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How Content Marketers Can Reinvent the Webinar for 2012

I recently spent time 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 those you already have. As noted in the recent B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report, 46 percent of marketers are using webinars, and of those users, 70 percent consider them to be effective. But 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?

And so I’ve set out on a personal mission to totally re-think the webinar this year, in the context of a world that has changed dramatically in the last four years. And I’d like to invite each of you, as a thoughtful content marketer, 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.

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 recent CMI post, 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 Google+ hangout, 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 2012 would be a great year 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.

I’m on a personal mission to reinvent the webinar in 2012, using a flipped video, high-engagement model. Will you join me? What ideas do you have to stand the conventional model on its head?

Photo credit to Terry Borton, Magic Lantern Shows