‘Webinar’ has become a dirty word. For many, it conjures 10 minutes of introductory ‘housekeeping’ followed by a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation and, if you’re lucky, 5 minutes of Q&A. Unfortunately, lackluster learning experience is still the standard webinar offering.
To avoid this stereotype and attract an audience, organizations now call their webinars all kinds of names: panels, summits, forums, seminars, symposiums, live streams, and so on. But the problem isn’t the name, it’s what we’ve learned to expect from a webinar.
Most people are too easily distracted and Zoom-fatigued to endure listening to a long presentation. They can watch a presentation on their own time if all they seek is information. If they’re going to block an hour on their schedule, they want a learning experience that involves interacting and connecting with others—an experience worth their time and attention.
How to improve your association’s webinars
Webinars are changing, thanks to innovations and lessons that emerged during the pandemic. When reimagining your association’s webinars, start here with these ideas.
Design and format
ON24 suggests asking, “What does my audience want from this event?” Information, best practices, case studies, yes, they want that. But what else?
• Earn credits?
• Practice what they’re learning?
• Connect with peers?
• Ask an expert questions?
• See something in action?
You’ll have to ask them to know for sure.
Most experts compare the ideal webinar to a TV morning news show. Aim for a mix of experiences so the audience doesn’t get bored. An interview format is more interesting than a solo presentation because of the back-and-forth between the expert and moderator.
Big Marker suggests breaking a webinar into two parts with a Q&A every 20 minutes instead of one long Q&A session at the end. This will “give people a break and let them reset.”
Ideally, never let a speaker talk continuously for more than ten minutes at a time or else people will zone out and check their emails or notifications. Break up presentations with polls, Q&As, upvoting questions, chat box activity, and/or breakout room exercises or discussions—activities that encourage attention, conversations, and connections.
Schedule optional 15-minute networking sessions for attendees before and after the webinar.
Don’t assume presenters know how to design an effective adult learning experience—that’s not their expertise. You must get involved in webinar design if you want attendees to stay engaged throughout the program.
Panels can hold an audience’s attention as long as you pick panelists with differing opinions or approaches. But you still need to build in activities for the audience so they can keep their brain engaged too.
All these improvements are for naught if you mess up at the start. On the ASAE Collaborate forum, a member described a webinar she attended with four panelists and a moderator. “We were 15 minutes+ into the webinar before the content started.” What a way to disrespect an audience.
Please don’t waste your audience’s time by reading each presenter’s bio. Send the info out in the confirmation email, so you can assume they’ve already read it. You can also link to that information in the chat box.
Don’t spend more than two minutes on the intro and usual housekeeping information. Put it on slides as people join and periodically post it in the chat box. Start on time and get to the content in one or two minutes.
Session length has always been a challenge. Big Marker learned from their webinar engagement data that “almost half (44%) of attendees prefer that events run for 45 minutes... Another 41% of attendees believe that 30 minutes is the ideal runtime for a webinar.”
They also found that attendee engagement drops after the 30-minute mark, so they recommend you limit presentation-style content to 20-30 consecutive minutes.
Convince & Convert argues for ten-minute webinars. People are more likely to make time for them and to watch the recording if they can’t attend. Plus, you can easily repurpose the recording for content marketing. Experiment with different durations for different market segments and see what works best for your audience.
One complaint about long webinar intros is the time given to sponsor recognition. When sponsorships allow associations to host free or inexpensive webinars, sponsors deserve recognition, but there’s a better way to handle sponsorship.
Corporate partnership consultant Bruce Rosenthal said on Collaborate: “Sponsor recognition is not of value to most companies. Many sponsors are interested in being positioned as thought leaders, and they have a wealth of useful information for association members.” He suggests giving sponsors the opportunity to be on the webinar faculty instead of boring attendees with a sales pitch at the beginning and end of the webinar. “It's better for companies (and members) if the companies educate to sell... not sell to educate.”
Choose webinar moderators who have enough knowledge to ask follow-up with questions that elicit useful details and examples. Assign another moderator to the chat box to answer technical and administrative questions, and bring interesting points and questions for the speaker to the webinar moderator’s attention.
Vet speakers. If you don’t know them, ask for a recording of previous webinars or sessions, or ask for references. Find out how familiar they are with online learning principles. Ask for their presentation in advance so you have enough time to intervene if it doesn’t comply with your requirements for interactivity.
Many webinar experts recommend scheduling a practice run and creating a Run of Show (timed outline) of the presentation so the webinar runs smoothly.
You’ll attract a bigger audience if you focus marketing on people who have demonstrated an interest in the topic or speaker, either in their previous attendance, interest inventory, behavioral data (email/website), or demographic data (position, specialty, knowledge level/career stage).
Virtual event platforms offer a slew of attendee data you can use to plan the design and marketing of future events, learning programs, and content, such as:
• Who attended
• What time people joined, what time they left, and total time in attendance
• Text in the chat box and questions
• Post-event survey data
Follow-up and repurposing
Webinar attendees are warm leads for membership recruitment (and retention), online education, virtual events, publications, and other association products and services. Your relationship with them is just getting started. Now that you know something about their interests, follow up with related content, both free and paid, so they see the association as a resource on that topic. Mark their records in your AMS or CRM so they’re automatically included in marketing for related events in the future.
Don’t waste good webinar content. Repurpose it by:
• Including the webinar—edited, broken into modules, or in its entirety—in courses, industry introductory programs, certificate or digital badge programs, and/or learning pathways.
• Selling the recording on its own or including it in a curated content bundle.
• Using it for marketing membership or other programs.
When designed well, webinars have great potential as a social learning experience. But first you have to get away from bad webinar habits and focus instead on what the learner most needs in that moment.