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What Is a Webinar?


Around 1984, the year so famously depicted in George Orwell's novel, I was working in sales for a convention hotel's conference center. It was a cutting edge facility in a lot of ways. One of the more expensive and experimental (at the time) technologies offered was video conferencing. It was the opportunity to see and interact with someone in a remote location in real time. It all seemed like 1984's "Big Brother" technologies were heading from being fiction to being fact.

I remember what it took to host just one video conference with a remote location back then. Special cameras and hookups, a dedicated room, coordinating satellite links, cash... it was quite a project in the pre-Internet era.

Fast forward only a few decades. Video conferencing with almost anyone in the world is possible on the smartphones we carry around in our pockets.

The desire to see AND hear someone speaking is strong. The nuances of body language and nonverbal cues enriches our communication and learning. This is why webinars have become a delivery mode of choice for almost every imaginable purpose, but especially for education and marketing.

What is a Webinar?

The term "webinar" is the shortened mashup of "web," meaning delivered via the Internet or other online networks, and "seminar," which is a learning event. These events may also be referred to as online meetings or "webcasts." Webinars typically feature real-time video and/or audio feeds between a host and attendees.

These events can be one-to-many where a webinar host delivers a live presentation and attendees merely watch and listen in real time. Some events may allow attendees to chat with or pose questions to the host, presenter or other attendees, usually via a text-based interface on the screen.

Some webinars feature live, real-time viewing of all parties participating in the event. Because of the load on the webinar service, Internet bandwidth, physical screen space, and attendee attention span, these highly interactive webinars usually have a limit to the number of participants.

Popular webinar services as of this writing include Blab, Google Hangouts, Zoom, YouTube (Webinars OnAir), GoToMeeting, JoinMe, and Adobe Connect.

Although technically a webinar is a live or interactive virtual event, these days, any video or audio online training seems to be promoted as a "webinar." In fact, many live webinars are recorded and then offered on replay for participants who couldn't make the live event. Replays of paid webinars may also be sold afterwards to generate more income for the host or presenter.

How Can Webinars be Used?

Webinars can be used for almost any education and marketing purpose. Here are just a few of ways that webinars can be used:

  • College courses
  • Employee training
  • Customer training
  • Member or volunteer training for nonprofits and associations
  • Sales presentations (very common!)
  • Conferences for participants in several remote locations
  • Product or service demonstrations and previews
  • Virtual trade shows
  • Book previews and reviews

Webinar Best Practices

Mention "webinar" to many business folks and you might get a "Not another one!" or a shoulder shrug response. Some even admit to multitasking while viewing and listening. With the miracle of being able to receive and deliver content efficiently and cost-efficiently (in some cases, even free!), why this response?

As with email marketing, webinars have been overused and misused to the point where people are tuning out. For some, a webinar equates to sales pitch and they either totally disregard invitations or tune in until they perceive it's become too much like a sales presentation and exit.

What are some best practices to attract and retain webinar participants?

  • No Disguised Sales Pitches. If the webinar is designed to sell a product or service, say so. At least they'll know it's coming. And if they're interested in what's being offered, they'll opt in and participate.
  • Treat Webinar Participants as If They Were In the Same Room. I've participated in many webinars and hybrid events (a live event which is also being webcast to remote locations). In some cases, the remote audience was served very poorly. Ignoring participant questions or feedback were primary blunders. Treat your screen-to-screen webinar participants as if they were face-to-face.
  • Remember There is an Audience. Especially with teams of remote presenters, they can easily slip into conversation mode with each other, totally forgetting that their idle chatter is being broadcast live to possibly hundreds or thousands of people! It's easy to understand why that can happen. A presenter may be alone at home in front of his solitary computer screen and may only be cognizant of the fellow remote presenters. Again, act as if you were physically present in a room with your online attendees.
  • Add Value. Make sure the webinar is content rich, even if its intent is to sell.
  • Master the Tech... In Advance. Test your computers, equipment and connections BEFORE the day of the webinar. Adding a headset and/or microphone can often improve the quality of the audio in both directions. There's nothing more obvious to your online audience than when you're fumbling and stumbling with the webinar service or equipment. Would you want to do business with someone that's that unprepared? Enough said.
  • Start and End on Time. Punctuality counts, even if you and your attendees are learning while you're lounging in your pajamas! (See below for a good lesson on this point.)
  • Provide Complete and Easy-to-Understand Participant Instructions... Every Time. Over time, more webinar services have entered the market and webinar hosts and presenters don't always use same services. So it's difficult for attendees to remember all the procedures for getting online and participating for every available webinar service. Make sure all attendees are informed of how to join in every time one is scheduled. Many of the services will automatically email or post instructions for registered attendees; see your webinar service's documentation for details.
  • Choose a Service Based On Your Market and Material. Some webinar services are free. But don't let that been the only criteria on which you base your decision. Make sure your service can provide what you and your audience needs in terms of document or screen sharing, polling, Q&A or any other features that are appropriate for your event.

Treat your screen-to-screen webinar participants as if they were face-to-face.

— Heidi Thorne

Late to the Party

I felt so sorry for the guy! A colleague was launching a new webinar program and offered a freebie preview so people could sample it. Tech? Check. Content ready? Check. Was ready to broadcast on time? Check.

Unfortunately, because it was new and he was reaching a new audience, participants were slow to jump online. Instead of starting on time, he announced to the audience that since only a couple people were on, he would wait to see if some more would show up. What a marketing mistake! First, it signaled to the online audience that this may not be that popular of a webinar. Second, it disrespects the time of the interested few who did show up and could become customers! Plus, he was recording it. I hope he edited the blank air time out.

Latecomers to webinars are NOT unusual. In fact, you should expect them, sometimes lots of them. The same happens in real life, too! It just seems to be more obvious and discouraging to hosts and presenters during online events.

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What are some ways to deal with latecomers?

  • Start and End on Time. Don't cater to those who show up late. This is very annoying to the punctual people.
  • If Possible, Delay Important Segments or Activities Requiring Interaction. Since attendance at the very beginning may be light, don't feature highly interactive or important activities at the start of the program if you want more participation. Let your online audience get settled in both physically and mentally first.
  • Offer a Replay. As noted earlier, many people multitask while attempting to participate in webinars. So they may be distracted and join in late. Others may have more important obligations at the time your live webinar is scheduled. (I know, I know... how could that be?) Offering a recorded replay of the entire webinar can provide latecomers with an opportunity to consume your content when they can be mentally and physically present. They might have missed the live Q&A session or other interactive elements and that's their loss! But by offering a replay, it may be a win for you, especially if your webinar includes a selling component.

What's Next for Webinars?

Webinar technology has matured over the years. More stable connections. More features. More interactivity. Lower cost. So what might be next?

Holographic projection could be an exciting addition to webinars of the future. Imagine a presenter holographically present in the room with you. A little unnerving, but kind of cool, eh?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 17, 2016:

Hi Lawrence! Don't worry about being behind the eight-ball. Lots of people are still experimenting with the webinar concept.

The time zone issue you noted is exactly why webinars should be recorded and offered on replay, especially for international audiences. Heck, I even have problems with participating in live webinars that are on East Coast US time just one hour ahead of ours (never seems to properly sync up with my schedule).

Fabulous example of Prince Charles using a hologram presence! I think we're going to see more of that virtual presence in the meetings and events industry, pumped up with cool tech like holograms. Though not as cool, a few years ago, I did a presentation for an events industry conference in Vancouver... but I was here in Chicago and presented via Skype. It's not only for the cool factor, but for the eco factor, too, as Prince Charles demonstrated.

Thanks so much, as always, for your insightful and informative comments! Have a great weekend!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on April 16, 2016:


I'm not anywhere near getting ready for this and usually the 'live' webinars are at times that just aren't good for us in the Antipodes. The recorded ones I've looked at and some of them are really good.

I read a few years ago that they were running a eco conference in Dubai with Prince Charles as the Keynote speaker but Prince Charles thought it wrong that they spend all that money and fuel going to Dubai for the conference so he informed the organizers that he wouldn't be actually attending the conference but speaking via a HOLOGRAM!

Apparently the conference was a huge sensation as no one had done it before and the attendees got the message that he was really serious about global warming and the little things we can do.

The idea of webinars sounds great, but I think I'm a ways behind the eightball there and might try and find some time to watch the recorded ones.


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 13, 2016:

Thanks for the kind words, AliciaC! Webinars are definitely here to stay and will draw in even more people as time goes on. Have a wonderful Wednesday!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 12, 2016:

This is another excellent hub, Heidi. It's full of great advice for people who are interested in webinars.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 10, 2016:

And I've got even more coming your way, billybuc! Though it won't technically be a how-to, I am doing an explanatory hub on podcasting. Plus, my hubs are always here for whenever you're ready. We can't wait to hear what you come up with.

Thanks for stopping by! You have a great Sunday and week ahead, too!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 10, 2016:

ENOUGH ALREADY!!!! I'm still trying to figure out how to make a podcast and now you're tossing more at me. Please remember I am not the most gifted of students and take it slowly for this old man. :)

And have a superb Sunday!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 10, 2016:

FlourishAnyway, sounds like both of us have been through our fair share of bad webinars! If given the choice, I'd rather read a book than sit through another webinar.

The joining instructions just annoy me to no end (especially for one platform that is problematic almost every time I've used it).

From personal experience, I've found that the number of webinar attendees who actually participate in the polls is extremely low. So, you're right, a webinar poll may NOT be a representative sample of anything.

Confession: I multitask through a lot of webinars, too. Actually, I treat them more like podcasts and just listen to the audio.

Thanks for sharing your webinar experience with us! Have a great rest of the weekend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 09, 2016:

You highlighted my pet peeves -- the idle conversation, not starting and ending on time, and offering confusing or unworkable instructions about how to join in (pass codes that don't work). I also find that they tend to speak too slowly because a lot of times the slides reflect too closely what they are saying and I can read faster than they can say it. Too much voting bores me too because really what's the point? It's not a representative sample and we have no idea who else is listening in. I tend to like the legal HR webinars and often multitask through them.

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