As the Internet becomes more and more ubiquitous in the workplace, webinars – or what some refer to as “online seminars” – have become increasingly popular. Educators and marketers have embraced webinars as a forum for spreading their message; sponsors find their effectiveness and long shelf-life appealing; and attendees are learning to take advantage of their low cost and convenience.
If you haven’t introduced webinars into your marketing, customer service, or employee training efforts – whether you’re running a Fortune 500 company or a one-person operation – you may be missing out on a significant opportunity.
Simply stated, a webinar is a multicast, interactive audio-video seminar over the web that offers the opportunity to give, receive, and discuss information. According to an ON24 survey, the average webinar in 2013 attracted 433 registrants. Almost one-half of sponsors participating (49%) in a 2013 poll by MarketingSherpa ranked webinars and webcasts as the most effective marketing tool they used, well above mobile apps (35%), blogs (27%), press releases (21%), and social media marketing (18%).
Webinars first appeared around 1994 and have become increasingly popular as costs of production have dropped and technology for communication with broad audiences has improved. More than 80% of the webinars in the ON24 study had in excess of 200 attendees, while 15.2% had more than 1,000 attendees.
It’s important to understand the distinction between webinars and other Internet-based forums, such as online meetings and podcasts:
- Online Meetings. Also called web meetings, videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and virtual conferencing. In online meetings, a range of 2 to 30 participants are simultaneously involved in the discussion, which can be a corporate board meeting or project team discussion. Companies typically use online meetings for brainstorming, where participants familiar with a subject can provide input and discussion on the topic at hand.
- Podcasts. Sometimes called webcasts, these are usually broadcast without interactivity. The word “podcast” is a combination of “broadcast” and Apple’s then-revolutionary “iPod,” which could play digital video and audio files. The availability of low-cost, high-quality cameras, as well as video and audio recording software, enables businesses of all sizes to advertise their products and services cost-effectively via this platform.
Benefits of a Webinar to Sponsor and Participants
Webinars allow sponsors to communicate a message to hundreds of participants in real-time. As a consequence, they are equally popular with educators and students, marketing professionals and potential customers, and business trainers and employees.
Their advantages include the following:
- Fungibility. Many hosts provide webinars free of charge to participants in efforts to build prospective customer lists or as an adjunct to customer service. However, some charge a fee for participation. Fee-based webinars typically range from $20 to $150, with lengths between 60 and 90 minutes. The crucial factor in the decision to pay is the webinar’s perceived value in the eyes of the purchaser. According to the blog InstantPresenter, the decision to buy a seminar depends upon the reputation of the speaker, the subject matter, and whether the information presented can help the viewer make more money.
- Geographical Access. Sponsors and participants can be located anywhere the Internet is available – home, work, domestic and international locations – at all hours of the day and night. No travel is required, making costs of transportation, facilities, meals, and entertainment for the participating parties a non-issue.
- Flexibility. Webinars are used for presentations, lectures, and workshops. Multiple formats and features are available – such as Q&As, interviews, panels, and presentation-style webinars – from a wide variety of online service providers, ensuring that the sponsor’s message is delivered effectively and efficiently.
- Security. Registered audience members can call in to the host computer through a custom link. Audience members may need to enter a meeting ID or pre-approved password.
- Scalability. Webinars are appropriate for small and large audiences.
- Proven Technology. A variety of vendors provide the means to host webinars online without bulky downloads. Programs are easy to use – often intuitive – so that sponsors can concentrate on the message, rather than the medium.
- Longevity. Sponsors often record their webinars and make them available for future downloading. A recent search of YouTube returned more than 350,000 links to webinars, with subjects ranging from “How to Make Money Options Trading,” to “Exercise Recommendations for Long-Term Care (Falls Prevention).” Erin Kell of Trew Marketing says that “the best thing about webinars is that they are not a once-and-done marketing effort. Your recorded webinar can be viewed on demand for months or years to come, and can continue to generate leads.”
Technical Features of a Webinar
In an About.com article, Shelby Britton, who runs webinar programs for Adobe Systems, is quoted as saying, “Webinar tools give you powerful functionality for interactivity. If you’re not counting on interaction or some kind of collaborative exchange, you may as well produce a video to push the content out there.”
- Display Slides. You can display a slideshow presentation using MS PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote, just like you would in a regular classroom, meeting room, or lecture hall.
- Stream Video. Show single or multiple videos, either stored on your computer or elsewhere – YouTube, for example.
- Talk to Your Audience. Webinars use VoIP to make real-time audio communication possible. Some service providers offer a call-in feature including a toll-free option. A translation service for English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, and Chinese may be offered for an additional fee.
- Record Everything. Webinars often provide an option for hosts to record their entire presentation – including all visuals and audio, which is very important for future use.
- Edit Content Real-Time. Hosts can often use a computer mouse to create annotations, highlight items, or make markings on the screen.
- Chat. The host can open up a chat box to text chat with the audience, which is especially helpful for audience members wanting to ask questions. Many service providers offer the ability to switch between public and private chats (allowing offensive chats to be removed). Before using a chat capability, however, be sure you understand best practices. For example, experts suggest that attendees enter their first names when using the Q&A capability so presenters can personalize responses.
- Conduct Surveys and Polls. Some webinar providers offer the ability to create polls, quizzes, and surveys for audience members.
- Collect Fees. If you intend to charge for viewing your webinars, an integrated payment system is critical. Many webinar sponsors use a service such as PayPal to facilitate payments. This capability is especially important if you plan to produce a series of webinars for fees.
Some webinar service providers also offer the following benefits:
- Customized Branding. Use your own logo and color scheme for special invitation and registration materials.
- Follow-up Emails After the Event. Contacting attendees quickly and regularly after the webinar reinforces your message and builds affinity for your brand. However, be sure you provide something of value, such as additional information or invitations to other webinars, with each contact.
- Integration With Social Media. The ability to post on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn through the service provider’s software makes record-keeping easier and more efficient.
- Mobile-Friendly Apps. Allowing viewers to participate by phone, tablet, or computer is critical in today’s environment. Do not use a service provider that lacks this capability.
While the success of your webinar directly depends upon the subject matter and presenter, knowing how and when to use the various conferencing tools is also critical. Once you have determined to go forward with a webinar, ask your preferred service provider for training assistance. Many are happy to provide help free of charge, knowing that a successful webinar is likely to generate future business for them – do not be afraid to ask for a free trial for your first webinar.
Organizing and Hosting a Webinar
Not every topic is suitable for a webinar. Many are better presented through videos or articles where interactivity is not essential, while others are too lengthy or complex to cover in one to two hours.
If you determine that your subject is suitable for a webinar, take the following steps to build a successful one.
1. Establish Your Budget
Your budget should be based upon your intended results. Ken Molay, a webinar consultant, suggests that anyone can get capable, relatively inexpensive web conferencing software, learn to use it, manage everything in-house, and invite people already on a prospect list for $500.
For enhanced production value and promotion of the webinar, Molay suggests that a “good mid-range budget to is between $4,000 and $6,000.” But a small business owner or entrepreneur can promote, produce, and host webinars with a much smaller budget, especially where attendees do not require extravagant, expensive promotion or exotic presentations.
For example, a webinar service provider such as GoToMeeting or WebEx offers small business owners and entrepreneurs webinar capability for annual fees between $600 and $850, paid in monthly increments. The charge includes an unlimited number of webinars, each for up to 100 participants. Technical features include face-to-face conferencing, screen sharing, and webinar recording.
2. Know Your Audience
Who are your targets? Existing customers, prospects, or both? What problems are they experiencing? What benefits do you intend to deliver, and why should they invest their time and money to hear what you have to say?
Your message must be targeted to the wants, needs, worries, and fears of a specific group if it is to have significant impact. Create a composite picture of the average audience member in your mind – age, sex, education, income, occupation – and gauge the composite’s likely goals and concerns as they relate to your subject matter and expertise.
3. Pick a Topic and Title That Excite Your Audience
Pick a title for your topic that can attract and engage potential attendees. For example, if you are promoting a new diet plan, your audience may be overweight or have made attempts at dieting in the past. However, your title cannot just be a description of your topic – it must convey a pay-off for those attending your webinar. “Why Diets Fail: The Secret to Steady Weight Loss” is more likely to generate interest than “A New Guaranteed Weight Loss Plan.” Remember that a title is featured in your promotional materials, so try to create some excitement in the minds of your prospective audience.
Broad topics may be too difficult to cover fully in the limited time of a single webinar. In those cases, split up your message into sections that can work either standalone or as part of a series. The short segments can also be used in lead-nurturing programs, email blasts, and trailers for other content. Some webinar experts suggest making the first webinar of a series a “teaser” as an incentive to view future segments.
4. Use a Credible Headliner for a Speaker
Unless you are a recognized expert in your field, consider enlisting the help of third parties to deliver your message – and remember that “names” attract audiences. A webinar can be presented in a number of different formats, including single presenters, a moderator with multiple speakers, interviewers and subject matter experts, and panel discussions. Pick a format that allows you to deliver your message appropriately with as much “star power” as your budget allows.
5. Schedule a Presentation Date Far in Advance
Building and testing your presentation takes time, just as developing and delivering promotional materials to your potential audience members does. To be safe, schedule your first webinar at least two months in advance. Be sure that you consider how different time zones can affect attendance. According to the ON24 Survey, the best days and times to host a webinar are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10am and 11am Central Standard Time, if you expect to have an audience on both coasts.
6. Pick Format and Features From Webinar Provider
While a certain speaker may be more likely to be recognized as an authority on a subject, interactivity may be limited if participants are intimidated and reluctant to ask and answer questions. Multiple speakers are more engaging, but can increase the complexity of handling audience participation.
It is important to select a webinar format and the features you plan to use to minimize confusion and ensure a smooth delivery. Be sure you “brand” your webinar with your company or personal logo, and post any promotional materials on your own website. Avoid requiring your participants to download plugins to view the webinar, and make the process as easy for them as possible. Always make sure your webinars are available for viewing on mobile devices.
Many experienced webinar sponsors utilize a “lobby” with interactive features. Attendees who arrive early can listen to music, watch rotating slides with information on the event or announcements, and participate in an open chat with the sponsors and other attendees. Encourage attendee engagement by posing simple, generic questions, such as, “What is the weather like where you are?” or “Where are you joining us from?” when attendees check in.
7. Plan Your Presentation for Maximum Participant Engagement
Develop an agenda for your presentation that includes time frames for speakers and subjects with demonstrations and Q&As. Include this agenda in your marketing materials so potential attendees can easily determine whether the content is relevant to them.
When multiple presenters are used, be sure they comply with the format for visuals, and ask them to deliver any materials they plan to use at least one month before the webinar. Reinforce the time limits for each speaker’s section, and perform a full dress rehearsal one week prior to the presentation in order to confirm that each presenter is familiar with the webinar tools they’re using to present.
When working with slides, use minimal text with strong graphics – watching a series of dull slides one after another is as boring as listening to a boring speaker drone on and on. Always show an introductory slide on your site before the webinar begins to remind your audience how to log into the audio and what time the webinar kicks off. If you’re employing multiple speakers, include a slide for each with name, title, and employer, along with a picture. Avoid long exposures to the same slide or an extended lecture with little or no interactivity.
In an About.com article, Netspeed Learning Solutions CEO Cindy Clay recommends that presenters shift the audience’s attention every three minutes with a change of layout and activity – having them touch their screens or click a mouse, for example. “It boots you out of a talking head presentation.” Clay also considers chat “the richest tool to keep people’s attention.”
8. Develop an Invitation and Marketing Plan
Unless you are an established speaker with a ready following, you need to heavily publicize your webinar via multiple channels – emails, blogs, ads on websites, social media – for at least two weeks before the event. Statistics in the ON24 survey indicate that about one-third of registrations occur prior to the week of the webinar, one-third during the week of the webinar, and the last third the day prior and the day of the webinar. Recognize, however, that only about half (42% to 60%) of the people who register for a webinar actually attend it. One of the advantages of paid webinars is that most of the registrants actually attend the presentation, although total attendance is typically higher for free webinars. Whether you have 10 or 500 attendees, though, you should be committed to exceeding any attendee’s expectations.
9. Invite and Keep Your Audience
The first step is to design an invitation that will stand out in your attendees’ minds, rising above the electronic clutter that plagues all Internet users. Your title or header must be attention-grabbing and encourage a reading of the full message. According to Salesforce, one-third of email recipients open their email based on subject line alone – and the majority of viewers only read the subject line and the first two or three lines of text, so deliver your benefit quickly and call for registration early.
According to Marketing Land, experts recommend a question that references the recipient’s needs directly, and, in another article, suggest it should be no more than 6 to 10 words long. Statistics suggest that two-thirds of emails are opened on mobile phones, rather than desktop devices, so design your message to fit that channel.
Use social media to aggressively court potential attendees, collecting email addresses and following up with email invitations to the webinar. Since the day before and the day of the seminar account for one-third of attendees, email all contacts on those days with a last chance to register. However, don’t forget your early registrants. Contact them at least once per week between their registration and the webinar presentation to remind them of the upcoming webinar, and to reinforce the benefits they receive by attending.
Depending upon your marketing budget, consider purchasing mass market ads such as search and banner ads, newsletter sponsorships, and professional press releases. Some webinar sponsors rent lists for email blasts, an expensive proposition that is rarely appropriate for a first-time webinar sponsor. Just as experience is sure to improve the quality of your webinars, it can also help you determine the most effective places to spend your marketing dollars.
10. Perform the Webinar
Start your webinar on time and stay within the agenda. Encourage your presenters to keep abreast of the chat comments or Q&As and answer some of the questions online during the presentations. Make sure they are aware of time limits, and answer relative questions extemporaneously so they seem part of the flow. Use first names of attendees when possible, even if it’s just a comment agreeing with their thoughts.
If possible, have a second experienced person moderate the chat and Q&A, rather than the presenter. The moderator can pass relevant questions or comments to the presenter without a pause in the action. The chat moderator can also monitor for inappropriate or off-topic postings if using a public chat capability. Remember, the more engaged the attendees are, the greater the likelihood of the webinar being a success.
11. Record Webinar
Successful webinars are gifts that keep on giving. The ON24 survey indicated that 25% of registrants for a seminar view the archived webinar, rather than attend the live event.
Provide webcasts of past webinars on your site or through providers such as YouTube. Create your own webinar channels listing all your “on demand” events – past webinars – and embed them in your website, any partner sites, and on social media. You can use the recording in a variety of marketing efforts, including emails and bonus offerings for other services.
According to Matthew Sweezey of ClickZ, a marketing news website, 16% of business-to-business (B2B) consumers prefer to see a webinar live, versus reviewing a recording after the fact. If your purpose is to generate sales leads, Sweezey suggests using plenty of calls to action (CTAs) to register email names and addresses directly in the webinar content.
12. Follow Up With Attendees
Resist the tendency to relax when the webinar is over, as this is the time that your participants are most excited about your message. Follow up with personalized emails to each attendee expressing appreciation and asking for feedback about the experience. Provide a link to the recorded webinar, as well as any related material that might be beneficial to attendees. Many webinars are provided to either generate sales leads or improve customer service, so remember the webinar is the beginning, not the end of the process.
13. Analyze Results
Many service providers offer an “engagement meter” to gather real-time feedback on overall audience engagement. Other sources of feedback include the results of polls, surveys, Q&As, chats, the type and number of downloads, and social media comments. Be prepared for some critical comments, but consider them opportunities to improve your next webinar.
As Internet technology improves and prices drop, it is likely that webinars will become more popular. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are increasingly looking at the production of webinars as a business opportunity with few obstacles to entry and significant earning-to-cost potential. Advice about making and promoting webinars is readily available – Amazon.com recently listed more than 1,600 results for books on webinars. If you haven’t yet jumped in the pool of webinar sponsorship, it’s time to get your toes wet.
Have you sponsored, presented, or attended a webinar?