Unconventional Wisdom – Event Marketer

Unconventional Wisdom – Event Marketer

Unconventional Wisdom

For most cubicle dwellers it’s merely a question of Apple or PC. But for IT decision-makers database administrators cios and those tasked with keeping their companies’ multi-million dollar information systems running as efficiently as their laptops the answer is often Oracle. The tech giant’s enterprise software products may not roll off the tongue as easily as Apple’s and Microsoft’s and founder/ceo Larry Ellison may not make the average consumer’s list of computer-age luminaries (don’t worry he’s on there) but for the company’s devoted followers long-time customers and the global development community the brand affiliation and loyalty is just as intense.

Not surprisingly Ellison’s same fearless visionary spirit that in 1977 created a radical new way to connect the world (Oracle’s database systems do everything from scan our groceries to power our banks) still permeates the company’s corporate culture today. Especially in marketing: Twenty years after starting the company Ellison launched an enterprise-wide initiative that turned Oracle upside-down globalized lines of business and streamlined 145 disparate marketing HR finance and sales organizations around the world into one consolidated effort. Long before experiential exploded onto the marketing scene that revolutionary move centralized marketing communications through the company’s Redwood City CA headquarters and handed over the reins to the single group that manages and executes against the brand strategy proven most critical to Oracle’s success—events.

“The one thing we have learned is that you can’t sell enterprise software without having a physical event providing a personal interaction with your customer ” says Judith Sim the company’s chief marketing officer. “You have to be able to meet them look them in the eye and get to know them before they’re going to make a commitment.”

Today Oracle’s event marketing team drives weekly strategy meetings with company execs to create content messaging and direction for global field offices in 145 countries which activate across an annual portfolio of 7 000 trade shows seminars and third-party events. But the big daddy the event that started it all is Oracle OpenWorld the annual five-day gathering of more than 42 000 c-level prospects customers partners developers and long-time brand fans many of whom have been attending the event since its inception.

The company’s audience-centric ethos which relies on volumes of post-show data and constant year-round communication with attendees is what keeps the show’s content relevant and attendees coming back year after year. And last month Oracle reinvented itself yet again making OpenWorld more sustainable and energy efficient than ever before. First up in our special report an insider’s look at Oracle’s event marketing machine to find out what it’s like to be in charge—of everything. (And how to measure it.) Then go inside OpenWorld to find out what’s new what’s working and what perennial favorites attendees come back for year after year. Oracle has opened its kimono just for you EM readers. Let’s take a look in this exclusive behind-the-scenes report.

Before Larry Ellison’s globalization initiative kicked off in 1997 Oracle’s 145 field offices built their own slide decks created their own messaging and ran their own events and trade shows. The result was inconsistent branding duplicate costs and in some cases even different pricing from one country to the next. When Ellison gave the green light the event marketing team at headquarters kicked into high gear and over the course of six months strategized for consistency creating event kits building seminar and registration templates signage templates demand-generation blueprints and standardizing Oracle’s event and trade show look feel and touchpoints all around the globe.

Communications strategy was officially moved to Oracle headquarters and event production and execution was outsourced to a handful of agency partners. As a result of the new efficiencies the event portfolio grew to 7 000 events—all supported by 31 different marketing blueprints or kits that field offices could access through internal website myoracle.com. (OpenWorld serves as an annual driver for content and creative and as a platform for product launches and a post-event road show.) “We started with one activity: we chose events and we chose to just do them all really really well ” says cmo Sim.

Today the event group is the articulation point for every message Oracle puts out around the world. The team attends weekly meetings with executives not just contributing to the strategy but setting it and driving the discussions. “Marketing has had a place at the table for a long time at Oracle. Executive management has recognized for a long time the value of events especially ” says Paul Salinger the company’s vp-creative concepts. “My job has evolved from production and execution and the staging of things to really asking what is our story? What is our strategic communication and how are we going to deliver that? How is it going to best be received by the audience?”

Beyond the 31 conference and event kits powering all the activities (log on to Oracle’s website and at any given time and you’ll find 600 events posted on the schedule—and that’s just in the next gulp six weeks) the busy team supports 100 third-party events around the world including the National Retail Federation convention in New York Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Gitex in the Middle East and Sibos held in Vienna this year. The portfolio also includes global OpenWorld events in Brazil and Japan. (Interesting tidbit: Oracle dropped its European OpenWorld when it discovered more Europeans came to San Francisco every year than attended the Europe-based event.) Portfolio planning starts in February for a fiscal year that starts in June. Headquarters brings everyone from the field together with a list of what’s been accomplished and what the new campaign priorities will be from the field. Event budgets are determined based on those priorities.
“We had the hard task this year of cutting back ” says Tania Weidick the company’s vp-corporate event marketing. “We wanted to do more with less. Take more dollars and put them into those 100 events. Last year we did 140 so we really honed the list and did a lot of assessment of how they’re performing in the portfolio for us—and if they’re covering a need.”

Oracle reports a 175 percent return on an executive event versus 45 percent on a third-party event. Nevertheless many third-party events stay in the portfolio to fill a gap that can’t be met with proprietary seminars. The company also activates hospitality and sports marketing activities including sponsorships of Team Oracle at 22 annual air shows the Masters in Augusta GA and BMW Oracle Racing the latter at which the company hosts customers during sailing events tied to the Louis Vuitton and America’s Cup qualifiers. The sports properties cost the most on a per-person basis but Weidick says the brand gets a lot of value out of the properties Oracle attaches to.

“It’s great to see how that sequencing of not only events with other things like advertising and demand-gen works but that the different [types of] events stack on top of each other and build interest ” says Weidick. “So you’re touching different people within the customer account. You’re touching the developer you’re touching the line of business manager you’re talking to his management and then suddenly Charles [Phillips Oracle’s president] has a meeting with an executive and the business closes a few weeks later.”

Data is Everything
Rich customer data and sound strategy requires expert data mining. Oracle naturally uses its own technology to track the numbers—down to each and every customer—to determine what will work and what’s already working.

Event and trade show success can only be measured when the appropriate information is aggregated and analyzed and at Oracle data is king. Data collection is constant tracking how many interactions take place prior to closing a deal how involved marketing was as a part of it and how many events prospects attended. Then the data is mapped against historical trends. The database customer’s purchase cycle is a shorter timeframe for example so 17.4 marketing interactions leads to the sale. Another customer type applications requires 78 marketing interactions in the three months prior to closing a deal.
“We track how many [interactions] we track which ones take place and in which order so that we can try to put them in the right sequence for the customer so that they can get the right information ” says Sim.

The company then layers in data collected at its events and creates an event and audience analysis that answers the questions “Did we get attendees?” and “Did we get attendees we wanted?” The team takes all of these factors into account and then maps customers into the right channels layer by layer interaction by interaction. With the size of Oracle’s customer base—320 000 and counting—Sim says there’s just no such thing as over-communication. “You have to say it over and over again. Even to the point of ‘Wait didn’t I just say that two hours ago?’ But you have to go say it again. And that’s where the events come in and that’s why we run them the way that we do. We got to 7 000 events not by just the sheer size. We actually [grew the portfolio] consciously because we wanted to communicate. We wanted to create that relationship with customers. And we want to keep doing more of it ” she says.

OPEN WORLD 2008 EXCLUSIVE: Inside Oracle’s flagship live event
Bill Gates had his parent’s garage in 1975. The same year Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had the Homebrew Computer Club. Oracle’s first public gathering so the story goes took place in 1977 over a humble barbeque in the backyard of one of the founders. The size of the venues may have changed (the modern OpenWorld event launched in 1996 in Oracle’s hometown of San Francisco and today takes over the two-million-square-foot Moscone Center five hotels and an entire city street) but the enthusiasm for getting together to learn about new technology hasn’t slowed down one bit.

After acquiring CRM software maker PeopleSoft in 2005 OpenWorld attendance doubled from 20 000 to more than 40 000. As a result the event’s content surged making it more challenging for customers and attendees to sort through Oracle’s growing product portfolio and conference schedules to find what they were looking for. Four years later with more than 1 700 sessions hundreds of hospitality activities and an attendance record creeping toward 45 000 the tech company has fine-tuned a method for making such a massive event feel more manageable.

“The challenge was the conference is growing we don’t want it to get smaller but how can we actually take and personalize it for every single attendee?” says Salinger. “We went through audience mapping looked at each part of our core audience and asked ‘what are the things that we really need to deliver to each of the core audiences to make them feel like they’re getting the experience that they want almost like it’s a small conference for them as opposed to a giant 42 000-person conference that they get lost in?’ That’s where new tools have come in to play to help us do that.”

This year Oracle kicked off a suite of online pre-show planning tools designed to turn a big experience into something more intimate. With a Schedule Builder tool attendees could search for sessions demos and exhibitors by keywords or interests and then build their choices into a personal agenda. A synchronized navigation tool mapped it all out and showed attendees the distance from one session to the next—an important feature at a big conference. A new recommendation feature similar to the books and music recommendation engine at amazon.com offered registrants a selection of sessions based on their search activity that could also be emailed to a friend leveraging Oracle’s core users to help market the conference to potential attendees.

For the first time ever the company offered mobile messaging this year. Attendees that opted in received daily agenda reminders (synchronized with their Schedule Builder) ad hoc messages from the event marketing team and post-session surveys they could complete instantly as they exited a session. More than half of the 8 670 attendees that opted in submitted mobile session evaluations.

Through mobile surveys user groups and other live and online feedback forums attendees help decide what the right mix of content will be at OpenWorld. “We try and give them what they need and if they’re not attending sessions we take those sessions off ” says Weidick. “If they’re not visiting certain demos in the demo area we take those off the list. We try to keep tabs on as much as possible to see what is most attended.”
To keep track of all the content during and after the event attendees could check out the new Oracle On Demand portal where keynotes and breakout sessions were posted just hours after they happened. The streaming media portal enables viewers to search for content by keyword or interest again turning a large volume of information into something relevant to the watcher. Oracle tracks what people are watching which serves as another data point when developing the next year’s program.

Another new technology debuting this year at OpenWorld was Mix Oracle’s new social network. The network has 752 groups that cover a diverse range of tech topics and leverages the input and excitement of long-time attendees (there were 27 244 members in Mix as EM went to press) to help spark year-round conversation and recruit new blood into the community. “The old core attendees were talking with new attendees about what’s cool at OpenWorld what they should see what they shouldn’t miss what’s the new thing and starting communications ahead of time ” says Jodi Morrison senior director-event marketing technology and operations.

Oracle’s event staff participates in Mix to see what’s going on to chat with customers and to see if negative feedback can be addressed right away at the event but never to monitor or edit the community’s content. “Mix isn’t just the environment where everyone’s engaging in discussion groups and blogs for the conference it’s actually the environment that we’re using for engaging in discussion groups with the whole Oracle community over an entire year ” says Sim. “It’s an ongoing conversation. We’re using OpenWorld as a hook to bring in new folks to have those conversations with us.”

The company’s corporate communications department hosts more than 150 industry analysts and 150 members of the press at OpenWorld but this year for the first time the team dove headlong into social networking as a core piece of its publicity strategy. Two days before the event the team transformed Oracle’s homepage into a simple text box entitled “Participate with Oracle.” The page invited site visitors to submit an idea—any idea—to Oracle and encouraged them to jump into Mix to keep the conversation going. The homepage boosted membership in the Mix community and got influential tech bloggers buzzing about Oracle’s social network prior to the event. Oracle staffers also posted videos on an Oracle- branded YouTube page featuring keynote speakers and populated Twitter feeds throughout the event to drive reporters and bloggers to online destinations like Flickr to see photos or to check out sessions and keynotes. The communications group also staffs full-time bloggers who contribute a constant stream of coverage throughout the event to Oracle’s blogs.

Karen Tillman vp-global corporate communications says the strategy is a response to Web 2.0 that requires a new way of thinking that’s different from the traditional block-and tackle-mentality. “You have to get the p.r. staff comfortable with transparency and one-on-one communication ” she says. Next year Tillman plans to create a more community-driven experience with which attendees will be able to upload their videos to Mix and the blogs.

For companies like Oracle that rely on video content to generate revenue but at the same time want to empower attendees to make the conference their own guerrilla-style YouTube videos of keynotes and breakouts can present a quandary. The trick says Salinger is communication. “If there’s something rogue out there that’s counterintuitive to what you’d like to have out there you don’t necessarily want to try and squash it what you want to do is engage in a conversation with those people ” he says.

“I’m 100-percent for it without any hesitation ” adds Sim. “We’re not in the event business. We’re in the software business and as part of doing that it is all about the interactions—the more they want to interact on their own and use OpenWorld for it we love it. No question.”

This year attendees contributed 400 new session ideas through Mix. In addition Oracle community members were invited to vote on which sessions should be presented at OpenWorld by the attendees. Thirty of those sessions made the final cut. Engaging the core audience in this way and then allowing them to become both attendee and guru is critical to getting buy in—and boosting attendance—for the event. “We’re just providing the facilities the room the environment and the Oracle folks for the conversation but it really is more their event ” says Sim. “I think that’s the reason why they do keep coming back.”

To bring to life all the organic ideas and comments flowing through Mix and the Oracle website the events team transformed standard video walls throughout OpenWorld into something they called the Digital Conversation. Through Mix at input kiosks or via their phones attendees could send messages that would be posted on a giant video wall just outside the keynote hall. The resulting big screen-sized Twitter feed featured a constant flow of questions and answers like “What restaurants will you go to in San Francisco?” and “How are you reducing your carbon footprint?” to “What’s the best thing you saw today?” and “Is social networking helping or hurting your business?”

“The challenge I look at every year is what can we do to help facilitate those conversations?” says Salinger. “It’s moving very much from a one-way communication world to a two-way communication world and the more that we can facilitate conversations with people the more successful we’ll be in continuing that audience engagement. Regardless of the ideas we come up with to entertain them they’re going to come up with their own ideas to entertain themselves.”

To help turn the day-to-day experience for 42 000 into something more intimate this year Oracle restructured the sessions to resemble a college community. Instead of 120 tracks there were four top-line streams: applications database middleware and industries. Content was mapped to each of the four larger communities and then locations in five separate hotels were chosen for each so that the people who were most interested in the retail industry for example could get together on the first day and stay networked throughout the week just like a bunch of computer science majors who get to know each other in the hallways at MIT. Intimate lounges with comfy semi-circular couches coffee and tea and flat panel TVs with a live feed to the general session stage gave each track its own inclusive vibe. The new structure allowed the event team to increase the number of sessions without overwhelming attendees.

“When I look at other large conferences like a CES they’re really about the show floor and less about the content ” says Weidick. “I do think our one sacred cow is the content; that we’re an educational conference and we’re offering a lot of value because of that.”

Past surveys revealed attendees wanted more time on the exhibit floor so this year there were dedicated time slots where there was nothing running concurrent to the exhibit hall hours. Attendees could visit more than 500 exhibitors including Dell Sun Microsystems HP Deloitte and Intel and swing by Oracle’s DEMOgrounds where more than 300 products were available for hands-on trial with Oracle experts.

The event team was also shocked by a resounding request for fewer keynotes. “They wanted more opportunity to come up with their own schedule because when there’s a keynote there aren’t other sessions going on ” says Sim. “They wanted to create their own personalized agenda and they wanted more time to be able to go to more sessions. We mentioned it to the execs and they said ‘Great we get it we’ll change it.’”

This year there were four keynotes instead of nine. And the dramatic entrances and exits were streamlined too. “We got people what they wanted faster ” says Weidick. “I think we took a big step forward when planning in 2007.” Backstage Oracle slimmed down and streamlined as well working with its production partners to create a smaller backstage footprint that would allow more room for the stage the 300-foot-by-20-foot high-definition screen and attendee seating. Even with 11 000 seats this year most keynotes were at full capacity.

After a successful half-day trial run in 2007 OpenWorld expanded the techie version of open mic night—the unconferences. Attendees present subjects they’re passionate about in an informal one-hour setting. Subjects are thrown up on a whiteboard at the event and long lines often form just to get in. This year attendees dug deep into esoteric tech topics as well as such subjects as “Communication for geeks: how to influence your peers your boss and your clients by…” Attendees got to fill in the blanks.

“Unconferences help you realize that from an experiential standpoint this whole idea of Web 2.0 is really an online and offline experience ” says Salinger. “There are a lot of things you can do online but it still comes down to that face-to-face relationship and the unconferences provide a great way to bring people together in that offline world where they can still interact with one another and learn from one another then go back to the online world and continue that conversation.”

Between unconferences and sessions attendees connected with one another over free massages visited the game room on the main exhibition floor for a little air hockey and Wii and copped a squat outside at Yerba Buena Gardens (staffers handed out fleece-lined Oracle-branded picnic blankets during lunch time). A live band completed the bucolic Zen-like lunch scene.

Happy hours and after-hours events scheduled every night in locations convenient to the convention center kept the networking going. And to top off the week Oracle bussed 25 000 full-conference pass holders (and one very excited EM reporter) to Treasure Island for the OpenWorld customer appreciation event—a pull-out-all-the-stops carnival which included rides games hot dogs hamburgers free beer and wine and performances by UB40 Seal Alan Jackson and Elvis Costello. Oracle staffers even worked the beer and wine booths thanking every person in line for being an Oracle customer.

OpenWorld is the kind of annual event that ultimately ends with what the event team calls the “Oracle Coma.” But of course as all event marketers know before the crash comes the unique kind of high that only a successful event long in the making can create. “We get a chance to be with our customers that entire week and use that feedback—and we love it ” says Sim. “We get to deliver that for Oracle and we get to see the results. The great thing about doing events and event marketing is that you get to see the results. And all 86 000 employees feel like they get to see it and touch it as well. It becomes their see it and touch it experience.”

BAY WATCH: The eco-friendly backbone of OpenWorld
This year Oracle threw the greenest OpenWorld in the event’s 12-year history. By taking inspiration from its environmentally committed employees foreign partners and host city of San Francisco Oracle significantly reduced the impact of its more than 42 000 event attendees.

The company turned to technology to reduce the need for paper and other on-site communications materials. Oracle handed out press kits on thumb drives and reduced  conference books from 400 to 100 pages and instead of using paper maps and collateral attendees could jump on one of 110 information kiosks throughout the venue to check schedules and get directions.

San Francisco’s Moscone Center provided recycling stations that accepted plastic badges used electronics conference guides and show dailies as well as recycled paper plastic bottles and compostable materials. Visitors to the exhibitor floor could grab a free recycled-content bag to carry their goodies.

New Pedal Charger stations encouraged attendees to hop on a bike and power up their cell phones and other devices. Those who pedaled for 15 minutes received a free cup of coffee plus the touchy feelies that come with knowing they offset enough power to charge a laptop for an hour a cell phone for five hours or the toasting of four slices of bread. Oracle also ditched water bottles entirely this year instead offering fully staffed water bars and stations throughout every venue that included water cups made of vegetable-based compostable material. One station even offered water infused with all-natural flavors like mint-lime orange-lime cucumber-melon and strawberry-lime.

OpenWorld for the first time this year offered a new line-up of green-themed sessions dedicated to the areas where technology and sustainability intersect. Attendees could also swing through another new addition the Green Marketplace to check out products that merge food and lifestyle with technology. Visitors sampled organic beer chocolate olive oil and goat’s milk ice cream while calculating their carbon footprints and checking out eco-conscious technologies like paperless e-billing.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg folks. Check out next month’s green issue for an expanded report on how Oracle minimized more than 42 000 carbon footprints at its annual flagship event.


Photo Credit: unsplash.com/@aronvisuals

Jessica Heasley
Posted by Jessica Heasley

Jessica worked for more than 15 years in marketing and events before joining Event Marketer in 2007. She earned her master’s degree from t he Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her bachelor’s from the University of Washington (go Huskies!). Her last gig before coming to Red 7 was at Psychology Today magazine. Her proudest professional accomplishments include fixing a branded 1972 VW bus accelerator pump on the side of a highway in South Carolina with a paper clip and some string the night before a 30-city college tour; convincing Dr. Laura that she wasn’t writing a piece about lusty event marketers having lurid affairs on the road (which she kind of was); and, while at an independent film dot-com called AtomFilms, using about fifty bucks worth of chocolate chip cookies and a couple gallons of milk to lure film festival attendees away from Steven Spielberg’s (now defunct) big budget “Pop! Multimedia” booth to her company’s tiny living room event space. Although she is a native of Seattle, she never once owned an umbrella or rain boots until she moved to Brooklyn, where she currently resides with her husband and daughter. She was born in Everett, WA, home of the pulp mill.
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