Is it Finally Time to Reinvent the Webinar?

October 2, 2013 at 5:47 pm  •  Posted in Best Practices, Featured, Techniques, Trends by  •  2 Comments

Not too long ago, I sat down with one of the most prolific producers of webinars and online events for big companies (over 300 online events per year) and was startled to hear his confession: Traditional webinars just aren’t working as well as they once did. The erosion in sign-up rates and attendance, he said, was slow but unmistakable.

It’s certainly not time to pull the plug, since webinars are still a reasonably effective way to generate and nurture prospective customers, as well as to educate and engage customers you already have. After all, as noted in the recent 2014 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report, 62 percent of marketers are using webinars (up 15 points in the last two years), and of those users, only 63 percent consider them to be effective (DOWN 7 points).

When you see usage going up but satisfaction going down, maybe it’s time to take a good hard look at the tried-and-true 60-minute live webinar formula and ask, “Can we do better?

I’m on a Mission

I’m on a mission to totally re-think the webinar, in the context of a world that has changed dramatically in the last five years. And I’d like to invite thoughtful content creators — in both marketing and e-learning — to take that journey with me.

According to my friend, the high-volume webinar producer, there are several important problems with the today’s standard webinar formula — that is, the audio-over-presentation slides format that is scheduled for an hour, with typed-in Q&As:

  • Webinars have a personality problem.
  • Webinars have a scheduling problem.
  • Webinars have a length problem.
  • Webinars have an engagement problem.

They even, in many cases, have a mobility problem.

In light of this, is it any wonder that webinar sign-up rates are declining, attendance among sign-ups is flagging, and mid-session dropouts are increasing?

1. Employ video (not just audio) to add personality and energy

As I observed in a  Content Marketing Institute post awhile back, audio-only webinars rob communicators of many of the natural communication and engagement tools they possess as human beings— their body language, their gestures and facial expressions, as well as props and visual aids. Psychologists will tell you that one of the earliest skills we learned as children was how to read facial expressions and to interpret them into feelings of trust and authority, so omitting this powerful communication mechanism can be a costly mistake.

When we listen to the faceless webinar voices talking over PowerPoint slides, we often fail to connect with the personality and authority of the speaker. And isn’t that why we’re there — to immerse ourselves in the knowledge, the stories, and the authority of the webinar host or guest?

This is the age of web video, and the audio-only webinar has not kept up. Fortunately, there are tools (like KnowledgeVision and ON24) that offer easy ways to stream video side-by-side with PowerPoint slides. And there are even ways to dial in remote guests via Skype to a conversation that’s almost like having the guest in the same room, as in these excerpts from a recent webinar on video content marketing.

2.“Flip” the webinar by pairing a presentation that’s on-demand with an interactive portion that’s truly live and interactive

Educators and online learning pros are discovering and applying a new model called the “flipped classroom”. Traditionally in education and training, a professor or trainer will stand in front of a room and give a lecture, reserving a few minutes at the end for questions and then sending everyone off to do exercises or homework.

In the “flipped” model, they put the lectures on video to be consumed before the classroom session, and then use class time for a highly interactive Q&A, discussions, or exercises.

Why not conduct webinars the same way? Distribute the highly-structured “lecture” material as an online video presentation, and then schedule one or more live conference calls or Google+ video hangouts with the guest and host to handle questions, discussions, and even explore a case study together.

This “flipped webinar” approach solves several problems at the same time:

  • The presentation material can be much more compact, since the host doesn’t have to structure the talk to try to fill an hour. Rarely have I seen a webinar topic that could not easily be delivered in 10-15 minutes, rather than the 40-minutes-plus-time-for-questions approach most common today.
  • More people can benefit from the material more quickly, since the “lecture” material can be viewed at the time of maximum interest — when the viewer signs up for the webinar.
  • By running a live follow-up via conference call or Googlehangout, these sessions can be much more engaging and truly interactive — resembling a seminar set-up more than a sterile submit-a-question-and-give-the-answer approach.

Online event and content marketers can learn a lot from what’s going on in today’s most innovative classrooms, and now would be a really good time to start applying it.

3. Use interactive engagement mechanisms during the webinar to your best advantage

Online presentation platforms are notoriously one-dimensional when it comes to engaging viewers. In fact, an analog to the “couch potato” is establishing itself among webinar viewers who stare at their screens for an hour. Call them “mouse potatoes”, if you will.

Well, the dirty secret is out. During the webinar, most “mouse potatoes” are actually checking their email, taking phone calls, posting on Facebook, and discussing the latest movie with folks who drop by their cubicles. We increasingly deal with a distracted, short-attention-span audience — one that certainly multitasks during webinars.

Here’s the challenge: Why don’t you give your audience interesting things to multitask with that are related to your own webinar materials? Give them virtual hand-outs that amplify the lessons being given in the material. Maybe provide mini-worksheets for them to fill out with information on their own businesses, or give an interesting mini-survey or a poll.

The point is that the more you can channel that multitasking attention on-task to your webinar material, the more your audience will get out of it. And since every download and survey is a potential data point to measure interest and engagement, this approach carries a double benefit for the webinar host.

4. Embrace restlessness: Innovate continuously with your webinars

It’s all too easy at this point to settle into the comfortable-but-vanilla white-papers-and-webinars rut for lead generation. But with more B2B marketers spending more and more dollars on content marketing, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the traditional webinar supplanted by new, more innovative models that build on the traditional foundation with video, new scheduling and length models, and more engagement mechanisms.

5. Start with the Media Companies that run many webinars

Most webinars are actually not produced by companies themselves, but rather are part of series sponsored by media companies and other organizations with large databases of potential attendees.  They get an additional revenue stream by hosting webinars by sponsors who want to reach those potential attendees.  So one of the keys to reinventing the webinar is to start with the media companies who host them.  They’re comfortable with a model that works for them.  What we as marketers have to start telling them is that we’re restless — we WANT to see more experimentation, more video, more interactivity, more innovation like the flipped webinar approach.

I’m on a personal mission to reinvent the webinar, using a flipped video, high-engagement model.  And I think video-enabled, interactive online presentations are a key component.

Will you join me? What ideas do you have to stand the conventional model on its head?

This post is adapted from one I originally wrote for Content Marketing Institute.  It’s even more pertinent today than when I first wrote about the topic two years ago.


  1. Wendy Johnson / October 4, 2013 at 10:35 am / Reply

    Lots of great ideas in here, Michael! Are there any examples of a “flipped” webinar that you could point us to? I’m intrigued by the idea of providing a pre-recorded preso to folks upon registration and following it up with a short (30mins?) live, interactive session later on. Great way to lead nurture and qualify leads!

  2. Michael Kolowich / October 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm / Reply

    Absolutely, Wendy — here’s an example of a flipped webinar we did that way with DemandGen Report:

    We delivered the core content immediately upon sign-up, and then had an interactive follow-up session later. You’ll notice that there was a “Submit a Question” box in the instant webinar player; that’s how we seeded the questions that we handled in the follow-up session.


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