Between old and new media in the B2B world, there is a class that might be called middle-aged media: e-mail newsletters, webinars, and digital magazines. Though digital in nature, they have been in use for years and are starting to show their age. Like print, they will always have some role to play, but their glory years are fast receding. So as a savvy new-media type, should you write them off as tools for the future? Not quite yet—if you’re willing to try some radical surgery, at least.
What brought this topic to mind was a webinar on digital magazines earlier this week. Although I signed up to learn what the future might hold for digital magazines, my focus ended up elsewhere. For most of the presentation, I was thinking instead about the future of webinars, and how they might be made more effective in the age of social media.
The reason behind this train of thought wasn’t any particular problem with the webinar. It was as good as virtually every other one I’ve sat through. But there is the root of the problem: one webinar seems just like another. A robust medium, like print or video, should allow, if not promote, innovation and creativity, and hence diversity. Most Webinars don’t.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing inherently restrictive in the technology of webcasting (of which a webinar is one specific type) that should impede creativity. The problem lies in the way this type of webcasting is typically implemented.
So here are three radical ideas for making webinars more relevant in today. I make no claim that these are practical ideas. Having sat on both sides of the screen, whether as producer, organizer, or moderator, or as an attendee, I understand the daunting nature of the hurdles.
1. Improve interactivity. Admittedly, live, in-person seminars aren’t always more dynamic or diverting than their Web counterparts. But they often are. One reason is that the audience and the other speakers are at hand to interact with one another. You can tell when the audience is restless or attentive, you know when your jokes work or not, and it’s easy, if not always welcome, for audience members to interrupt.
Standard webinars make some effort to increase interactivity by including audience polls and encouraging the submission of questions, but they fall well short of the standard set by live seminars. There are ways, however, to get closer to the in-person feel.
First, and perhaps simplest, the speakers can interact more with each other. When introducing a speaker, for example, a moderator can converse with the speaker, rather than just read a bio. And the speakers should be encouraged to refer to each other’s presentations, and ask questions during the presentation, not just at the end.
Second, the audience should be given ways to interact with each other. Some Webinar systems allow for chat rooms; these should always be turned on for the audience. Even better, perhaps, would be tying in with a real-time social media tool like Twitter. During this week’s webinar, I was the only one twittering about it, as far as I could tell. How interesting would it have been to find others talking about it too?
Finally, there should be more ways for the audience to interact with the speakers beyond submitting questions and answering polls. Tools that gauge interest level (by registering when attendees are multitasking on their computers) help, but are too primitive to be really effective.
One possibility might be to allowing direct messaging to speakers by audience members—the equivalent of interrupting an in-person presentation. Yes, it might be distracting, but it might also make the presentations more relevant and coherent.
Chat rooms could serve a similar purpose. This is a common feature of tech podcasts like This Week in Tech or Buzz Out Loud, where the speakers often use chat room participants to correct mistakes or fill in gaps in real-time.
2. Escape from PowerPoint. One of the reasons Webinars are so resistant to improvements and increased interaction may be that they are based on an even creakier, more inflexible format, the PowerPoint slide presentation. All too often, slides just serve as rigid scripts for what each presenter will say. Those speakers get so wrapped up in advancing the slides and making sure the right one is on the screen that asking them to pay attention to the audience as well would simply add insult to injury.
What can be done to overcome the tyranny of PowerPoint? Here’s where things get truly radical. You could ask presenters to come up with slides that are more visually compelling, with key data and images instead of outlines of their talks.
OK, not very realistic, I admit. But an alternative approach would be for the producing editor to collect all the slides, toss out all the bullet points, and rearrange the remaining graphics and visuals into a logical sequence. Then each presenter, rather than speaking for 15 minutes straight, would come into and out of the conversation as his or her slides and topic came up.
Am I still dreaming? Then let’s try this: For each presentation, have the moderator or another speaker walk through the slides with the presenter. The moderator controls the slides and prompts the speaker, optionally providing feedback and questions from the audience.
How hard would it be to make these kinds of changes in a typical B2B publishing environment? Very hard indeed. But the point is that the problem lies not with the technology or the medium, but with the habits and expectations that surround it.
3. Take ownership of the medium. One reason that remaking the format of webinars seems so unlikely is that few if any publishers have embraced it as a format and adapted it to their needs. Until they regard the webinar as a primary medium and not just a collateral source of revenue, it isn’t likely to evolve into something more dynamic.
In theory, the vendors who supply the technology could drive innovation, but the payback for a unilateral effort isn’t there. It is surely more profitable to have a standard, mass-producible format that can be easily sold and implemented. As customers in search of easy-to-use, prepackaged solutions, publishers simply reinforce this tendency. Throw in a third element—sponsors with a marketing interest in the subject and a fear of risk-taking—and the options get even more limited.
If, however, a publisher were to treat webinars as a primary medium, improvements like the ones discussed here, and others I haven’t thought of, would quickly follow. Rather than passively adapt to a technology they are handed, a staff that saw webinars not as an unwanted burden but as a core part of their jobs would actively change that technology to suit their needs.
If nothing else, I hope this post has persuaded you that there are rewards yet to be mined from a seemingly unhip format. Webinars may be middle-aged, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be vibrant participants in the new-media world.
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