‘We Need to Rethink What the Webinar Is’; 3 Experts Offer New Rules of Engagement 

“Audiences today come with a completely different set of expectations for when they come to a webinar with you,” said ON24’s Mark Bornstein. “They don’t expect a boring tutorial; they want to participate, interact and engage with you. They want to self-select through lots of different content, besides the presentation that you’re giving them, but they expect it to be approachable and they expect it to be human.”

The occasion was an AM&P Network Editorial Training Session on webinars. Another panelist, Haley Berling, senior manager, digital programs and events, GovExec, told us that the light went on for them during the pandemic when it came to the importance of creating riveting virtual events.

“Folks are showing up in smaller numbers in person, but they’re still showing up consistently online, so I would say, for hybrid events, we’re really taking a digital-first approach. It’s really important to still reintroduce that live component, because there is a need there, [though] in a smaller way. So we’re doing [in person] in a much more intimate and intentional way rather than casting a wide net to our whole network and just hoping 400 people show up, because that’s not necessarily the reality anymore. So as far as our hybrid events go, it’s definitely playing a part into our larger digital strategy.”

That strategy, along with the expertise of industry veterans Bornstein and Regina Harris, program director, Webvent, made for a value-packed webinar on webinars. For Bornstein, it’s a matter of changing the perception—after two-plus years of our sitting at home and getting Zoomed out.

“Webinars have evolved a lot over the last few years,” he said. “We need to rethink what the webinar is; a lot of people have a bad connotation in their head when you hear the word webinar. You think boring-talking PowerPoint where somebody is giving you endless slides and speaking in a robotic way… not an engaging experience. [But now] we’ve evolved to where webinars have really become experiences.”

Batting clean-up—if you consider moderator Matt Kinsman our first speaker—was Harris. And she does, calling the moderator “super important.”

“You would not imagine how effective it is to have a moderator who is experienced in that particular topic that we’re talking about,” Harris said. “Moderators can help connect the audience with the takeaway by preparing for a successful experience… A good moderator allows the speakers to pay attention to our presentations and do a great job and give our attendees what they need.”

Here are more takeaways from this event:

Practice makes perfect. “There are now 300 million experts, and I say that because, as a producer and as a host, I have so many people who come on as presenters and consider themselves an expert because they’ve been doing this all day, every day,” said Harris. “But it feels really, really good to do a practice session with every presenter that you have, regardless of the fact that they may say, ‘Hey I already know what I’m doing.’ Make sure that they’re familiar with the platform and where everything is. And also that they understand the flow of the presentation, who’s going to open it up, who’s going to speak when, and who is going to end it. Do you want the questions to be filtered throughout the presentation?” Practice is especially important as you get more global, she added. “When we brought in our first global client, we just figured we can do this. [But] it gets really rough when you’re over here in Central Standard Time, and you’re trying to do something for someone in China. You get really sleepy by midday the next day… We’ve just been able to be more visible with our webinars and our trainings.”

“Forget the word webinar; a webinar is an experience,” said Bornstein. “We tend to think of webinars as that thing you do every month to just get leads and that’s it, but now webinars are taking on all kinds of [roles]. They’re more like programs that you would see on TV. There are news style formats, where you’re just becoming the thought leader in your particular area. And we see movement from presentations to conversations—a lot of modern webinars have no slides at all. They’re just people talking to other people about things that matter to the people that are on the webinar.” He mentioned Thomson Reuters doing a cocktail-making class for their customers. “I recently participated in a game show webinar. My first big takeaway today is stop thinking about it through the lens of what we used to do in the past.”

Ch-ch-changes… “If there’s one thing to take away is the theme of evolution and constantly having to change,” said Berling. “We realized very quickly that translating live events to digital events is not a one-to-one translation. It is actually a completely different language you start to speak. Pre-pandemic, we had 2 webcast offerings—they were visually very sparse. So when I look back to those webcasts we used to do and compare them to what we do now, I think that was so cute. A lot of them, I would say about 50%, involved cameras and talking heads. A lot were simply slide presentations with some audio overlay and even a lot were just audio, which is kind of unheard of these days. Then we started to do our initial brainstorm. We shifted completely. We had to say, ‘What do people want? They’re lonely, they want to connect with each other, they want to access content. They want something different.”

Create a customer experience. “We created a new virtual experience,” Berling said. “We incorporated things like virtual and customer sponsor resource pages with interactive chat features In downloadable assets for our clients. We created a virtual press room and editorial resource library for our editorial staff. And then we built a simple theater digitally where users can easily consume the content within very intuitive, easy login experience and [more] chat… As a living resource hub of content of all types, and then a place where our VIP community could come and interact with us and each other, it was more of a digital experience. Over the course of the next six months we partnered with some fabulous partners and actually built and developed that event site into our own internal virtual event platform that we could easily deploy for multiple events.”

Target. “We see people creating executive-only webinars where maybe they’re inviting an analyst to come and speak for a few moments, and then bringing everybody into a breakout room—where it’s a much smaller audience or a more targeted audience, or maybe it’s by specific industry type,” Bornstein said. “We see more discussion-based webinars where you get a little bit of presentation and then maybe everybody comes on camera and does a conversation for a smaller group of people.”

Include a handout. We usually think of handouts more for in–person events, but Harris encourages giving attendees “a one-pager, a fact sheet—something to take away. Each time I review my survey results, the number one [piece of] feedback is, ‘I would have liked some type of handout so that I can write notes for each slide that you go through,’” Harris said. “So think about that as you put together [your webinar]. The handout would be in addition to a PDF of the slides. Because we are in this virtual world, they kind of walk away empty handed if you don’t give them something outside of having them go back to view the recording and do [the] fast forward [thing trying to get to the content that they’re trying to get to…”

Engage. “The goal of the webinar is all about engagement,” Bornstein said. “The webinar is basically bringing people together in a space to connect and to communicate, but also to engage—and we need to if you really want to deliver a modern webinar… The more they engage the more you learn about them and the more effectively you’ll be able to connect with them to train them, to close them, to upsell them, whatever it is. We can do Q&As at the end of a webinar, but also we can be pushing out polls, surveys. We can have CTAs integrated into the webinar experience. We can be driving them to all kinds of different content in lots of different ways.”

Be an architect. “We give people lots to do in the experience and that’s how you need to think about it,” Bornstein said. “What can I enable my audience to do, besides just watch my presentation?” GovExec thought this way as well and started focusing on how and where they can produce high-level video content. “We constantly in our production were drawing on examples of TV network and news networks saying, ‘Oh, what if we could do stuff like that,’” Berling said. “So for the past year or so we’ve been really dipping our toes into producing TV programs [and] taking those TV programs on the road following trade shows that have started to come back into the market. We’ve also been working on producing different types of video content like teaser videos, quick-hit commercials and explainer videos that are all short snack content.”


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