By Dean Whittaker

In June, the Whittaker Associates team presented three webinars, seminars that take place online with “attendees” watching on-screen all over the country. We found the experience exhilarating and worthwhile, if a bit surreal. Attendees seemed to enjoy the experience as well, judging by the Q&A; session and the follow-up survey results, and. their savings in time and travel budgets goes without saying. Presenting via webinar poses interesting challenges and rewards, and as we gain experience we continue to find ways to refine the process.

As I’ve mentioned before, hosting a webinar is technologically challenging, mostly because of the interconnection between the traditional telephone system (providing the audio) and the Internet (providing the presenter’s visual-aid computer screen). Voice-over IP, while possible, seems to be less than reliable, with the loss of data packets causing an “intermittent” audio connection. While “Go to Webinar” does offer the ability to send an invitation to register attendees, it does not currently provide a means to collect funds. A third-party website offers this capability, but requires a manual transfer of the registration information between the two systems. It is exciting to get email notification of funds being deposited in your account as people register. However, financially, our fee-based webinar was break-even at best.

Since we offered both fee-based and free webinars, we noticed a significant increase in audience expectations when payment was required. There is much less pressure when the attendees have invested only their time, though they had to spend an equal amount of it in preparation and performance effort whether the webinar was free or not. When a fee is charged, both the attendees and the panelists expected higher-quality content, as perhaps they should. We found that it is very important to create clear expectations about the level of content to maintain a high level of integrity with our attendees.

We found that presenting information through a webinar is unlike giving a presentation before an on-site audience. It is more like a broadcast performance than a presentation, due to the lack on direct connection to our attendees. As in any performance, rehearsal is VERY important. Since we had multiple panelists involved, we needed to do a great deal of coordination, both in terms of the content and the performance. But working with multiple panelists provides a variety of voices and different perspectives on the topic, making the extra effort worthwhile. Getting and keeping the attendees’ attention is challenging with the multiple distractions present in their environments, but the periodic use of polls throughout the performance seemed to help keep the audience engaged. Questions posed by attendees via a text window were useful in creating a dialogue. Although two-way audio is possible, it is seldom used by webinar organizers.

Finally, we learned a funny lesson about human nature, and how important a live audience is to most presentations. We were surprised and a bit crestfallen by the emotional vacuum created by the lack of applause at the end of our performance. The go-to-webinar software sends out a pre-defined survey to gauge the audience’s reaction to the performance, which does offer some feedback. But it feels a little like waiting for the critic’s newspaper reviews of a play after a performance.