Is the Webinar on Life Support or Is It Dead?

I ask because it seems like something I have heard from multiple places in the past week, without even trying.

On an ILTA community group, as one example, the death of webinars was contrasted with the success of podcasts, so that seems like a good place to start when answering the question if webinars are, truly, dead.

Let’s first list the benefits of a podcast versus a webinar:

  1. Portability, in terms of both location and time. I can download a podcast to my phone and listen to it whenever. No scheduled attendance required.
  2. Subscriptions – no need to remember when a new cast is posted.

What about the benefits of a webinar?

  1. A live audience.
  2. Interactive tools

OK, so it would seem like there are some things we should be taking advantage of in a webinar setting that would make attending at that time worth our while, no? The ability to interact with the speaker, and the group, the ability to get immediate feedback on the subject, etc. Those things should make webinars a viable alternative to a podcast, and yet, I haven’t been able to find anyone who doesn’t roll their eyes when the topic of webinars comes up. Why?

I have some of my own reasons. Maybe these resonate with you,

  1. Interactivity – for years, we’ve been telling people to make their webinars more interactive. Give us a reason to show up at the appointed time instead of catching it later as a recording. In response, webinar hosts added a poll or two. Seriously. That’s been the “big change” over the last few years. It’s not nearly enough.
  2. Death by PowerPoint – if your webinar consists of reading bullet points and sharing a relevant story or two, do us all a favor, record that as a 20-30 minute audio file and be done with it, or write a blog post. There’s no reason for me to block off an hour of my day to “watch” that.
  3. Timing – can you name the last time you saw a webinar that was not an hour long? How about the last time a speaker did not go for 63-65 minutes and then ask for questions, right as everyone was already bailing on the meeting? If you’re going to lecture for more than the allotted hour, and then ask for questions, you are not taking advantage of having a live audience, thus invalidating one of the benefits of this format to start with.
  4. Format – As I consider my own podcast listening, I find myself drawn to a couple of different types of casts.Consider how these differ from the typical webinar:
    1. Informative, but short. Some of my favorite informative podcasts clock in around 30 minutes, a few even less. That’s enough to take something away, but not lose my attention. (See #3 above) ex. Seth Godin, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Manager Tools, Psych Central, etc.
    2. Longer interviews with interesting people. Recently, for example, I listened to an episode of Dak Shepards podcast that was 2.5 hours long. No, not in one sitting, but I was fascinated by the subject and the discussion, so while I’m not a regular listener, I grabbed that one. Similar to how I interact with podcasts by Tim Ferris, James Altucher, etc.
    3. Multimedia formats, interview clips mixed with stories, and a narrator. ex. Adam Grant’s Work Life, The Story of the Clash on Spotify, Serial, Freakonomics. (I’ve even been the subject of one interview recently, and am always open to more!)
  5. The Audience Problem – As much as we want webinars to be interactive, we have also been programmed to not interact. Once upon a time, I was a software trainer. We did in-person and online training. The online training class could be as short as 3-4 hours, or as long as 3-4 days. We had remote environments setup for students to be hands-on with the software during class, and tried to make it as interactive as possible. It usually took half of the first day just to get people comfortable with the fact that they could interrupt me if they had a question or a problem. Webinars have taught us to not interrupt the speaker, to not be interactive. To make webinars better, we’re going to have to all unlearn that.

To me, it’s not so much that the webinar is an awful idea and should be killed, but rather that the way in which we have historically conducted webinars actually negated all of the benefits of the format. We could make them in various lengths, we could integrate interviews, clips, interruptions from the audience, etc. We just don’t.

In fact, let me counter the argument that webinars are dead by pointing out that one very specific type of live, web-based, tool is actually gaining in popularity.

Live streaming.

While many of us in the legal and corporate worlds are slogging through hour long PowerPoint lectures disguised as new technology, shows on Facebook Live, IGTV, Twitch, YouTube Live, etc. are gaining huge audiences, and becoming more and more popular, even as the experience with the show somewhat requires us to attend at a specific time. Why is that? How can that be?

Could it be because they are just better at providing entertainment and information than the typical webinar is? Because they are. It’s also a generational thing. Younger audiences are more comfortable in the sometimes chaotic world of live streaming, less used to lecturing using bullet points, more capable of managing interruptions and dealing with shorter attention spans than those of us who’ve been doing our presenting in corporate environments for awhile are.

They are also mobile, and take place on platforms the user is already participating in. There’s no need to be at my desk, or downloading any plugins. Don’t underestimate that.

Think about it, not only could I listen to an interview of a subject matter expert in my field, live as it happens, but I can post questions and discuss the interview with other attendees, as it happens. It’s like going to a conference and being in the keynote, without having to travel.

I’ll admit. Facebook Live and those kinds of tools aren’t in my wheelhouse. I don’t spend much time there compared to podcasts, because I’m just not used to it. But, I suspect that we could make a huge improvement in our webinars if we took a little bit of live streaming, and a whole lot less PowerPoint.

What do you think? Have you seen a really good webinar lately that would make you think the format isn’t dying?

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