6 Keys to Pivoting to Virtual Event Planning

As we watched the fallout from COVID-19 worsen, it became increasingly clear that we could not safely bring 6,000 people to San Francisco in early April for Okta’s annual conference. But we still had a dedicated community we wanted to unite, announcements to share, and a year of content in the works. We had to demonstrate to our company, our partners and the industry that the show would go on.

And we did, building the virtual Oktane20 live in four weeks. And the event exceeded our expectations: more than 20,000 people worldwide attended the conference and the livestream of the keynote, which generated more than 4,000 net new leads.

With virtual events now a no-brainer, here are six key takeaways from Oktane20 Live:

We wanted to accomplish so many things, but some traditional programs wouldn’t translate to virtual, while others we just didn’t have time to create – and we had to accept that. We have defined our priorities: keynote speeches, breakout sessions, participant engagement, access to product experts, training and sponsor involvement. We had to cut some ancillary events, like region-specific happy hours, hands-on labs. And so much for the lunch program.

2) Create contingency plans for your contingency plan

When planning our conference, it quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t need just one back-up plan: we would need a plan B, then plans C, D, and E. At the start of our planning, the keynotes were to take place at the Moscone Center in San Francisco; we ended up with remote recordings via QuickTime and Zoom. Our plans were changing daily and constantly – we made it all the way to Plan E. As we moved from one plan to the next, we had to maintain positivity and transparency with everyone involved, including executives, customers , partners and celebrity guest speakers. As with any event, you should always be prepared for the unexpected – and more than a curveball.

3) Stay Team First When Remote

It is important to devise an effective strategy for sharing planning updates. We hosted a virtual town hall to answer employee questions, met with key stakeholders once a week to discuss critical updates, and established a “core team” that met twice a week. We also hosted a Zoom call during the event itself, which was attended by all major program owners, vendors, and anyone critical to the success of the event.

We encouraged each team member’s creativity and a “no bad ideas” mindset during meetings. If this is your team’s first virtual event, you’re all pioneers, so pave the way for new thoughts and ideas on how to innovate. Here’s how to get the membership you need to succeed.

4) Keep it interactive and personalized

Virtual events require interactive experiences for attendees. Focus on creating high-engagement sessions with live questions from the online audience. All of our sessions, especially the keynotes, included moderated chat features. Attendees really enjoyed asking questions of experts in real time and being able to network with other attendees. You can also create virtual sponsor exposure that mimics an in-person version, including booths and speaking sessions that increase traffic for partners and stimulate live Q&A conversation.

We also encouraged our leaders to get personal during the keynote sessions. Our CEO kicked things off by giving us a quick tour of his house and brought his wife to the screen as they announced their contribution to our COVID-19 Response Fund together. Additionally, we encouraged participants to share selfies on Twitter; we fostered high social engagement and a sense of community.

5) The boss must adhere

As with any corporate program, management buy-in is essential and we had it throughout this stressful process. Our leaders explained that our priorities should be keeping people safe, doing what is reasonable and getting our message across – and that they would be happy where we landed. Engage your leaders in the virtual event planning process from the start to keep them engaged and united.

6) Set realistic goals for virtual events

Throw away your old measures of success; in-person and virtual results are not comparable. For example, with virtual events, you can reach more attendees than in person. Therefore, at the start, set an attendance goal for your conference. We set an initial goal of 6,000 in-person attendees to 10,000 virtual attendees and eventually reached 20,000 with our content. As with any new format, it takes time to learn what works. Make sure your team knows that their best efforts, especially during this time, are both appreciated and important.

Before our event, I found this Quote from guest speaker Amy Poehler: “Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it.” It embodies so much of what we’ve seen throughout the weeks of planning. If you’re considering your company’s virtual event, know that you can pull it off with a resilient, team-oriented attitude.

Robert M. Larson