Running Successful Webinars
Bringing Online Learning to Life
Imagine that your boss has asked you to train your team on a new process that the organization is rolling out. Your team members are spread out all over the world, and resources aren't available to fly them in for a training session.
One option is to create an online video, but you'd like everyone to participate in real time. The group work that you've planned will improve your team members' learning experience, and give people a chance to bond with one another.
In the end, you decide to use a webinar because it's easy to set up, it's inexpensive, and it addresses all of your other concerns.
Organizations often use webinars to train their teams, educate clients and engage with customers. But there's a lot that you should consider before you run one. In this article, we'll look at what you need to do to organize, prepare and deliver an informative, interesting and successful webinar.
Why Use a Webinar?
Webinars, also known as online or web conferences, are online learning events that happen in real time. Presenters stream information to participants using videos, images, text, and voice.
What sets webinars apart from virtual meetings or online learning sessions are the different interactive aspects that can be used. Audience members can communicate with one another or the presenters through instant messaging, and work together in online groups during the event.
Webinars have many features that encourage people to interact and engage in the activities, including:
- Slideshow presentations: presenters often use PowerPoint™ or equivalent to share content.
- Streaming video: viewers can watch the host present in real time.
- Text chat: participants can use instant messaging to ask presenters questions, or discuss topics with one another.
- Interactive whiteboards: these encourage brainstorming, collaboration and engagement by allowing viewers to add content or record ideas in real time.
- Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP): this technology delivers audio streaming during the session.
- Desktop or screen sharing: this allows users to view windows on the hosts' desktops. Presenters can even give control of their computers to specific participants.
- Recording: users can easily record webinars to revisit material after the event.
- Live testing: presenters can use polls and multiple-choice questions to ask questions, and gauge how much people are learning during the event.
- Analytics: some webinar platforms also use "engagement dashboards." These keep track of session time and allow presenters to see how many people have chatted or answered questions.
You can use webinars for hosting online training events, workshops, meetings, lectures, presentations, and organizational or industry-wide conferences. They are also effective for educating and engaging customers, vendors and suppliers.
Generally, webinars work best for sessions that last less than three hours. You can use them for longer events if you divide each section into blocks of two hours or fewer each day.
Webinars tend to be less effective for teaching hands-on skills, especially as it's hard to monitor students' performance and provide them with thorough feedback.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Webinars are useful for training virtual teams, and for organization-wide training. This is because they eliminate the need for long-distance travel, which saves time, money and resources. They can even shorten the length of training, because they are so time-efficient.
The interactive nature of webinars can turn learning into a highly creative and fun experience. The platform is flexible, which means that users can attend from anywhere – including work, home or a coffee shop – and they can use a variety of devices.
And because of the choice of tools and functionalities, webinars are useful for supporting a number of different learning styles.
However, there are also disadvantages.
First, despite the video and audio-streaming elements, participants may miss important body-language cues such as gestures, which can cause miscommunication and disengagement. Equally, presenters are unable to gauge users' reactions and change their approach accordingly, in the way that a trainer can do in a classroom environment.
Technical difficulties can also be challenging. Users with a slow internet speed or incompatible devices might not be able to access some of the webinar's tools or functions. Corporate firewalls might also make it difficult for people to download documents or view videos.
Trainers can control their own environment and limit distractions through the course of a learning event. But during a webinar, presenters have no influence over the suitability of the participant's environment. It's easy for users to multitask and not fully concentrate, or have their colleagues or family interrupt and divert their attention away from the presentation.
Live conferences and training events make it easy for people to connect with colleagues and industry professionals. However, the disadvantage of webinars is that these social opportunities are lost.
You have several options when it comes to choosing a webinar platform.
- Adobe® Connect™: This is a highly customizable, easy-to-use web conference platform with well-regarded customer and mobile support.
- Cisco WebEx®: This is one of the most established platforms on the market. It allows up to six video-conferencing feeds, and users don't have to install any plugins, add-ons or applications.
- Citrix™ GoTo Meeting: This is a simple platform for groups of up to 15 (unless you subscribe to the larger, but more expensive, corporate account).
- Fuze™: This is a newer platform that allows up to 10 video feeds. It works on all major mobile platforms.
Keep in mind that most platforms charge a monthly or yearly fee, based on the number of participants. This fee tends to range from $60 to $200 a month.
Most companies offer a 30-day free webinar trial, so get familiar with the top platforms by sampling their tools and capabilities ahead of time.
If you want to deliver a great webinar, make sure that you spend plenty of time preparing. Familiarize yourself with the webinar platform, so that you understand its functionality and are able to use it to its full potential on the day. This will help limit presentation nerves, ensure that your webinar is informative and smooth, and give users a great experience.
Think about your audience. How much do they know about this topic? What do they want to get out of the event? Plan to communicate these objectives early on, so that your participants understand what's to come.
Webinars are highly visual, so your presentation needs to be clear, appropriate and succinct. Because of this, you may want to use more slides than you would in a face-to-face meeting.
Be aware that when you click onto each slide, it may appear at a different time for each participant, depending on their Internet speed. With this in mind, don't go through the slides too quickly, and design your presentation in a way that does not rely heavily on slide timing.
Many webinar platforms have a feature that enables users to virtually "raise their hands" in response to questions. You can use this tool to get people to refocus, to gauge their participation, or to analyze their level of knowledge. You can also call on participants by name to answer questions.
Think carefully about how many participants to invite to your webinar. Although the format makes it easy to communicate with large numbers of people, this can become unwieldy if you want to use group work or play games.
When you're running a large session, always do a practice session beforehand. Invite five or 10 people to participate, and run through your entire presentation. This way you can troubleshoot any technical difficulties, and get feedback to help you improve ahead of the event.
As a presenter, consider working with a host – someone who handles the logistics off-screen. This means that you only have to focus on the presentation, rather than on any technical problems that may arise.
Also, why not ask a colleague to act as a "spotter"? They could attend the webinar as a participant to provide you feedback (by sending a direct message through the chat functionality) if anything goes wrong from an attendee's point of view.
One of the main differences with webinars compared with regular presentations is the lack of audience reaction: you may, at times, feel as if you're talking into a black hole! This is because you can't see your participants, or gauge their reaction to make sure that you're on the right track.
But one of the greatest advantages of webinars is the variety of tools and applications that are available to keep users engaged. So take advantage of them during your delivery!
If your audience is unfamiliar with the functionality of the webinar platform (such as chat, polling, online whiteboard, and "raised hand"), spend a few minutes explaining how they work – this will encourage participation.
It can sound unnatural if you read from a script, so write notes or prompts on the bottom of your slides to help you keep your place during the presentation. You could even put posters on the wall, to remind yourself to smile and maintain energy levels.
Dramatic pauses might be effective in face-to-face presentations, but attendees might be concerned that the sound has stopped working if you are quiet for too long during a webinar! Use micro-pauses, rather than long ones, instead.
Go slowly, especially when you present complex topics, and connect with your audience by speaking directly into the camera. Remember, people might ask you questions at any time by video, audio or chat, so check all of your feeds regularly.
Encourage interaction by sparking off group discussions. Explain that people need to unmute their phones or computers to participate. You can also use polling to start a conversation – for example, instead of presenting a fact or statistic, conduct a mini multiple-choice poll and ask audience members to guess the answer.
You can also have a group discussion using the chat option. To keep the conversation moving, read responses regularly, offer your opinion, and ask follow-up questions. Use people's names as much as possible to keep them focused and engaged. And always thank the audience members who get involved!
It's important to get audience feedback when the webinar finishes. This is the only way that you'll learn what worked, and how to improve for next time.
Some platforms come with an audience feedback tool. If yours does, encourage participants to use it at the end of the session. If it doesn't, ask people to email their comments, or conduct an online survey for anonymous responses.
Make sure that you act on the feedback to improve your performance next time.
See our articles on delivering great presentations, running successful meetings, managing conferences, conducting online training, and planning a workshop for specific strategies and advice on hosting these types of events.
Webinars are real-time meeting and learning experiences that take place online, allowing people to attend from different locations. You can use them for group training, sales presentations and marketing purposes.
To run a successful webinar, give yourself plenty of time to research and choose the right platform for your needs. Think about what you want to achieve, and incorporate variety into your presentation, so that you hold people's interest and accommodate different learning styles.
When delivering your presentation, go slowly. Keep your audience engaged by looking directly into your webcam, and ask questions to encourage participation. Always seek feedback after the event, so that you can improve your performance next time.