When executed well, webinars have the potential to be a fantastic marketing tool. Combining the benefits of direct interaction with your audience with the convenience of being able to do so in a rehearsed and scheduled manner from anywhere to a potentially global audience makes it a pretty unique channel.
But it’s certainly not one without potential pitfalls. As with any other marketing channel, a poor experience will leave audiences feeling let down and frustrated with your brand. The backbone of any webinar is the technology that it is being run on, so it’s absolutely imperative that you pick the right webinar platform for you.
Where it all started
The first webinar platform was called PlaceWare and launched back in 1996. Developed by Xerox PARC, PlaceWare allowed users to deliver presentations online, polling functionality, private chat, and the option to allow attendees to present. Look at the feature list of any modern webinar platform and these are all still present. But today, webinar platforms have a huge variety of additional features.
Advances in webinar software have been driven by demand (from both organizers and audiences) in line with increasing expectations and ever-accelerating developments in technology. As dial-up was replaced with broadband, and standard broadband with fiber, the additional bandwidth available opened further opportunities for live streaming, multiple feeds, and instant direct two-way interaction on whole new levels.
Webinars and the pandemic
Webinars have come a long way. The international lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic led to a sharp rise in organizations running webinars and similar online events.
For many, this was not a choice, but a decision taken out of their hands by circumstance. With face-to-face meetings and events often responsible for large proportions of the marketing budget (and also delivering huge amounts of ROI) there was a need for many businesses to drive the same benefits in order to stay relevant or even stay afloat, with but zero chance of being in the same room as one another. Enter webinars and virtual events.
Some organizations had previously undertaken webinars and virtual events and as a result, we're already aware of the options available to them, while for others this was a brave new world. And to a certain degree, the virtual event space become something of a new frontier, as tech and events companies alike (including Cvent) looked to quickly develop their virtual offerings to empower their clients as much as possible.
Where we are now
As a positive result, virtual event and webinar technology has come along some way in the last two years, which is certainly no bad thing.
Plenty of organizations have now felt the benefits of virtual events first-hand and are looking at integrating a virtual or hybrid event approach as part of their overarching events and marketing strategies.
Webinar technology – what to look for
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the key features and functionality you can now expect to enjoy as part of a webinar platform. Keep in mind, free webinar software is available.
If your experience with webinars is a few years out of date, your expectations may also be a little old school.
There was a time – not that long ago - when corporate webinar attendees wouldn’t actually see their hosts… at all. A webinar’s visuals would focus exclusively on a series of presentation slides, coupled with voice-over narration by the host(s). In today’s world of video calls, this seems almost unthinkable, certainly archaic.
But thankfully, times have changed. Having hosts showing their faces allows attendees to understand who they’re hearing from and connect on a more human level. With facial expressions and body language counting for so much in clear communication, having a video stream is a great way to bring some of this personality and engagement into your webinar and allow a deeper connection with your people and, by association, your brand.
What’s more, today you can offer that option out to your attendees as well, providing video feeds and again building that level of trust both ways. There may be limits to the number of people you can technically see at once, but to be able to interact in a face-to-face capacity while you’re sat on either side of the globe is a definite win for webinars.
One of the key areas that webinar technology has recently developed is in allowing organizers to customize and apply branding to the webinars they run. As we all know, building brand awareness and advocacy is often one of the key objectives – and is certainly one of the key benefits – to running events. Webinars are no different. Many webinars are based on delivering thought-leadership to an audience, thus associating your brand with that kind of positive and differentiating experience.
You could spend months planning your webinar’s content and developing a beautiful slide deck that perfectly demonstrates your insights and opinion… but when it comes to actually running the event if you have no control over the wrapper in which that will be shown to your audience, there’s every chance they’ll be distracted by how badly your brand colors clash with the webinar platform you’re using. Or confused as to why your invites look entirely different from any other communication they’d usually receive from you.
Thankfully branding options are now a feature in leading webinar platforms. To have control over customization allows organizers to ensure that every element is on brand, will support the content, and help build those consistent connections between brand and audience even more.
Segments and transitions
Keeping an audience engaged and actively listening throughout the duration of your webinar is vital in ensuring your message is really understood. One way that you can help achieve this is by breaking your content down into more manageable chunks. You can then switch up the delivery of each section, potentially using a different format of delivery (for example, from using slides to playing a video or to an open discussion) or changing presenters.
A good webinar platform will provide ways to effectively manage these sections and the transition from one to another. Being able to plan your segments in advance and then seamlessly transition from one to another allows the webinar to flow even in these moments of flux where otherwise you may be scrabbling to open additional programs or documents or having to ask other presenters to take over.
In addition to breaking your content down into manageable sections, consider breaking your audience down into smaller groups. Many webinar platforms now offer the option of virtual breakout rooms – separate “areas” where your attendees can be grouped for a separate discussion.
Whether this is based on a series of different messages that may be of varying degrees of interest depending on the attendee, or simply an opportunity to have an easier open discussion of the core webinar topic before coming back together again to share insights, break out rooms can provide a great change of pace and space to breathe and think. They also give your main presenters a chance for a mid-webinar break themselves, as you can assign different people to act as break-out room managers.
Webinars that offer the best two-way interaction between presenter and attendee will ultimately offer a greater experience.
By providing options for Q&A, polls, surveys, feedback, downloadable related content libraries, and more, you’re offering a wealth of options to your attendees. And as with any marketing, if you can offer a choice, you’re more likely to get better results from a broader range of your audience as, for example, some will prefer to get directly involved then and there while others will prefer to download your content and get in touch at a time that suits them.
The right technology will enable you to provide a range of options that could make the difference between a relatively interesting webinar and one that becomes unforgettable for attendees.
Integration = engagement
This is where the best webinars really stand head and shoulders above the rest. Events offer a huge data opportunity for organizations. Webinars are no different. In fact, being online can potentially provide additional ways to improve both the chance to know more about your audience and to then deliver them content that will really resonate.
Choosing webinar technology that offers direct integration with your existing technology stack is the first step in harnessing the real power of webinar data. It will allow you to ensure your webinars are targeting the right people and to understand your attendees as much as possible in advance.
Being able to then leverage that integration fully by closing the loop and bringing the valuable insights that webinars allow you to build about your audience back into your core database makes things really interesting!
If you can capture general insights from your audience about your webinars, then you can use that to refine your approach to running webinars in the future. How long attendees stayed, their engagement level, feedback during or post-webinar, and other data points around in-webinar activity is a great way to hone your technique and have confidence that you’re delivering webinars in the right way.
But more than this, the insights that you’re able to capture about individual attendees present a hugely powerful opportunity. If you can effectively capture information about each attendee - their demographics, interests, likes/dislikes and so on - then you have a chance to really harness that and build tailored, customized campaigns and become highly targeted in your approach. It gives you the capability to become much, much smarter, not just in webinars but across all your marketing activity, and ultimately provides a brand experience that speaks to each individual in a way best suited to them.
The data opportunity is one of the key benefits of running events and webinars… you just need to have the right technology in place and the focus and drive to best utilize that data once you have it.
There are plenty of options when it comes to webinar technology. Spending some time understanding the options available and how they could meet your current webinar needs is a good place to start. But also try to plan ahead and think big; if your first webinar vastly exceeds your objectives, perhaps you’ll have a chance to go even bigger and better next time around. And if that’s the case, you could need additional features that may seem surplus to requirement today.