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How to Turn Your Conference Virtual: Best Practices from Oktane20

Sarah Shaheen, Director of Events, Okta Headshot
Sarah Shaheen
Director, Corporate Events

For many event professionals, the digital marketing world can be unfamiliar territory. We’ve spent our careers creating face-to-face meetings and experiences. We love the buzz and energy experienced at physical events, and have never considered replacing them with a virtual format. But as our annual customer conference, Oktane20, drew near, COVID-19 challenged us with the immediate pivot of creating a fully virtual conference.

But after making the shift happen in a matter of weeks, we’re incredibly proud of the final results. Not only was it an amazing experience for our attendees, it proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. The outcome was a uniquely special event, as our speakers, employees, partners, and attendees around the world welcomed our conference into their homes and personal spaces. We’ve received an outpouring of thanks from our attendees, as well as countless versions of “We saw you turned Oktane virtual. How’d you do it?”

We’ve assembled the tips we learned along the way as we transformed our annual, physical event for 6,000 attendees to a virtual one for 20,000—all in just 4 weeks.

Use vendors you can count on

First, review your current vendor relationships. Who are you already working with that you trust to help you take this on? For us, we had our trusted event agency, Launch, who we’ve partnered with for many years. As always, they were ready and willing to do whatever it took to re-create our event for the online world, and shift from delivering sessions and experiences at a convention center in San Francisco to a completely digital environment.

As far as finding a virtual platform, Okta had held a smaller virtual conference last year using Intrado, and we partnered closely with them again to build out the event online.

It’s a new format, but stick to what you know

Second, stick to what you know, then think about how that might translate to a virtual conference experience. For us, we have always divided the conference into several key areas, with a lead for each. Each lead can use their expertise to visualize a unique virtual experience for their area.

Keynotes

  • If possible, retain your current production team. We had our production, content, design and internal AV teams in place and ready to work during the physical event, and they were key to making our keynotes look polished and professional. During the 4 weeks of our pivot to a virtual conference platform, the COVID-19 situation was rapidly changing in the Bay Area, and the original plan was to record from Moscone. Then, we planned to record at a smaller studio in the area. Finally, as “shelter in place” was announced for San Francisco, we moved to “at-home” Zoom and Quicktime recordings. At that point, video editing became key and we shifted our production team slightly to include more video crew than tech crew. The entire production team made our speakers feel at ease with home recording and walked them through lighting and background tweeks, as well as how to set up webcams and optimize QuickTime.
  • Keep working with guest speakers to add diversity, inspiration, and excitement to your event. Fortunately, our celebrity guest speakers were on board with our new format. Our production team was also key in making them feel comfortable and prepared.
  • Get creative with this new format! Come up with a special background or get into a different character to engage the audience. Take advantage of what virtual event platforms can do that physical events cannot; now you can allow real-time Q&A and chat during the keynote! Asking questions and chatting with your fellow attendees is terribly rude during a physical event, but not so much in virtual space—that’s one of the advantages. Have speakers and product experts all available during the keynote session to answer questions that come in via the Q&A chat.

Breakout sessions

  • Pre-record your breakout sessions. Rather than recording, editing, and then uploading files, we saved a lot of time by pre-recording the breakout sessions directly into the virtual conference platform. Intrado helped us schedule all of the recordings with our speakers, but also provided an engineer on-line to help with any technical issues.
  • Largely, stick to the plan. Where possible, keep the same content and agenda you had planned. For us, it was critical to keep as much of the in-person expectation around content the same, only changing the delivery of that content.
  • Offer Q&A and chat during the breakout sessions. As mentioned earlier, there was a lot of conversation going on during Oktane20 and lots of interaction during sessions. Attendees loved having access to the speaker to ask real-time questions, and also enjoyed chatting with their fellow attendees.

Okta Booths

Identify booth pros and cons. All Okta booths represented at the physical event were available at the virtual one. And there was no less of a buzz in the virtual expo hall, with lots of live Q&A and clicks on the various resources and videos. Typically, our Okta booths also offer demos, but we were unable to replicate live demos in the virtual environment. Our solution was to offer to “schedule a demo” for the following week. Attendees could fill out a form and an Okta rep would follow up with them on next steps, allowing for additional engagement.

Partner Booths

Keep sponsorship packages simple. Sponsorship packages are a key part of any conference success. But for a virtual event, it’s best to keep it simple and offer just one or two package choices. This year, we offered two. Both packages included a virtual booth, and one also included a speaking session. Partners were thrilled with the boost in booth traffic, and some even had to increase staff to handle the live Q&A coming in!

Retain some visual familiarity. As there were limitations on how many booths we could fit into the expo “template”, we created two Partner Expo halls naming them Partner Pavilion North and Partner Pavilion South—just as you might see at a physical event.

Registration

Test your data. By using API calls, most virtual platforms should be able to integrate with whatever registration system you’re already using. Decide on the full registration workflow early on, and discuss what information you’ll be collecting, what data you’ll be sending to the virtual platform, and what kind of data you want back (i.e., sessions attended, overall volume, etc). Test the data in advance to make sure it’s flowing properly.

Communications

Let your attendees know, ASAP. Quickly let your attendees know about your decision to go virtual, giving them as much information as possible about what to expect. This will be new to them as well, and setting the stage helps get them excited and ready for it. We did this by writing our blog posts What to Expect at Oktane20 Live, Part 1 and Part 2, to prepare attendees and help them understand how to navigate the system.

Branding

  • Alter your signage. Instead of creating banners as tall as buildings, you are now creating them to fit on a small screen. Even in a virtual platform, there’s plenty of work for the design team. Your virtual platform vendor should have a complete design guide, containing all of your specs.
  • Power up your design team. Have a kick-off call with the design team so the vendor can answer any questions about the design guide up front. And let the design team get creative! It’s what they do. Just because the vendor has templates for the virtual event does not mean you can’t customize with something special here and there.
  • Personalize. Don’t allow for a generic look—really make it your own so attendees know they’re attending YOUR event.

Ancillary events in virtual environments

Be willing to let some traditional arenas go. There were some programs, like exclusive happy hours and dinners, that just didn’t translate to virtual conferencing. Don’t be afraid to let some programs go, even if it’s something you’ve done for years. Stay focused on the attendee experience and if you can’t recreate a good experience virtually, just move on. We were able to simply alter some of the ancillary events, planning them into breakout sessions, including our Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and our Non-Profit Collaborative events. These events were planned as special sessions with content. This allowed us to create a new track and roll this valuable content into an additional breakout.

Lock in your on-site logistics

  • We created an on-site “roles and responsibilities” doc and assigned various roles to the marketing team. Two important roles were room monitors and help desk staff.
  • We assigned 1-2 people to each breakout session to make sure everything was working properly (i.e., session starts on time, audio is working, Q&A chat features are working, etc.).
  • For the help desk, we leveraged Intrado staff to help attendees with technical questions, and we also had 1-2 people there at all times to help direct attendees. If users had difficulty finding something, we could point them in the right direction.
  • One thing we didn’t plan for, but quickly set up on the day of the event, was a Zoom meeting room for all program leads, vendors, and anyone else critical to the event’s success. This allowed us to be together all day so we could quickly tackle any challenges quickly, just as we’ve always had for onsite events.

Assemble a great team

Finally, and probably the most important, have one AMAZING team. Everyone in the entire company was 100% bought into the idea of making this happen. We believed we could do it, so we DID! Our executive team continually sent us emails and video messages of appreciation, and knowing they were behind us made us even more motivated to knock it out of the park.

The evolution of Oktane20 was discussed and communicated through company all-hands calls, as well as smaller, individual team meetings. Slack channels were heavily used to communicate updates and quickly answer questions. On the day of the event, the Slack channel provided a great place for all employees to join together and share highlights and favorite moments of the event.

Planning for events will be forever changed as a result of COVID-19. And, as I said at the beginning, the virtual world may be unfamiliar to many traditional event planners. But this moment is an opportunity to embrace change, get creative, grow, and prepare for what’s ahead.

Sarah Shaheen Okta Headshot
Sarah Shaheen
Director, Corporate Events

Sarah Shaheen is Okta's Director of Corporate Events. Sarah's focus is on creating the best attendee experience while also driving ROI on Okta's largest events, including Oktane, SKO, TKO, and Showcase. Prior to arriving at Okta, Sarah worked at Infor for 3.5 years and at Oracle for 8 years prior to that. At both organizations, she worked on both Field Marketing events as well as larger, more complex conferences. Sarah grew up in Southwest Virginia and is new to San Francisco. On weekends, you can find her outside and active, exploring the West Coast! 

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