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Webinar Round-Up: Results of Survey and Resources for Successful Webinars

Webinarscreen A client of mine is wondering about people's experiences with webinars and how well they work as training tools, so last week I ran a reader survey to get your feedback.

Webinar Survey Results
Twelve people completed the full survey. Unfortunately another 27 started, but abandoned it, so my survey sample is pretty small. Nonetheless, I still wanted to share what they reported.

Participant Background
Participants were mostly split between business and nonprofits, with a few coming from the edublogging world. The majority (75%) had participated in more than 4 webinars, so this was a group that has had some experience.

Responses to Webinar Experiences
Most (54.55%)  thought that webinars are OK as a training medium, but they prefer face-to-face. I'm not sure if this is because they NEED face-to-face or because their experiences with webinars have been less than wonderful.

Thirty-three percent 33% said that webinars were an effective way for them to learn "sometimes," with another 25% indicating that it was "usually" a good way for them to learn.

The greatest webinar frustration was "lack of interactivity" (58.3%), followed by "quality of the content" (41.67%). A few had issues with the quality of the technology and the assistance they received in using it to access the webinar.

What They Like Most/Least About Webinars
For survey participants, the benefits of webinars included:

  • Easy sign-up and participation.
  • Reduced travel costs and the general convenience of not having to travel.
  • That they are often free.
  • That you can access people and contents that you might not otherwise be able to experience.

The downsides of webinars were:

  • They usually consist of someone reading PowerPoint slides, which means that often, they are not engaging. As one respondent indicated, "Presenters seem to feel that because they aren't visible they don't need to prepare as much as they would for a face-to-face event, and they don't seem to adjust their delivery or content to fit the audio/web delivery method."
  • It's too easy to multi-task and move on to other activities. 
  • Few opportunities to ask questions or to interact with other participants.

The basic message I got was this: The things that make face-to-face events deadly dull seem to be amplified in the webinar world. This means you have to work even harder to keep online training sessions engaging and interesting for participants. Not that this is news, of course, but it underscored both my own experiences and what I've heard from others.

What Do Webinar Participants Want?
So what do webinar participants want from the experience?

It needs to be engaging. They want interactivity with both the presenter and each other. Ideally, they'd have photos of the other participants or some other way to be able to identify and "meet" who's there. At a minimum, they'd like to be able to "meet" the presenter.

They like polls and chat features, but they need to be used to foster a sense of connection to the presenter, to each other and to the content. They can't be used as gimmicks just because they are there.

This really isn't rocket science. What people like in their "in-person" events is what they they want to see in a webinar. This seems like it's easier said than done, though.

Resources for Making Your Webinars Better
One of my main reasons for taking a closer look at all of this is because I'm going to be running a few webinars in January and February and I'm looking for ways to improve the quality of that experience. As promised, here are some webinar resources that I'm finding helpful.

  • Susan Smith Nash, the "E-Learning Queen" has some good ideas on how to improve the learning aspect of webinars. 
  • From the National Corporation for National and Community Service, here's a great webinar planning checklist and set of tips. Scroll to the bottom for links to additional materials. Note that much of this is related to logistical and technological issues, but still useful.

I'm looking for others, so please feel free to share with me any suggestions you have.

Some Additional Questions
As I'm delving more deeply into developing a webinar, I'm coming up with more questions/thoughts.

  • Having never presented a webinar before, is there something I'm missing about how the technology works that makes it less effective to have interactivity? Is it because of the size of the groups? Is it the fact that you don't actually see people and have them to respond to, so you need to keep filling the space with your own voice?
  • Why don't presenters make better use of the medium? Why aren't they using video to add to the message and break things up? Why don't they have more visuals, tell more stories?
  • Why does every webinar I've ever participated in hold the questions until the end? Again, is there something about how the technology works that makes this necessary? Or is this just a hold-over from how so many trainers end up structuring their presentations.

I suspect that I won't get real answers to these questions until I actually run a webinar. I'd love to hear from presenters to get their side of the experience. If you've been a webinar presenter, how have you been able to make your webinars more engaging or interesting?

UPDATE--Be sure to read the comments section. Some great advice and resources from some experienced webinar presenters!


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One of the problems with interactivity may be the size of the audience. I've attended a number of webinars with 100+ participants, and the sheer logistics tends to lend itself to people treating it as a lecture in a large hall. I've seen this handled well when there's a lively backchannel chat going, as long as there's a separate moderator to monitor the chat so the presenter can focus on presenting.

I've seen technology and bandwidth issues completely derail webinars, especially with larger groups. I actually attended one webinar in Adobe Connect where we were asked to stop using the chat function because having too many of us typing took up so much bandwidth that the audio stopped. Of course, what happens every time the audio drops out? A half dozen people posted that they lost sound. International groups are problematic too; the bandwidth just simply isn't steady and reliable enough to have a consistent experience. Then again, even with our team of 4 people, all in the US, we have problems keeping Skype audio for a whole hour meeting and sometimes have glitches in Connect with screen sharing. It's certainly better with a small group than a large group, but this technology is not at all mature. Outside of our team meetings, I think there are technical difficulties with at least 75% of the webinars I attend, even with professionals who are prepared.

The technology and bandwidth issues may be part of the reason behind the lack of interactivity and multimedia. If the bandwidth can barely handle audio and PowerPoint slides, there's no way video can be done effectively unless you only have a handful of people. Elluminate also only converts static PowerPoint slides; any animations are lost. You could do animations if they were posted elsewhere online and used a web tour, but that's another level of complexity. Even with just static slides though, you're absolutely right that the visuals could be used much more effectively.

If a presenter is doing the webinar alone without a moderator to watch the chat, it makes more sense to hold questions until the end, or at least until set pauses. It's too much for one person to handle otherwise. I think you're right that it's partly habit though.

Just my observations from attending a lot of webinars in the last year. :)

I think Christy has covered everything about the shortcomings of the online platform for webinars.
Frankly I am frustrated by the fact that our grasp is still exceeding our reach. Is that the eternal cry of the pioneer?

I attended a webinar live demo recently and was mightily irritated by audio drop outs, stuttering video and other assorted tech glitches. Many of the participants voted with their feet half way through, and this was a group of Higher Ed lecturers. Admittedly, we're not the most patient bunch, but we had gone there to be inspired and learn. Most are now muttering that they'll be back when the technology works.

On another point, and I think you know I'm very strong on personal presence. I've ranted about poor presentations elsewhere and to anyone who will listen. You know, when the slides are read and the personal gets entirely swamped by the medium ... and the slides are poorly designed, and rant, rant!

What to do about this? Learn how to design and give a good live or web-mediated presentation. Rehearse your show! Use video with the presenter in it where possible ... talk to us, and show us a human face if only in a P in P way. Is there technology for this? And pray for higher bandwidth, accessibility and the whole darned thing.

Hmm, just read back the above. Should that be "reach exceeds our grasp" It's been a long weekend at the keyboard!

Thanks for your great comments, Christy and Kate.

Christy--re: the number of participants, based on what I've seen, too, there's a tendency to use the medium as a way to reach a LOT of people, like a keynote speech, rather than small group activities. Personally, I'd rather do it with a smaller group of people to allow for greater interactivity, but I'm not sure that my client will want to limit the number of participants. At the same time, how effective is it if you let a lot of people "attend" and none of them are really happy with the experience? In that case, I'd rather just do a tutorial and send it out to people.

And Kate, you know I hear you on poor design, which obviously is partially related to where technology is at right now. At the same time, I believe that live large group training sessions aren't particularly helpful or useful, I don't think they're the answer online, either. Should we be blaming the technology or should we be blaming the design? I think it's the latter, myself. In my mind it would be far more effective to run several webinars for smaller groups to maximize people's satisfaction with the process, rather than to run one large one that most people hated.

Thank you very much for mentioning the post on E-Learning Queen! I appreciate the link. Would you be interested in being interviewed for that blog? I've started an new series of interviews...

Thank you again.
Susan Smith Nash (the Corgi... i'm not the queen... the reader is the queen)

Thank you very much for mentioning the post on E-Learning Queen! I appreciate the link. Would you be interested in being interviewed for that blog? I've started an new series of interviews...

Thank you again.
Susan Smith Nash (the Corgi... i'm not the queen... the reader is the queen)

Thank you very much for mentioning the post on E-Learning Queen! I appreciate the link. Would you be interested in being interviewed for that blog? I've started an new series of interviews...

Thank you again.
Susan Smith Nash (the Corgi... i'm not the queen... the reader is the queen)

Interesting. I actually almost did not read this post properly because you were talking about webinars because we call them virtual classrooms. Now I am very experienced with virtual classrooms.

First question would be which application will you be using - Abode Connect, Elluminate? Or other - this will make a big difference to how you can use it. Will give feedback when receive your response.

Hi Michelle,

A couple thoughts on this... I've been conducting a lot of both webinars and in person workshops, and there's no getting around that it's much, much harder to do a compelling webinar. But fundamentally, the issues are the same, they're just more pronounced - if you have a semi-boring in-person session, it's going to be really, really boring in webinar format. But if you have a terrific in-person session, it's likely to be good online, but you're still going to have to work harder to try to keep people engaged.

Interactivity is the really hard part. You can't see people to understand who's with you and who's not, and people are more hesitant to ask questions than they would be in person. You really have to encourage people to ask questions. You can't effectively do discussions with more than 6 or 7 people (a telephone line free for all doesn't work), and breakout/ group work isn't feasible, at least with the technologies I've been using. This means that you need to be more clever with exercises. I've had some success with asking people to type answers to discussion questions or exercises (for instance, to critique something) into the chat. It feels a little artificial to me, but people do it, and have good thoughts, so I figure it at least keeps people engaged. The tool we use (ReadyTalk) won't allow participants to publish chat messages to everyone else, so that's a limitation for this method. It also doesn't support polls, which I'd like to experiment with.

We cap our webinars at 22 people. Much more than that, and you can't keep up with questions - so you should expect that it's a talking head session. To me, asking people to hold questions to the end is a crutch because you're not setup to deal with them during the course of the seminar (which is hard, and will require a second person unless you get really good at it). It's easier to do, but much less useful for participants.

Just to point out the obvious, if the webinar is free, and there's 80 people on the line, you should expect something less personalized. Somehow people seem to feel this is the fault of the webinar medium rather than the nature or the quality of the session. And boring in person is really really boring in a webinar.

I haven't solved the problem of introducing participants to each other. If there's less than 10-12 people, we ask people to introduce themselves on the line. But more than that, and it begins to feel like an endless role call and people complain about the time it takes up. A shared chat might be a good way to get around this. I do always use photos of the speakers, which I feel helps to at least ground people as to who's talking.

At the end of the day, I try to mix what limited interactivity I can come up with with solid content and interesting visuals (never just bullet points and clip art), and people seem generally happy with our (non-free) webinars. Video is worth experimenting with, but the few times I've seen it used the bandwidth of the webinar tool wasn't sufficient to really effectively see it.

To my mind, the technology is there for audio/ static visuals as long as the person conducting has an adequate internet connection and your participants are primarily in the same country- but you have to not try to cut corners by using really cheap services. You get what you pay for. At the low end, there's technical issues. At the high end, you have features that can be really helpful for interactivity like break out rooms, good polls, etc.

Okay I have not used the application you are going to use however I recommend that you do some practice sessions using it to work out what will work with it and what won't. There is a big difference in how I use interactivity in Elluminate vs Adobe Connect based on the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The other thing to watch out for is every participant going to be online, on their own computer, or are they going to be in one conference room (e.g. presenting to say 20 people but you only see one person online). That also changes how you do your presentation. Not being able to read their body language is the tough part of presenting online. If you are presenting in a conference situation I get the organisers to take a photo of the participants and upload to Flickr (or somewhere) prior to the presentation so I have a feel of the room and some awareness of their ability (e.g. if see lots of computers going know their skill level normally higher than if none). I will also ask them to grab one person to photograph and/or video during the session and upload as happening -- massive help.

You still need to build in the who are you and who are they. Must include a photo of yourself -- just like blogging they have to relate to you as a real person or less likely to interact. Most experienced will ask participants to type in chat area their location (and sometime weather, occupation, organisation) -- for two reasons to make sure they are able to use the lowest form of communication and as an icebreaker. They will chat to the participants as these are added.

Normal rule is interaction at least every four slides.

Now for homework you really need to watch some Lance Dublin webinars (http://sas.elluminate.com/site/external/event/playback). I also recommend Ruth Clark's Leveraging the Virtual Classroom (https://sas.elluminate.com/site/external/recording/playback/link/meeting.jnlp?suid=M.080C94BA835C29C288B99F73FF25C6). Be patient while they load - just do something else while waiting. Sorry this is the recorded session of her original session (which had problems) but if you have an opportunity to watch how she works with a group of participants - do so - she is really good at engaging people.

PS when we talk interactivity - I have had up to 70 people and been totally interactive teaching them how to embed video in websites (where the participants actually had to embed video). Another session I have made them stand up, in a conference scenario, and vote with hands on heads etc. You are only limited by your imagination :)

Thanks Typepad for deleting URL links -- really nice (NOT)

Michele - Thanks for these resources, the NTEN one was most helpful for me. I wish I'd had them when I did my webinar a few weeks ago on nonprofit job searching! I really underestimated the barriers the technology caused, both for me and participants. We had about 15-20 people. I really missed the interactivity and seeing people's body language and felt it hampered my ability to meet everyone's needs. We used Gotomeeting and held questions until the end, and folks were allowed to submit questions throughout in the chat. I purposely left a lot of time for questions at the end, hoping for a rich discussion of individuals'issues they were dealing with, but folks were reluctant to ask questions, oddly though they stayed on the webinar until the end.

I think I will definitely use Sue's rule of "interaction at least every four slides" next time to ensure that everyone gets what they want out of it. I meant for the Powerpoint to act as a guide for the webinar, not to just present and let that be the end of it!

Wow! Thanks everyone for your great advice and comments! I have to say that the more I read this stuff, the more nervous I get about doing this, but it will be just another challenge, right? I may have to rescind my catty webinar liveblogging post, though. It sounds like this may be a lot harder than I think. . .

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