“Learn to pivot” has been the mantra for 2020. Like most businesses, March 2020 was a challenging time for us on the Red Hat marketing team. With COVID-19 spreading across the world, and businesses sending their employees to work from home, it became clear that Red Hat Summit, scheduled to be hosted in April in San Francisco, could not go on as planned. 

By mid-March we were in full pivot mode to change Red Hat Summit, the premier open source technology conference, from an in-person event to a full digital experience. The challenge -- that the event would still immerse our attendees in everything that makes a Red Hat event special. It was certainly an exciting ride, and on April 27, we opened the Summit virtual experience to the world. In the end, we had more than 50,000 attendees from more than 100 countries visit the live environment. We learned a lot of lessons along the way - below are a few successes we had while pulling off this event, and a one  tip for improving a virtual experience. 

Success #1: Be authentic to your brand

Red Hat has a unique, open culture that is at the heart of everything we do as an organization, and we try to make sure that culture is well-represented in our events. While shifting to a virtual event environment, we knew we needed to keep that Red Hat community feel, even though we wouldn’t be in person. That meant following some of the same guidelines we’d use for an in-person event, including: 

  • Give attendees access to Red Hatters: At a live event, you’d do this in booths and one on one meetings. In our virtual events, we did this through chat rooms and “ask the experts” live sessions.

  • Make customers the star of the show: Red Hat products enable our customer to do some amazing things, and just like at a live Summit, we showcased their successes through customer keynotes, breakout sessions and our Red Hat Innovation Awards program

  • Keep things fun: There’s always a lot to do at Summit, beyond attending keynotes and breakout sessions. We added open source games, challenges for completing tasks in the environment and opportunities to win prizes to the virtual experience to bring some of the excitement of Summit into attendees’ homes.

    We were surprised at how well the gamification of the environment worked for helping with engagement numbers. Over 26,000 attendees earned at least one badge for watching keynotes, exploring the environment, and interacting with content from programs like Red Hat Innovation Awards. 

Success #2: As live as possible

One of the selling points of an event like Red Hat Summit is that it’s a limited time opportunity to interact with all things Red Hat. While we knew that moving to a virtual event would mean giving people access to more content on-demand, we still wanted to give attendees that were able to attend April 27-28 feel like things were happening in real time. 

While some sessions were pre-recorded, we offered live “ask the experts” sessions that allowed attendees to interact directly with Red Hatters to answer questions about our products. We also made sure that new keynotes and breakout sessions were released throughout the day. Finally, we held a live demo of our newest technology during the keynotes on the second day of the event, complete with an interactive component to keep viewers engaged. 

The demo keynote was one of the most successful pieces of our virtual summit experience, with over 4,000 attendees watching live. These live attendees watched an average of around 44 minutes of the keynote, easily making it the most engaging keynote presented at the event. The live session also came away with the highest rating among attendees who filled out our post-session surveys, scoring a 4.63 out of 5 points. 

Lesson Learned: Allow for agenda building in advance

Allowing new sessions and keynotes to be released throughout the live Summit experience was designed to help make the event feel more like an in-person Summit, and avoid overwhelming attendees with available sessions. However, although session times were posted in advance, our environment lacked the ability to pre-build a customized agenda for each user in advance. At an in-person Summit, you can begin registering for session weeks before you arrive on site, a feature that many attendees missed during the virtual experience. 

For future events, we’re working with our vendors to make it easier for attendees to pre-build their agenda, so that they can focus less on what comes next, and more on exploring our environment. 

Making Red Hat Summit 2020 Virtual Experience a success was a true team effort from the entire Open Studio team, in partnership with many people across the organization. We’re proud of the event that we were able to pull off in this difficult time, and wish you luck in planning your virtual event in these uncertain times. 

If you’re interested in seeing what Red Hat Summit 2020 Virtual Experience looked like for yourself, the event is  available on demand and you can access the content for one year - including new content from our Red Hat Summit 2020 Virtual Experience: Open House, which started July 15.

About the author

Cody leads customer events at Red Hat, including Red Hat Summit and AnsibleFest with a focus on strategy and customer experience. He has been a Red Hatter since 2018, with previous stints as director of marketing for Elon University as well as branding agencies on the account side. In this virtual environment, we are all digital marketers aiming to connect people with technology and people with people.

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