Virtual events don't have to be tiresome: Okta came up with a new way

The virtual event isn't likely to stay that way, but hybrid events can reach more people while delivering in-person benefits.

Okta hosted a new type of virtual event to keep audiences engaged

TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Ryan Carlson of Okta about virtual events. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Karen Roby: The idea of a virtual conference was once a very foreign concept, but now it's pretty much the norm for us. We're going to talk a little bit about these virtual conferences and other virtual events and how we keep them interesting now that people are starting to get a little bit tired of not being able to have these types of events in person.

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Ryan Carlson: When you asked yourself how could anybody do this—you and me both. We are actually one of the few companies here at Okta, that we're actually on our second virtual conference. Our annual conference, we call it Oktane, it's our customer conference. A lot of enterprise software companies do this, and our conference last year in 2020 was on April 1, 2020. We made the decision to pivot that one last year from a physical, in-person event in San Francisco, to a virtual event with just three weeks notice. We had to pull one off on very short notice. But the one that we just pulled off Oktane21, which we just wrapped up here in April 2021, we had a full year to plan for.

It's not just that we did a virtual event. We did our second one, and where I think we're one of the few companies that had two shots at it during all of this. And we learned a ton from the first one, and with the time we had to prepare for the second one, to make it, what we thought was really unique. Challenging in a bunch of ways, but I'm happy to go into the details.

Karen Roby: People are growing tired, I think, of not being able to have these events in person. We want to shake hands with people and feel the energy in a room.

Ryan Carlson: We've gone through an arc over the last year of thinking, "How are we going to get work done? How are we going to do virtual events? Zoom has now become an indispensable part of doing it. Wow, I never have to commute again. This is great." To now, "I can't wait to commute again, because as much as I love Zoom, I want to be back with my colleagues in person again." That's just how we viewed getting work done.

In terms of creating a virtual event, we very much have missed the in-person, physical, being able to see colleagues, being able to meet and connect with new people, all of the networking aspects of an event that you get in person. We wanted to try to recreate that, but we also wanted to do what you touched upon, which is make it engaging, and new, and different, and really hold people's attention, in a world where they spent the last year sitting in front of a computer, looking at the standard virtual webinar-type setup.

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In a typical keynote for a conference for a technology company, you have executives on stage speaking to big slides behind them announcing new products. If you do virtual versions of that, it doesn't translate as well because you'd probably just have a typical speaking head next to slides. We actually, and all credit to a woman on our team, a leader on our team, her name is Jenna Kozel King, she came up with the idea to introduce an entirely new format to the event this year. Which was, rather than just film a keynote, why don't we take a documentary-style approach, film a documentary about not just our new products and our new announcements, but what's been this last year at Okta for the people that work at Okta, for the people that work with us, for our customers? And tell that story through the documentary format in a new, entirely different way.

Enterprise technology companies don't typically do that. We knew it would be different, but we also knew it'd be risky. Stating the obvious, you can't be different if you're not willing to try something new. So, all credit to Jenna. She had this idea and then she pushed through to say, "No, let's create a documentary."

We engaged with a really great firm called Godfrey Dadich Partners. They're a creative firm that we work with in other areas, and we brought in an award-winning documentary filmmaker, a team of producers, an executive producer. It really felt like we spent months and months building a film. We interviewed people from around the company, interviewed our executives and leaders, interviewed our customers. And we really just wanted to get everybody to share their story, knowing that within those stories, we could create something compelling. And we couldn't be more thrilled with the outcome.

Karen Roby: A 40-minute film is very impressive, Ryan, and such a huge undertaking. If you had to pass on some tips to other companies, regardless of the size of company, whether they're a tech company or not, what are some of the most important pieces that people need to put into their equation, when trying to spice things up with these virtual conferences?

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Ryan Carlson: I should've mentioned, when we did the documentary, it wasn't just the documentary. We created that documentary as almost like context, as background, so that people knew what we were going through as a company. We're not alone in having a tough year. Everybody had a tough year. We weren't trying to state that our story was unique. It was just our story and what we did to get through it.

But then we paired that with what you have to do when you're doing a conference like ours, and at an innovative company like ours, we always have a ton of product announcements. And this year we actually have more product, new product announcements, than we've had in many, many years. So we had to find a way to convey that, as well. So we paired that documentary with traditional product keynotes, but we took a new approach to those product announcements, as well.

We created a, almost like a talk show-type panel. We had a moderator, we had product leaders in different areas and we filmed that on a really elaborate and intricate and advanced soundstage, so we were all a socially distanced from each other. We did all safe COVID protocols to get into the studio to film it. But we didn't want to do the green screen thing. We didn't want to do four different heads talking on Zoom. We wanted to capture people in a panel-type format, talking about our new product keynotes.

The combination of those two things really helped. I guess to get more concrete in bullet point format is, don't try to do it all with one presentation. The emotional side was in the documentary, the deep product details that were really clearly told were done in a panel format. And then I think we would also say, don't try to do it all on one or two days, to actually spread this content out over four days.

Karen Roby: Are we ever going to go back to how things used to be?

Ryan Carlson: I feel like events like this will certainly go back to a big in-person component. We plan to do that. But we're not going to scrap the virtual components, because there's so much benefit to those, as well. You can reach a much wider audience. The content that you create can live on just that much longer than just the event itself, and people can learn from it and still engage with it after that.

Ryan Carlson: So for us, I think it'll be a hybrid approach. But me personally, I can't wait to get back to an in-person event.

Karen Roby: Any final thoughts?

Ryan Carlson: This is actually my last Oktane as CMO. I'm not leaving Okta, I'm actually moving on to a different role. This has long been planned, and we've brought in the new CMO to take the reins right after Oktane, but I couldn't be more proud of what the team pulled off.

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TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Ryan Carlson of Okta about virtual events.

Image: Mackenzie Burke