Your virtual events are legacy - and so are your webinars. Let's get crackin'.

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed March 19, 2020
For years I've been saying that virtual events stink - and so do webinars. Folks mostly agreed, but moved on. Well, we can't afford to move on now. It's time to fix this. Let's start by turning B2B webinars into must-see live events.


Life turns on a dime. A month ago, virtual events were an afterthought. Meanwhile, webinars droned on like the yawning, lead generation sawhorses they are.

Add coronavirus, fast forward, and virtual events are all we (currently) have. Webinars are suddenly a crucial way to bring the likeminded together, a potential means of connection to the homebound. And yet they are not. Far from it.

In the last week, I've already been to a couple of stilted virtual "events" that were just canned recordings. I've seen another virtual event canceled. Webinars? Yeah, I went to some "impact of coronavirus on business" webinars. A couple were good, but in general, it was the same-old: a presenter blathering on with a slide deck as a virtual smokescreen. Oh yeah, a few merciful questions at the end for those who had nothing better to do the perseverance.

This is a huge missed opportunity. In my 2016 post, The fall of Spreecast - we get the webinars we deserve, I explained why a more interactive webinar format gives your event a must-see live electricity. It's also a far better format for reaching today's informed buyer. But now, as Mark Finnern of Playful Enterprise recently wrote, the stakes are so much higher:

We are longing for connection, of shared experience, especially right now from our home office isolation. My daughter just did a paper for school about how cruel solitary confinement is for the human psyche.

So what's holding us back? Can we blame the technology?

Nope. True, I have yet to find a webinar platform that has all the interactive features I want, but for the most part, you can squeeze interactivity from most webinar providers today (though I'd put GoToWebinar on my crappy-for-interactivity list). For multi-faceted virtual events, today's platforms may be more of an impediment to interactivity across multiple rooms and sessions. But: I've recently heard from a couple virtual event platforms I'd love to take for a spin.

In Kurt Marko's recent diginomica piece, Will Coronavirus mark a tipping point for virtual events?, he looks at the state of virtual event software today. He also kicks tires on a few vendor examples. I'm now pulling in fresh content on virtual events, but I'll save that for next week. Why? Because webinars are easier; webinars are something companies can schedule quickly. And: there's still time to fix yours. 

Back in 2016, I made a business case for interactive webinars. Yet so little has changed. Why? I asked Finnern by email. He responded:

Too much prep time is spend on message and the presentation slides, and not enough on the interactivity and the participants' experience.

Bingo. He adds:

Which is such a missed opportunity, as the people on the call have their own experiences and by allowing them to not only comment, but get on video and share their insights, it would bring the whole topic forward, and make the session so much more interesting

Ahh, but that means giving up some brand control. And these days, brands control the conversation, right? Err - not so much. I asked Finnern about my favorite interactive webinar feature: a lively ongoing chat on the chat panel, throughout the webinar. Why are vendors so threatened by an active chat, to the point that they disable that feature, even if it is offered?

Why don't they just allocate an extra person to hang out in the chat, interact with attendees, and bring any key points to the presenters? (I've seen this work incredibly well). Finnern:

People have a tough time to let go of controlling the message. They want it to all look polished and shiny. The world isn't perfect and shiny, and if you let some of the struggles come through, that authenticity will make you come across stronger. Vulnerability leads to greater trust.

But wait: what if those who are joking around in chat miss a precious Powerpoint slide? Well, that's what  record-and-replay is for. Finnern, who founded the SAP Mentor Initiative when he was at SAP, adds something of great importance during our corona-quarantine:

The banter in the chat has a social function as well. For the SAP Mentors, the chat was also a way to connect with their fellow friends from all over the world. Same with us working from home. It is lonely. The chat should be the place to connect with your fellow participants, and maybe lead to a feeling of a community that is working on something bigger.

Modern platforms can't save us from ourselves

Next-gen platforms like Zoom offer some terrific webinar features. But that shouldn't delude us into thinking we get an interactive webinar out of the box. In Finnern's LinkedIn post, Zoom Please Board the Cluetrain!, he describes the experience of sitting in on a Zoom webinar demo. After noting that Zoom has a "beautiful platform," Finnern lets loose:

It is a lot like going to church, you sit down and mostly listen, you know that there are others virtually close by, but you can't even interact with them. You are here to absorb the information that people have selected to share with you. It is a lonely experience, that makes you feel small and insignificant, just like the Grand Arche did so many years ago.

Towards a memorable live webinar - how do you get there?

Webinars are no longer about how many people register. It's about how many people show up, and happily stay to the end. It's about giving them a chance to connect to peers and experts, and maybe even brighten a tough day of isolation.

In his post, Finnern goes into detail on some classic SAP Mentor webinars, which were as close to "must see" viewing as I've seen in that format, thanks to the power of free-form interactivity. This screen capture of an SAP Mentor session with former SAP executive Björn Goerke gives a sense of that vibe, with global participants jumping on cam next to Goerke:

SAP mentors webinar
(SAP mentors webinar)

None of what unfolded was planned. But even if a vendor is reading this and wants to make a change, I don't recommend jumping into the deep end of total interactivity right away.

There are a number of components you can add into a webinar to make it more engaging, from using multiple speakers, to mixing in audience polls, to putting your slides on a diet. Heck, just make it a corporate policy to never EVER offer up that wet noodle, "sorry, we ran out of time for questions."

As you gain confidence with a more jugular webinar atmosphere, you can loosen it up further (example: fielding questions throughout, allowing yourself to get wonderfully sidetracked by smart people in the chat). So what are the elements of a must-see webinar? I laid that out here, but I also asked Finnern for his personal list of favorite interactive features brands should consider. He started with this: 

Anything that connects your audience and create a dialog that makes everyone feel seen and heart.

"Heart" of course is a typo; Finnern meant to type heard, but I think "heart" kind of fits right now, don't you? Finnern shared other favorite tips and tricks, including:

  • Try to collect questions in advance already on your webinar invitation post and email. While people are waiting for the event to start nudge them with: "We will be right with you, while you wait please post a question regarding today's topic: ..."
  • Earmark only 20% of the time for slides, if there is a demo, schedule that max another 20%, rest for interactive Q&A.
  • If you have international participants, send a Starbucks card to the one that is participating from the worst time zone.
  • Invite participants - on screen especially - to ask more nuanced questions, and an interesting dialog will develop.

The "questions in advance" thing matters. So does multiple panelists, to ensure banter. I would also recommend promoting the webinar as interactive. For an interactive webinar to work, attendees need to be geared up to participate. They aren't always ready for that; they are used to sipping coffee and checking email while the slides roll on. But skilled panelists can draw them in - especially if you have one person dedicated to monitoring the chat and social streams, and flag up important questions in real time. And yeah, you need some skilled facilitators.

Finnern also likes crowdsourced webinar features like upvoting the best questions; I like doing a couple of polls and sharing the results in real-time. Especially if a debate breaks out about those results. His favorite current platform?

Currently I like They really have designed their platform for to foster online conversations.

My take

I expect some readers will perceive the notion of interactive webinars as either avant-garde, or unproven. I can only say between Finnern and myself, we probably have a few hundred such events under our belts. Sure, this type of webinar is a lot harder. But it's a heck of a lot more fun. And it sure beats webinar business-as-usual, while people out there are struggling with the current normal, eager to build community and do their remote jobs better.

As I asked in 2016, 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.

You can also do this internally. Yesterday I talked with Thomas Wailgum of ASUG, Americas' SAP Users' Group, on how they are using webinars for ASUG members to connect on how their jobs are changing with coronavirus, organized by job role (ASUG explains what they're doing in this post, The Resilience of Your ASUG Network). Talking with peers in your same role across the country/world? Sign me up.

Doing a better webinar is a cultural evolution, typically with marketing kicking and screaming until the light bulb goes off, but it can absolutely be done. Full-scale, virtual events are bigger beast, with higher stakes. I'll return to those.

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