Repeat concepts and overarching themes you’ve heard. It often benefits the client to hear those concepts again and make sure that they’re spot on.
It goes without saying, but be a polite listener. Take notes — or have someone take them for you — but resist the urge to check your Slack messages, your email, or your texts.
Identify themes and expand on them
Listen carefully for themes that aren’t explicit. This is the hardest meeting skill to hone, but with practice you can pick up on gems that drive your strategy, design and communication. Often these themes align to the client’s core values. You may hear, through the natural course of conversation, that ultimately the client wants to relieve the end user’s stress. Or perhaps they want to be a catalyst for innovation. Though no one may have said that explicitly, the message is there — hidden in differentiators and audience pain points.
Write those themes down. Bold them. Iterate on them. That’s the heart of the project.
Roll with the punches
Every so often, a project kickoff meeting will go off the rails despite your best efforts to prepare and keep the meeting running smoothly. Take this as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your client, or at the very least, determine where you may need to communicate creatively moving forward.
In my experience, lackluster kickoffs are occasionally set off by having the wrong people at the table. You never know what led someone to have low energy at a meeting. It could be as simple and irrelevant as a bad night’s sleep. Or perhaps they’re new and don’t have the insight needed to set the foundation for a strong marketing campaign or website strategy. No matter what, you have to press on. Keep digging for the right people to get in touch with. Keep touching on the value of client buy-in and collaboration.
Be mindful of everyone’s time
The other potential pitfall is running over time. Have someone on your team take the lead on transitioning from topic to topic on the agenda. If at some point you can determine on the fly that you simply aren’t going to get enough done — and often this is the result of a client who has lots of wonderful things to share — try to schedule a follow-up meeting.
There’s no value in rushing, but keeping people for longer than you scheduled them for isn’t acceptable either. If you need to schedule a follow up, focus on the positives: the organic conversation is flowing, the energy is high, and you’re accomplishing a great deal!
When I’m taking notes in a project kickoff meeting, I highlight everything I need to follow up on immediately. The last thing I want to do is make a promise in a kickoff and immediately fall short of it. So if you say you’re going to follow up with some links, further questions, or other information, make sure you do that. And in a timely fashion.
At the very least, thank everyone for attending and for sharing the unique insights that drive a successful project!