How the USO became a veteran at hosting virtual events
Microsoft Teams, Verizon and Facebook all played key roles.
When people think of the United Service Organizations (USO), they think of Bob Hope hosting elaborate overseas concerts, comedy shows, and sporting events starring the best that U.S. entertainment has to offer.
In the nearly two decades since Hope’s passing, the USO continues to embrace him with a section on their website dedicated to his legacy, but 2020 has written a new page in the organization’s history with a fresh commitment to virtual events. The commitment includes helping veterans transition from the military back to the civilian world, providing assistance for military spouses, producing educational content for children of members of the military, or building upon its well-known entertainment legacy with its current concert series that already has featured music superstars Clint Black, Florida Georgia Line and Ne-Yo.
“When the pandemic hit we were not trying to be perfect, we said, ‘let’s get something out there,” said USO Senior Vice President of Operations, Programs and Entertainment Christopher Plamp. “It has been a year of asking ‘why not?’ when trying new technical platforms, and at one point early on we were trying something new every week. Our mission has not changed, we now just do it in a virtual world.”
USO’s virtual world tech stack
The first platform used by the USO for virtual collaboration was Microsoft Teams, but it was implemented before the COVID outbreak and used very little.
Then COVID hit.
“We were an office-based, center-based operation on both domestic and international fronts,” said Plamp. “For parts of our organization our IT department really thought we should use [Teams] for a collaborative environment. It was not until we started to have to transfer ideas from our Germany, Japan and Italy offices did the use of Microsoft Teams really get accelerated to the way we use it today.”
The implementation of Microsoft Teams laid the foundation for global execution for internal communications, where team members were able to present new ideas, strategies and tactics. Many of the most popular outreach campaigns have originated from USO’s international offices, making the use of Microsoft Teams even more important.
With Microsoft Teams being used to its full capabilities, the USO was able to then capitalize on the outreach to its audience of over one million on Facebook. “No matter what we are doing or what we are saying, we can distribute it widely and quickly,” said Plamp.
To execute their legendary entertainment programming, the USO partnered with the Verizon media platform to take their content and bundle it together for a combination of live and prerecorded interviews and concerts, along with special VIP interactions with military members and their families.
To implement the wide-reaching interaction and support that is the foundation of the USO, they relied on Zoom, once they figured out the protocol as well as safety and security issues. Zoom has allowed military families to stay connected while not missing milestone moments from child births, graduations, weddings and everything in between.
Two newer platforms being used with high return on investment is the gaming platform Twitch, which hosts interactive experiences for video game players, and Discord, a VoIP, instant messaging and digital distribution platform designed for creating communities. Users of Discord communicate via text messaging, video calls, voice calls, media and files in private chats or as part of communities called ‘servers.’
LinkedIn is also used prominently for veterans making the transition back to the civilian world and looking for employment. Now it is common for the USO to stream on four or five different channels simultaneously.
“We have a full schedule of talent and general broadcasts,” said Plamp. “We had none of this before March.”
Filling a void for vets and ‘milspouses’
One of the silver linings of the transition to the virtual world is that it allowed for a wide expansion of the USO’s resources and services for veterans transitioning out of the military. Along with increased use of LinkedIn, career coaching and networking via Zoom has allowed for even more efficient coaching and training services.
Along with assisting veterans on the job front, the USO is still helping families and military spouses (known as ‘milspouses’), but with a 2020 virtual twist. A virtual Easter egg hunt was a welcome relief from the initial onset of COVID during the Spring, while additional resources like princess birthday painting parties, and tools for parenting and home schooling. Many of these initiatives were established in foreign offices like Italy, so collaboration via Microsoft Teams was needed.
“We have everything from one-on-one events, to broadcasting Bill Nye in classrooms across the globe to interact with over 2200 students,” said Plamp. “We have so many new programming options that we will be keeping for the long-term now.”
An eye for entertainment
The USO is famous for its entertainment, and it does not disappoint in the transition to the virtual realm. The three summer concerts with Clint Black, Florida Georgia Line and Ne-Yo all used the Verizon media platform and were all slightly different formats.
Black performed at a home studio live, the Florida Georgia Line event combined previous concert footage with interviews with the duo for a more personal experience. The 4th of July event with R&B superstar Ne-Yo was a prerecorded concert in his studio with a Q&A session during filing along with surprise pop-ins from the music star to his fans watching the concert.
“We have had to come a long way, and we learned as we went along,” said Plamp. “Sometimes it did not go as planned, but we found out what was successful and what was working and doubled down and even tripled down on that. Our entire team has worked together and learned together from the beginning. They have generated a tremendous amount of confidence in each success and it shows with the value we are bringing to our military members and their families.”