The Webinar Crisis: Enormous Proliferation of Boring Lecture

When the Great Recession hit, most corporate travel ground to a standstill. Of course, people meetings had to go on, but not in a face to face modality. Business operators knew this, so tools like Centra and Interwise which had been niche players in the on line meeting/classroom market, were acquired by bigger players (Saba & AT&T), while other applications were developed and released into the market to take advantage of the challenging business environment which resulted in most travel being frozen.

The biggest three players in this space: Adobe Connect, Cisco WebEx and Citrix Go To Meeting were heavily promoted, and many other smaller players in the virtual meeting/classroom business sprung up like mushrooms. As a case in point for growth of on line meetings Just this last week, Free Conference Call.Com added web meeting functionality to their product offering.

As a point of clarification, this post focuses on large scale webinars of 100 participants or more, not on virtual classroom training. Because of the weak economy, senior managers were looking for any way to save a buck, and marketeers were forced to find alternatives to their typical channels for attracting decision makers to their products and services. The typical big boom conferences with their vendor exhibition halls were no longer worth the cost of participation for vendors because the physical attendance of participants was reduced.

Corporate discretionary spending on training was diminished, but the need to train didn’t go away, it was just deferred or flowed into different delivery mechanisms that were less costly and required minimal time off the job…like webinars, where appropriate.

As a different approaches to internal company training leveraged the new webinar technology to deliver live, then recorded versions of critical content to their respective workforces, marketing companies saw the Webinar technology as a way to lure in potential customers and new clients. Once Web 2.0 protocols were standardized, Voice Over Internet Protocols became a reasonable alternative to traditional dial in telephony and that sealed the deal for webinar use. Why? Because normal telco dial in was a potentially enormous additional, hidden, cost for conducting large-scale webinars. In fact, per participant, per minute telecom expense posed an enormous budgetary constraint to the implementation of large scale virtual meetings. By cutting out the telecom costs, an on line meeting’s expense could be reduced to the licensing fee of the tool. When reduced telecom expense was coupled with time savings and decrease loss of productivity due to time off the job, budgetary implications were indisputable and the savings irresistible. Internal, corporate webinars flourished, usually in a standard lecture format with limited interactivity and audience participation.

These factors also set the stage for the enormous proliferation of the marketing webinar we’ve all seen in recent years. What was once the exclusive province of on line, virtual classroom training, became the preferred mechanism for marketing new goods and services and generating leads for follow up sales calls. Webinars were combined with web crawling tools that could build complex semantic webs from your behavior and social profiles on the web and deposit that data in a Sales.Com database of prospective leads. You all know the routine.

Your email in box is inundated with invitations to Webinars with this famous expert or that notable senior manager or executive who wants to share their success case story with you. Sometimes the topics are cool and interesting and sometimes they are the same old, same old….but by and large they all have certain characteristics in common as follows.

Because of large audience sizes [an average attendance of 500 participants has become typical (On 24 Webinar Benchmarks, 2013)] so called webinar interactivity is generally reduced to some pre-screened questions, a couple of polls and the tangential use of chat. Sometimes more use of the interactivity afforded by these virtual meeting tools is more robust, but according to the report cited from On 24, that is the exception to the rule and not typical.

As you’ve all noticed while attending webinars a large number of participants can easily “flood” a chat room creating, literally a “gusher” of chat which courses forth like a waterfall from the attendees. Because the chat is linear and not threaded, real discourse is most often stymied and replaced by what appears to be a series of disjointed conversations that rarely reach a level of discourse one would expect when discussing meaningful topics. Of course both polling and chat have value, but, for the most part, they are hardly being used to their best advantage as means to forward learning and increase engagement.

Moreover, you know the truth…most people attend these webinars with less than half their attention. People multi task, tune in and out to the content flow, and often don’t stay in the session until the sessions complete. Almost all of us do this. It’s like listening to the radio while cooking dinner or riding in our cars. As they are currently designed and delivered, most Webinars require very little from their audiences. Yes, they can provide some interesting insights and best practices, but the overall format plays out as a panel or individual lecture and is a one way content flow with very little sharing and collaboration.

Certainly, very little or no acknowledgement that the session attendees may have an enormous amount of experience and insight into the subject being discussed and the problems being framed that are in search of effective solution architecture.

So, we have webinars of dubious quality being offered to us everyday. Invitations flood our email in boxes from Talent Management Magazine, Bersin by Deloitte, ASTD, the eLearning Guild, and many other vendors who seek to highlight their successful client engagements, new product releases and product upgrades. In addition, there are also internal company webinars that attempt to use this delivery mechanism as a means to “get the word out” about something important as quickly as possible.

If you agree with many of the points I have made previously in this blog post, I think we can achieve consensus that this is the current state of affairs and it raises the following questions which I plan to respond to in my next post:
• Isn’t there a way to make webinars more engaging and interactive than they currently are?
• Is there a way to use webinars to investigate and leverage the collected knowledge, skill, wisdom and insight of the folks attending the webinar themselves?
• Are there ways to design webinars to increase the value derived from them, from both a participant and sponsoring entity perspective?
• Are there ways to make webinars more fun and creative?
• Can some of the solutions implied by the questions above be designed, developed and executed in a cost conscious, yet effective way?
• . What additional features and functions should a webinar virtual meeting environment have to support some of the objectives above that are not currently available?
If you’d like a copy of the On24 research study I cited above, please don’t hesitate to ask me, and I’ll send.

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