How to Harness the Power of Customer Stories at Events

Scott Ewart Shares the Secrets of Bringing Together Hundreds of Case Studies at Oracle OpenWorld

November 1, 2018


When it comes to planning large scale, industry-defining events, there is often more than a little gray area for event marketers. This is especially true when trying to build valuable attendee experiences and bring customer stories to life.

For Scott Ewart, tackling this challenge is his passion. As a member of the management team for Oracle OpenWorld planning, Scott works to fine-tune Oracle’s conference strategy and understand what changes are necessary for OpenWorld to continuously improve and evolve. With more than 60,000 attendees and more than 2,300 educational sessions at Oracle OpenWorld, this is no easy task.

The Oracle customer base has shifted over the years, from product-focused functions to more diverse business-decision makers. In turn, the content and messaging of Oracle OpenWorld has shifted too. For Scott, this meant transitioning the massive event from telling product stories to integration of more customer success stories. This transition has taken months of planning and execution, but, in the moonlight of last week’s OpenWorld, all of the hard work paid off.

We recently chatted with Scott to learn more about how he sources hundreds of customer stories from the Oracle archives, the way the team approaches translating these stories to the stage, and some of the creative ways Oracle OpenWorld 2018 brought these engaging stories to life.

Q: How has this customer evolution from a product-focused mentality to an executive, decision-maker mentality made an impact on the way you looked for compelling stories to share at OpenWorld?

A: First and foremost, we always look for customer stories that address the different business challenges that Oracle products address. Because our customer base is so huge, clients face challenges in a variety of areas, ranging from decision making to strategic planning to production and execution. Another thing we look for is simplicity. It’s important to tell stories about business impact that cover initial challenges, the decision-making process, solution and results.

Because Oracle is such a huge company, it wasn’t always easy to uncover these stories — there isn’t one place where every department inputs their information. Before adopting this new customer success approach, we focused solely on the stories coming out of product development. Now we hunt down metrics-based stories from across the organization that address true business challenges. Luckily, other departments were more than ready to talk to us. These teams have all of these stories, and Oracle OpenWorld is a stage on which to share them.

Q: How long did this entire process take your team, including publishing new customer stories?

A: I think we started the process of gathering customer stories in December of last year, about a month after Oracle OpenWorld 2017 ended. All in all, we had everything ready to go in the external session catalog for this year in June, so about seven months. There were a few challenges along the way...which shouldn’t be surprising, considering we were gathering stories for over 500 customer-led presentations and sessions!

One of the biggest challenges we faced was showcasing these stories from a marketing perspective. So, not only were we hunting down the stories themselves, but then needed to change the way we presented these stories to customers through the Oracle OpenWorld content catalog.  We altered the catalogs focus from leading with products to showing stories by topics and business challenges. This makes it easier for attendees to find certain topics that are most important or of most interest to them, such as blockchain, or adaptive intelligence, or how I move to the cloud. It’s all about making it easier for attendees to find exactly what they're looking for because that a great experience for them is what drives our customers to return to future events.

While this year’s content collection process wasn’t perfect, I am already thinking about how we can further modify our process for next year. Instead of wedging ourselves into existing processes in other departments, I see this as part of, even the beginning of the process, especially as OpenWorld continues to grow at the rate it has been.

Q: How do you measure the success of your customer story program? Do you have any idea how these metrics will change and evolve over time?

A: We’re just now starting to gather these types of metrics, mainly to set up a benchmark with which to compare future events. Currently, we send out a follow-up survey to attendees with pretty detailed questions around customer stories, what sessions they found relevant, etc. Down the road, I want to be able to measure the real impact of customer-led sessions. Are people walking away with more knowledge? Additionally, during the off-season, I also want to run a few focus groups with full-conference attendees. This will help us better understand how these customer stories are being received, what kind of value they get out of the stories,and how we can improve them in the future.

As part of this benchmarking process, we’re also paying pretty close attention to our internal processes and project management procedures. While we have a clear end goal in mind, the rest of the story gathering process has been a bit off-the-cuff. Once customers have agreed to share their story, however, we do have a logistics process in place to help them navigate an event of this size. Most customers work with an internal sponsor to craft their story, and our speaker management team has multiple interactions and training with all of our speakers before the event to answer any questions and go over important information.

Q: What are some new types of sessions that Oracle OpenWorld is adopting to create a more innovative, conversational environment in which to share customer stories?

A: As part of the overall tonal shift of OpenWorld, we realized that the traditional, ‘sit in a lecture for an hour’ format of a traditional technology conference wasn’t in tune with our new approach to storytelling.  In 2017, we worked with educational thought leaders, including Stanford University, to come up with unique ways to deliver information to attendees. All in all, the program resulted in four more engaging types of informational sessions that help the speakers convey information and value in a format that helps the attendee retain more information about what they learned.

  • First, we have the “Make Your Case” session, which is really geared towards customer-led presentations. Basically, instead of going through a standard PowerPoint presentation, the customer will present the business challenge they were facing in detail. Then, the audience is split into small groups to discuss possible solutions. After a short time, the customer comes back on and resumes the discussion by asking the audience what solutions they came up with. The customer and the audience are then in a two-way, engaging conversation about real-world solutions, which really gets people involved and learning.
  • Next, there is “Brain Snack” session, which is a fun one. We set up the session room in a  speed dating format, and place attendees in rows of chairs facing each other. With five minutes on the clock, the pairs are given a topic to discuss, and when the timer goes off, one row moves down the line so everyone has a new partner, and the discussion continues. This session type is great for networking, learning, and fostering relationships.
  • Another one we came up with is the “Homeroom” session. Because Oracle works with so many different industries and customer types, and because OpenWorld has become such a huge event, there are plenty of places where people can get off track. Homerooms are a way for attendees in similar industries or with similar business challenges to get together and talk about insights they’ve learned, specific sessions they would recommend, navigating the event, learn about specific recommended sessions, and gaining more general industry knowledge.
  • And finally, we have the “Flipped” session. These are basically sessions that are meant to be split into two, and they can take any format the presenter wants. In one session, attendees could be required to submit pre-work before, and then the second part is discussing the results as a group. Or, say there is a 300-person session but there isn’t time for a Q&A. The second part of the Flipped Session would be the follow-up Q&A session to the presentation. In another format, we had a presenter who spent one half of the Session talking introducing a new App, spent some time having the attendees install the App, and then spent the rest of the session walking the attendees through how to use the App.

These new formats for delivering content as well as the focus on more storytelling from our customer base were all designed with one thing in mind – to enhance the customer attendee experience and have them leave the event with more information than they came with, and answers that they need to get back to the office and address some of their own unique business challenges.

We hope Scott’s insights resonate with you and your team as you work to bring customer stories to life in new ways! To keep up with the latest from event marketing thought leaders like Scott, subscribe to the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions blog.