No…. a webinar isn’t an accessory for your kid’s Batman costume. It’s a way to host meetings and seminars over the Internet without all the hassles. And it’s getting easier and cheaper all the time.
“If you’re anything like me, you enjoy learning new things. And I always say that if you learn even one new thing from a seminar or educational program, you’re doing pretty well. That being said, it’s still a hassle to cut a three-hour chunk out of your day for a one-hour program, which is often what we have to do. By the time you un-park your car, drive to the event, re-park, get settled, wait for things to get started, do the actual “stuff,” re-un-park, drive back, re-re-park and get back to the office, it’s like a little mini-sick-day just for a one-hour lecture. If the event is out of town… forget about it. You really have to ration those suckers.
And I’ve been on the “giving end” of this equation, too, having been involved in event preparation in both the retail and professional service worlds. The planning and set-up for a one or two-hour event can take days and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. On top of the content of the program itself, you need to plan for invitations, facilities, parking, food and coffee service, materials, A/V, hand-outs, name-tags, RSVPs… all kinds of stuff. And if you want to get clients or prospects to come in from out of town… forget about it.
The nice thing about live meetings is that they’re just that… live. Nothing substitutes for an opportunity to get some face-time with your clients and prospects and really dig into issues. A half-day or full-day meeting, an off-site program with your employees, a golf-outing with your vendors… these are great ways to build and maintain relationships.
But there’s a whole class of meetings that just begs for a more efficient, inexpensive way of doing business. That “way” is now here, and it’s called a “webinar.”
Dial-up, sign-in, and you’re done
“Webinar” is short-hand for “web seminar” or “web based seminar.” You may also hear it called “web conferencing.” The basic idea is similar to conference calling, and is usually combined with that technology as well. Although there are many applications or programs that can be run during a webinar, the most basic is often a shared presentation, a la PowerPoint.
Probably the easiest way to describe a webinar is to, well, just describe one. I’ll use the example of a training session developed by the law firm of Periwinkle & Herring to help provide insight into some new tax laws for their clients and “friends of the firm” (read: prospective clients):
1. Before the event, the presenter, John J. Herring, develops his presentation in PowerPoint.
2. Their marketing director, Ernest Noble, sends invitations to the appropriate clients and prospects. The invitations include the date and time of the event, indicate it will be a webinar, but don’t provide specific connection details; these will be given only to those who respond positively
3. Two days before the event, Mr. Noble sends connection information to those who have indicated that they will “attend” the event. He provides four things to each attendee:
A toll-free phone number for the audio portion of the program A numerical pass code for the audio portion of the program A website address for the web/video portion of the program A password for the web/video portion of the program
4. At some point before the event, Mr. Herring “uploads” his PowerPoint presentation to the service provider that is hosting the web/video portion of the program. This can be a self-serve process, or can be done by an employee of the host. We’ll cover the “levels” of service available in the next section.
5. The day of the event, Mr. Herring dials into the toll-free number as the “host” of the event. This is often done by simply entering a “host” pass code. He then logs onto the website address for the web/video portion of the event, enters his host password, and starts the event.
6. The attendees for the event call in and log in and enter their “user” passwords.
7. The attendees can now hear Mr. Herring on their phones via the conference call link, and can see his PowerPoint slide presentation on their screens. He has control over the presentation and can move forward and back as appropriate.
That’s it. Nobody has to leave their desks, park, worry about traffic, book a room, deal with the surly concierge or use more time than is absolutely necessary. In fact, since attendees lines are usually muted, you can take calls, nosh on a bagel or yodel throughout the webinar if you’re into that kind of multi-tasking.
Cheap as heck – Compared to real meetings. You can get good webinar hosting for as little as 20-25 cents per minute, per participant. So an hour-long meeting for 10 people would cost $150. If half of those people are lawyers who charge $150/hour, and they save even 15 minutes each in hassle, they’ve already made up $37.50. I’m betting that more of those people are lawyers, that they charge more, and that they save more time. You do the math. More efficient – Going over documents on the phone involves lots of saying, “What page are we on now?” If you’re all looking at the same thing, it goes much faster. Fast = good in lawyer-land, if I remember correctly. More options – You’d never try to get clients to attend a one-hour training seminar from out-of-state. But a webinar? No problem. What about training your employees on the new HMO your firm just signed up for? Are you going to bring everyone in from all the offices? Don’t bother. Do it on a webinar. What about training the first-year associates on how to use the document tracking system? Ditto. Webinar. Let them do it at their desk. Saves time. Then they can get back in the harness.
Coach, business and first class versions
I like to keep things simple. Simple and inexpensive. That’s me all over. I use a web conferencing service called Infinite Conferencing and, as I’m pretty pleased with them, I’ll put in a free plug. I prefer a program called “reservationless” conferencing. What that means is that I have permanent host/guest passwords assigned to my account for both voice and web. Any time I want to hold a webinar, all I have to do is go to their website, sign in as a host and click on “start.” Then anyone I invite can log-in as a guest with my guest password and they’re looking at my latest presentation. Same thing for the audio.
I use it for training seminars and for client meetings where I’m sharing visuals. Since their audio rate is pretty good, I also use the voice-only option for audio conferences with more than one party. It’s all billed to my credit card and every event – whether web+audio or audio alone – is summarized in an email to me. If it’s a re-billable event, I often just attach that email to the bill I send to my clients.
So that’s coach. The simple melding of a conference call and a shared PowerPoint presentation on the web. That alone is a pretty powerful experience. But there’s more. Here are some other features you can add. Some of these you’ll pay more for, some are simply more complicated and require you to learn a few tricks before heading out into webinar land.
Application sharing – This is a two-way experience for the participants. Instead of just watching you plow your way through a PowerPoint, all or some of the participants can work on a document with you. This is, I hear, especially helpful for lawyers. The logistics will work differently for different providers, but imagine it as a document where control can be “handed” from one participant to another, or to multiple people at one time.
Participant polling – This is fun, and is often a free feature. Simply put, you put a polling question in your presentation. In many applications the attendees can see real-time results as soon as they enter their response. The bar graphs go up and down, pie charts shrink and grow… it’s a real thrill.
Video streaming – For people with fast web connections, you can do with video what we just talked about with PowerPoint. Not so complicated to imagine, but it often comes with some headaches in terms of bandwidth, stutter, etc. I’m not currently recommending this to my clients, but give it a shot if you like risk and look really, really good as a stammering, blurry, static-filled glitch-of-a-blob.
Operator assisted conferencing – This is a cool way to concentrate on your presentation and seem like a big shot. There are various levels of assistance available, including having a host who announces and introduces you, and operator who takes your attendees names and information (rather than having them punch in their codes), etc. The operator can also lock and unlock individual phones to take questions from attendees and then email them to the presenter, or even speak them to the presenter in “whisper mode” so that the audience doesn’t hear. Very James Bond. Also expensive.
Web tours – If you want to show clients or employees a bunch of content scattered all over the web, don’t send them a list of site names, take them on a tour during a webinar.
Record & Playback – This is especially nice training sessions. Record both the audio and video portions of your webinar and let people play the files at a future date. Some services allow users to play the webinar back over an Internet connection some require folks to order a CD-ROM.
It’s your web… start acting like it
The Internet isn’t just powerful because of the vast amount of information available. It’s powerful because of its ubiquity. Everyone has access to the web. Not using it as a two-way communication tool is like not using the phone when you want to talk with people. Yelling is lots of fun, but it’s just not as efficient. Webinars provide many helpful, compelling ways to interact with clients, prospects, employees and colleagues. Competition among vendors has driven prices way down, the technology has come a long way in the last few years, and it’s really very easy to use.
Host a webinar soon and show your constituents that you’re not just surfing the web, but master and commander of the electronic waves.