As we watched the fallout of COVID-19 worsen, it became increasingly clear we could not safely bring 6,000 people together in 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 needed 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 surpassed our expectations: More than 20,000 people globally participated in the conference and keynote livestream, which generated more than 4,000 net new leads.  

With virtual events now a given, here are six key takeaways from Oktane20 Live: 

 

1) Narrow your goals

We wanted to accomplish so much, but some traditional programs won't translate to virtual, while with others we simply didn't have time to create them -- and we had to accept that. We carved out our priorities: keynotes, breakout sessions, attendee engagement, access to product experts, training, and sponsor involvement.  We had to cut certain 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

As we planned for our conference, it quickly became apparent that we wouldn't need just one backup plan: we'd need a plan B, and then plans C, D, and E. At the start of our planning, keynotes were to take place at San Francisco's Moscone Center;  we ended up with remote recordings via QuickTime and Zoom. Our plans changed daily and constantly-- we made it all the way to plan E. In hopping from one plan to the next, we had to maintain positivity and transparency with all participants, including executives, customers, partners, and celebrity guest speakers. As with any event, you must always prepare for the unexpected -- and for more than one curveball. 

 

3) Stay team-first while remote

It's important to devise an efficient strategy to share planning updates. We hosted a virtual town hall to answer questions from employees, met with key stakeholders once a week to discuss critical updates, and set up a "core team" that met twice a week. We also organized a Zoom call during the actual event that included all key program owners, vendors, and anyone critical to the event's success.

We encouraged creativity from every team member and a "no bad ideas" mindset during meetings. If it's your team's first virtual event, you're all trailblazing -- so open pathways for new thoughts and ideas on how to innovate. This is how to get the buy-in you need for success.

 

4) Keep it interactive and personalized 

Virtual events demand interactive experiences for attendees.  Focus on creating high-engagement sessions with live questions from the online audience. All of our sessions, especially keynotes, included moderated chat features. Participants really enjoyed asking experts real-time questions and being able to network with fellow attendees. You can also create a virtual sponsor expo 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 execs to get personal during keynote sessions. Our CEO kicked it off by giving us a quick tour of his home and brought his wife onscreen as they announced their contribution to our COVID-19 Response Fund together. Additionally, we encouraged attendees to share selfies on Twitter; we fostered high social engagement and a sense of community. 

 

5) The Boss needs to buy in

As with any corporate program, executive 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 delivering our message -- and that they'd be thrilled with wherever we landed.  Bring your executives into the virtual event planning process from the start to keep them engaged and supportive.

 

6) Set realistic goals for virtual events

Throw out your old measurements of success; in-person and virtual results aren't comparable. For example, with virtual events, you can reach more attendees than in-person -- so at the start, set an attendance goal for your conference. We set an initial goal of 6,000 in-person to 10,000 virtual attendees and ultimately reached 20,000 people 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. 

In the leadup to 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 saw throughout the weeks of planning. If you're contemplating your company's virtual event, know you can make it successful with a team-first, resilient attitude.