The webinar is an undeniably popular tool for disseminating ideas and techniques in the world of business. Yet, for all its popularity, this modality often falls short of participants’ expectations. Where do webinars go wrong, and how can they be improved?
Not a day goes by without webinar offerings popping up in my e-mail. At first I thought it a fad, a fleeting passion for a cheap way of distributing marketing messages. Could this go on? Would it touch learning professionals? The answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.”
Antonia Chan and Colleen Cunningham, 2007 alumnae from San Diego State University’s Department of Educational Technology, told me they were attending many webinars — in fact, several each week. As I have offered webinars and will do so again, I inquired about the best and worst they had seen. We then talked at length about what characterizes webinar quality. I asked them to keep track of their experiences to help the rest of us do this better.
Chan and Cunningham were top-notch graduate students. Both have good jobs and are launching what I expect will be wonderful careers. Both are measured in judgment, tending more to enthusiasm than nastiness. They’re also webinar “addicts.” In other words, they were great for this project.
I asked these young women why they were addicted to webinars. Chan said, “Webinars have become a low-risk, easy, quick and cheap way to stay current about the state of the field — research, trends and tools.”
Cunningham agreed. “What a great way to stay up-to-date, which is my biggest fear after leaving the SDSU nest,” she said. “In 60 minutes, you get enough of a taste to either pursue it yourself or have it in your mind as a current trend. For example, I had not heard of machinima before attending this webinar, and then I was out to dinner with a current student, and guess what? She was working on a machinima project in her class with [Educational Technology Professor] Bernie Dodge at SDSU.”
(“Machinima” refers to the “the making of animated movies in real time through the use of computer game technology,” as defined by Henry Lowood, a science and technology historian at Stanford University.)
Given all the choices, what webinars do they attend? Their choices reflected individual tastes, with Chan favoring software and research and Cunningham giving the nod to “presentation methods for online meetings/classes, e-learning approaches, topics such as storytelling, manga [comics], machinima, generations in the workforce [and] career contentment.” Chan looked specifically for programs that would advance her work projects. Cunningham admitted she was not particularly selective. “If it seems interesting, I’ll check it out. That’s the great thing about webinars; if you don’t like it, you can stop watching, get up and leave.”
Unlike classes, online or face-to-face, webinars cost nothing, demand nothing and are easily exited. That is why so many are willing to venture beyond the familiar to take a look at ideas, products and services. That makes them popular with students and teachers, practitioners and executives, buyers and suppliers.
What is sad is that only a few webinars earned kudos from Cunningham and Chan.
The purpose here is to encourage greatness in webinars by identifying some of the unsuccessful approaches witnessed by Cunningham and Chan. We deploy the power of negative examples to reveal sins that occur before, during and after webinars.
Before the Webinar
Chan recalled a session that seemed to lack even a moment of planning. She put it this way: “The only visual provided was the cover of a book that led to nothing. A webcam, randomly active, showed somebody — not the presenter — who was completely distracted.” Cunningham complained about that session, too, describing it as a “total train wreck,” mostly because it lacked audience focus and clear-cut organization. It seemed to be about the presenter, not the participants. That is a fatal error.
After dozens of webinars, Cunningham knows exactly what she values: a well-planned webinar that has “a start, middle and an end. The start tells you what to expect from the presenter and what the presenter expects of you, along with how the hour will be used, including what the takeaway will be.” Chan is eager for PowerPoint slides that display key ideas and organize and crystallize messages, all especially important for her because English is her third language.
Some developers of webinars know this. They market programs that show insight into what their audience wants — which is essential. But providing a program congruent with their promises is just as important. Alas, the webinar addicts report that providers do not consistently follow through. Chan told of signing up to learn about a set of research findings. What she got instead was lengthy information about the researchers and only an abbreviated, vague description of research results delivered at the end of the session.
Just yesterday, Chan e-mailed about a webinar breakdown. She eagerly attended a webinar offered by a well-known author in our field. The problem was not the presenter. Perhaps it was the technology, or the preparation to use it, or gremlins.
Nobody wants to practice, me included. I grumble when organizations, prior to webinars that I deliver, press me for time to orient myself on their presentation platform. I am always glad afterward that I piloted or revisited the system. Who can remember the interface and functionalities for each system? It is wise to make certain the technology and presenter are ready.
During the Webinar
The webinar addicts had some grisly tales to tell:
• There was an overly scripted session in which the leader droned on for an hour with not one example or case. When Chan and Cunningham complimented webinarians, it was most often for their vivid examples, stories, enthusiasm and personalization.
• There was a particularly dreary session that avoided the interactive features provided by most webinar systems. The presenters read slides to the audience. The leader failed to solicit questions, opinions or reactions. There were no polls or exercises. There was no divergence of opinions. The participants were not asked to engage with the content, take a position or apply the ideas to their own situations.
• Both addicts were put off by presentations that consumed the hour, leaving only a few moments for Q&A at the end.
• Cunningham complained about feeling all alone during several webinars. She was blocked from seeing the names of others. She was barred from e-mailing participants or the group leaders. She didn’t know if two, 20 or 200 people were present. She described the experience this way: “I looked at the list and saw only my name. I felt so bad for the presenter because nobody was attending. When a message appeared saying, ‘The webinar will begin shortly,’ I felt compelled to say something in the chat thinking I was the only one. Then I instant messaged Antonia [Chan], only to learn that she, too, was on the webinar. Even though I could only see my name, obviously, there were others. The list of attendees was suppressed. If attendees’ names must be suppressed (why?), then do as one webinarian did. She told how many had gathered for the session and named some organizations represented in the group. That helped.”
• Chan grumbled about sessions that get ready to get ready to get going. She wants the meat of the webinar, and she wants it soon. Too many sessions introduce the software, introduce the presenters, introduce their companies, introduce their mission and vision and values and do it at their leisure. While it makes sense to orient people to what will come, it turns them off when their attendance is linked to a particular topic and the organizers babble on about other matters.
• Cunningham dislikes slow, formal events. She favored a webinar with “a relaxed flow. There was often laughing — camaraderie. For example, I attended a Lynne Lancaster webinar sponsored by Sonoma Learning Systems. During the webinar, they acknowledged the incoming questions and expanded upon them.”
• Chan and Cunningham were upset about a webinar in which the presenter chastised the audience because attendees might not be paying sufficient attention. Colleen suggested this presenter prepare materials and activities that would compel attention, rather than demand it.
• Webinars are offered by people for people. They fail when webinarians mask their humanity by withholding anecdotes, doubts and opinions. Allen Interactions’ Mike Allen won Chan and Cunningham over when he shared examples and displayed a real and human self. They also were eager to applaud Cynthia Clay, president of Netspeed Learning Solutions. Cunningham reported, “Clay had a great Web presence; even with audio difficulties, she never lost a step. She had an energy that vibrated throughout the webinar. She was as excited at the beginning as she was at the end. Clay assured participation by providing a prize at the end for a lucky individual pulled from a list of those who were first to volunteer answers and questions.”
• An elegant, focused PowerPoint deck is good, but hardly sufficient. Chan noted that webinars would benefit from some instructional design principles. She said, “I believe that webinar disasters can be prevented by applying basic instructional design: selecting content by taking into account the purpose of the presentation, attending to time/space constraints and audience, matching content with delivery strategies, applying document design (right colors, fonts, use of white space), storytelling, characterization, worked examples and so on and so forth.” She added that it boils down to “telling a story and not lecturing or reading.”
After the Webinar
Both webinar addicts were foiled in attempts to find archived webinars they favored. Colleen shared her frustrating search to revisit a session about career contentment. She found it many layers down on a Web site, in what seemed a surprising location. If the webinar is worth offering, it is worth making readily available after the fact.
Another complaint is that archived webinars often lack the full-blown examples included in the synchronous webinar. It makes sense to use this as a legitimate reason to reach out to attendees afterward. Send a URL that houses example, related white papers, links and resources.
Chan remarked upon the “Sorry we missed you” message. At first, she liked it because she had indeed missed that webinar. She was peeved when the same message followed a session she had attended. It bugged her, she said, because it felt like spam. She also complained about repeated requests for information. When she signed up for the webinar, the organization asked her to fill out a form. That was reasonable. When she attempted to visit that archive or examine other, related resources, the company sought the same information from her. That is not reasonable.
Walt Disney Co.’s ABC News is close to scrapping the webinar format for the daily “World News Webcast,” its online version of the evening news. When reporting on this in the Wall Street Journal on June 11, Rebecca Dana identified the “World News” problem as incongruence with old media models. Web users prefer to click around at will rather than be escorted through a Charles Gibson-led tour of the news.
Admittedly, the webinar is a Web 1.0 strategy. People with messages package them for distribution to others. They control those messages, and those who want them elect to get them, either synchronously or asynchronously. My two most recent public webinars attracted more than 400 people. In our business, free webinars retain their allure.
Webinars often are appreciated for their limitations. They are not instruction with structured presentation, expectations for effort and performance, and practice and feedback. They are not personalized coaching. They start and they end. One hour. Most of the time, no money is exchanged. Nobody knows what else might be occupying you throughout. There is no homework.
But webinars could be more Web 2.0 in nature. And in some cases, they should be. Imagine if the sessions were just the beginning of conversations and debates. Imagine if they were jumping-off points for projects, with feedback delivered by peers and experts. Imagine if participants volunteered to offer subsequent sessions based on that initial offering. Imagine if they were part of a blended system with blogs, e-coaching and even face-to-face events. Just imagine.
The webinar addicts’ experiences with ineffective webinars have not turned them off. In fact, both report that their calendars for the next month are chock-full of these online events. While some things turned them off, clearly the balance favors the webinar. Chan and Cunningham hope fervently that the people planning their upcoming webinars will read and act upon the ideas in this article.