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The fall of Spreecast - we get the webinars we deserve

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 11, 2016
The demise of Spreecast provokes a debate on the state of today's webinars. The short answer: webinars stink. At best, they fail as must-see events. A deeper look shows the logic in today's perfunctory webinars. Plus: a chance for great online events waiting to be seized.

Tell me something. When was the last time someone said to you:

Sorry I have to cut our lunch/chat short, but there's a really amazing webinar starting in 15 minutes and I can't be late for this one! I don't want to miss the bloated intros and sponsor plugs!

The must-see webinar doesn't really exist - except perhaps on the fringes, roaming with the Yeti and the tasmanian tiger. But wait: certain trade shows have achieved "must be there!" status. So why do we utterly fail to achieve this online? The answer is an uncomfortable truth stolen from politics: we get the politicians webinars we deserve.

Community advocacy consultant Mark Finnern lamented the pathetic state of webinar affairs in his howling tribute to fallen webinar platform Spreecast in Spreecast Enabled Listening to the Edges. Finnern's bone of contention: the tools required to produce exceptional online events are shockingly rudimentary.

Who needs must-see experiences when we can lead gen the funnel?

Finnern's critique overlooks one thing: we get crummy webinars because those who fund webinars are getting what they wanted: a (cynical) lead generation exercise.

Amongst present and former clients - all of whom produce unremarkable webinars of which I have, it must be acknowledged, been a part - topical webinars supported by email marketing surpass any other lead generation tactics, outside of on-the-ground events.

Here's the kicker, and why it gets cynical:

For the purposes of lead gen, it doesn't really matter if the person attended the webinar. As long as they didn't loathe the webinar and its contents, lead gen is viable.

Chances are they didn't even bother to watch the webinar anyhow. And if they did, they had it on background while they were filing proposals or changing diapers. Yeah, webinar providers now have "attention meters" to measure that disinterest, but in a cruel twist, they lack the community tools to win the lost attention back. But hey - great to know how many are nodding off. Analytics! Too bad we're not in high school, where Mr. McGinnis woke me up by slapping a ruler on my desk.

As for that vaunted replay, the salesperson often pursues the sign up before the prospect has seen the replay anyhow. If the solution is relevant, the charade of webinar value vanishes into a sales transaction. The unimaginative webinar with abysmal audio replay quality and heavy-handed promotional segments is already forgotten, its commercial purpose served.

A chance to win audiences - defining a great online experience

But there's a silver lining to Finnern's rant: a chance for companies to win audiences by creating terrific online experiences - albeit with imperfect tools.

So what constitutes a great online experience in a B2B context? How about:

A can't-miss event where debates and community building take place, all in an interactive setting that draws viewers due to its transparency, "what will happen next?" uncertainty, and chances for participants to literally change the conversation or agenda, perhaps by hopping on a webcam and sharing their views.

Oh boy. I can see marketers and salespeople running for the exits already, fretting about controversy, losing control of the agenda, or, maybe even someone raising a pointed critique of a vendor's products. Or: maybe we don't get through all the slides. No!!! So much for serving up great experiences, can we go back to analyzing falling webinar attendance? Someone load up that marketecture slide deck!

But you know what the funny thing is? Today's "informed buyers" are impacted by the relationships they form. Perceptions of an open/vibrant vendor ecosystem matter when product evaluation time comes. Delivering "great experiences" isn't just a feel-good community thing or a nice to have. It's an essential way of building "trust networks" around buyers and influencers. And you don't have to abandon the analytics and lead-gen aspects either - those can be integrated so the KPI masters don't get sad.

The characteristics of the must-see webinar

Let's assume we buy into my argument. What would the characteristics of a great online experience look like?

  1. Quick/no BS introductions of speaker/panelists and sponsors (I've seen intro segments run ten brutal minutes)
  2. No death by Powerpoint - short content segments peppered by constant audience questions/interactions (no "we'll answer a tiny amount of your questions at the very end of our one-way broadcast")
  3. All speakers on webcam whenever possible
  4. Constant flow of Q/A, including responses to the Q/A panel throughout the event, interrupting the speakers' precious talking points when necessary
  5. Continual interaction between participants and presenters via a vibrant, streaming chat
  6. Ability to bring participant's cams online (or via phone) for impromptu interaction with speakers
  7. Incorporation of Twitter hashtag chatting into the webinar panel or viewing frame (or, potentially, Facebook commenting)
  8. Action items/follow through compiled at end of webinar to extend conversations and relationships
  9. A solid mobile experience, restricted only by limitations of mobile display/screen size
  10. Ability to "upvote" the most relevant questions and comments (a Finnern favorite, offered only by the now-kiboshed Spreecast as far as I know)
  11. Classic webinar features including sign up capabilities/registration wall, easy control/muting of panelists or participants (must be mentioned as Google Hangouts and Hangouts on Air lack these).
  12. Outstanding replay quality, limited only by the caliber of the Internet/phone connections of the participants. Ability to easily download video in mp4 - not Flash (crummy audio) format - and upload to YouTube etc.
  13. The sponsoring vendor turns over (most) control of the agenda to speakers and participants.

The first few on this list are more about culture, facilitation style and structure. Most of the rest are about tooling/functionality. Now, Spreecast wasn't only for webinars; I'm not even sure it was designed with webinars in mind. But maybe that's why it had some standout community features; it was built for interactive purpose. Finnern's own post bids adieu to other Spreecast-specific features:

  • A permalink is created for every question that gets selected to be discussed, making it super easy to point interested parties to the right spot in the webinar.
  • Login with your social media account which enables the participants to easily get to know each other, connect and continue the conversation once the session is over.
  • The original link for the spreecast is also the link for the recording. That recording was available 30 seconds after you finished your webinar. Every latecomer or anyone stumbling over your invitation would automatically get the recording.
  • Ability to quickly bring participants to be on camera too: “Sophia that is an interesting question, can you come on camera to elaborate a bit more for our audience?” …
  • Monetization possibility via a simple switch when creating a new spreecast.

Current webinar tools are lacking

Most webinar solutions offer the top three or so features on my list, including clunky webcam support. But when you add the full wish list, it's clear that webinar providers feel very little pressure or incentive to build a kickass experience. Of the classic webinar providers I know of, Adobe Connect offers the most, including the best streaming chat and cam support. Subtract the social network connectivity and add in cruddy/cumbersome replay capabilities. The Adobe mobile webinar experience was mediocre last time I checked.

Google Hangouts remains the wild card, with the highest caliber replay quality and a superior mobile experience, bogged down by a Google-like disinterest in rounding into a true webinar platform. The inability to control/moderate panelists, the division of needed features between Google Hangouts and Hangouts on Air, and the lack of a registration front end are just some of Google Hangouts' webinar limitations. There are some third parties that claim to offer webinar overlays to Google Hangouts which solve some, though not all, of these issues. Limited or non-existent dial in caller support is another Hangout downside.

This piece is NOT a definitive review of every webinar startup or platform, so if you think there is a good one I have overlooked, instead of tearing me a new one, let me know about this lovely platform in the comments.

Don't wait for the perfect platform

The platform is only part of the story anyhow. I seriously doubt that with an amazing tool set most companies could put on amazing webinars. There's not enough fortitude to move from the lead gen/Powerpoint routine. To be fair, some broadcast webinars do fulfill an educational purpose. That doesn't need to go away.

I've been on the kind of webinar I'm talking about. At its best, the environment was electric. Other times it was awkward, but that's the clay you work with. We all end up playing the fool a bit in a without-a-net format, but that's part of the disarming charm.  Once you get on this wheel, you won't want to go back to canned content. Granted, you must have skilled community facilitators and webinar pros on hand to make such an event shine. This is the deep end of the online events pool.

One objection I ran into from this format: some presenters got their feelings hurt because folks were having a lot of fun in the streaming chat and perhaps not paying attention to every incredibly exciting word of their presentation. Two responses there: since when do we command total attention anymore? Would a live presenter walk through the audience and confiscate cell phones? Are feelings less hurt if someone is washing dishes while the speaker is presenting?

True, you have to handle a streaming chat differently. Instead of just one speaker, you'll need a few folks from the team on hand. A couple will simply participate in the streaming chat, interrupting the speaker when needed and having fun(!) otherwise.

The amazing thing is how much ground can be covered and how many questions can be answered - as long as some anarchic moments are accepted. And yes, time zones can be an issue. But for those who won't try this format because of time zones, I'd call that a weak excuse for a solvable problem.

You can do  good things on flawed platforms. I recently shoehorned a clunky, cam-free webinar into a pretty cool event where we rapid-fire-answered as many audience questions as possible. I lost count at 30 questions answered. The platform host said we easily set an all-time record, which doesn't say much for the state of interactive events.

Differentiating events = hard work

No, this type of live event is not for everyone. Nor does it need to replace a quality broadcast webinar. Some of these tips can be pulled into broadcast webinars to make them a little better and less pimpy. But yeah, community is hard work, and it's messy work. So are great live events. It's the spark and the things-could-go-wrong discomfort/improvisation that make live events worth showing up for.

You can't easily measure the invaluable product and community feedback you get from such events. Correct that: the feedback can be tracked via ideation tools, but it's not a short-term perk like a quick sale. But that type of feedback from customers and subject matter experts is invaluable. So is winning hearts and minds through listening and acting on concerns - that's what Finnern is getting at with "Making Listening Actionable." Great online experiences aren't easy, but then how many truly differentiating advantages are?

Updated with small additions to one paragraph on August 12, 12:30PM ET.

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