One big reason webinars suck

Bryan Alexander 2023-09-24

My question for today is:

Why are so many webinars so bad?

I’ve been thinking and working on this question since the 1990s (he typed, wiping a furrowed brow and gazing at grey hairs).  I remember working with facilitators, technologists, and fellow professors then as we sought to make live video events work. That’s when I got into virtual worlds, actually, way before Second Life, as an alternative to video. Later, I launched the Future Trends Forum in 2016 in part to try to improve webinars, at least in the higher education space.  I’ve blogged about the topic repeatedly (for examples).

I’m moved to write now, again, because I keep having to endure crappy webinars. What surprises me is that in the year 2023 so many videoconferences are still so lousy.  We’ve had not years but decades to get better.  Worse, we had years of COVID-19 which drove us all into live video for months, even years, like it or not.  We’ve practiced, learned, experimented, and practiced again. And despite all of that, the experience of firing up Zoom, Teams, etc. can still be depressingly bad.

I think a lot of factors go into this, and will say more about those later, but today wanted to focus on one single, big, overarching reason. Too many webinar organizers don’t take audiences seriously.

I don’t mean the video quality is poor or content is bad.  That can happen, of course.  Instead, what I mean is that too many webinars are designed in ways that show they don’t care for participants.  And webinars stink, on ice, because we in the audience get the signal loud and clear.

Let me explain why, and then show some examples.

Why so many webinars shouldn’t exist on the face of the Earth

The question I ask would-be videoconference hosts is simple.  “Why are you doing this?”

It’s an easy one on the surface, but the answers I get are often pretty telling.  “I want to share this great idea/project/story/experience/product.”  “We have some great guests we’d love to get in front of people.”  “Something exciting is happening and I/this cool person can speak to it.”

These are great reasons… to make a YouTube video.  Not a webinar.  If you want to share content, excellent!  The internet was built for this and there is a torrent of ways to do so.  A video, posted to anywhere, but, realistically, to YouTube. Make it for TikTok if you’re aiming for that crowd and want to throw discoverability to the winds. If your visuals aren’t interesting or germane, make a podcast. If you start with a script, post it as a web page or Google Doc with a heap of text and maybe some other media.  Make a mobile app if you have the coding chops.

I know what folks will say next. “But my content is time sensitive!” “It’s important that this appear on a certain date!”  OK, understandable.  So publish it accordingly on YouTube.

An AI imagines a webinar.

Craiyon imagines a webinar. I’m not sure what exactly is happening here, but I like the weirdness of the machine and the epic sun with clouds.

“People have to know about it!”  Linking material to the right audience is often a problem, and I sympathize as a writer, speaker, and maker of digital stuff.  The way to address that problem is not to offer a crappy winder, but to calibrate your posting for an audience.  Pick a platform and use its native protocols (tags, categories, etc.) to help people on that venue find it. You can increase your audience by communicating through other platforms, from emails to social media.  A live webinar won’t help, and, done badly, will depress the unfortunate people who endure it.

See, a webinar is something profoundly different from posting a chunk of content to the world.  It’s not about hurling material into people’s faces and expecting them to coo in splendid isolation. Instead, a live video event means you are asking for people to deliberately spend time and attention with you and whatever it is you’re offering.  Sure, some users will multitask digitally (doing emails, playing a game) or analogically (housecleaning, making food, playing with animals) but they are still choosing to allocate at least some of their time to you.  It is an ethical imperative to honor that, and it is – at best – rudeness to do otherwise.

Assuming audiences are passive and silent receptacles for content is a terrible mistake which flows from failing to honor their attention, but it’s also a very common one.  It ignores how people have been using digital technology for generations. We use it to share, to express ourselves, to reach out to other people, and have done so since Usenet. It’s the primal power behind the web and social media.   You can see this in gaming, where people like to chat, explore, attack or ally with other people, or make stuff.

So let people who pay attention to you act like people who are online with other people.  Don’t stifle them. Don’t block the ways they are often adding value to the event.  Instead, support their socialization and create a better webinar.

(I think some of this bad habit comes from tv culture, especially for older folks who remember broadcast schedules.  We’ve been trained to sit for the video, patiently, at a certain time.  I can say more about this later.)

If you want to host a webinar, be honest with yourself or your team as you think about what you want to accomplish. Do you really want to have meaningful interaction?  Is that essential to your concept of the event? If not, head to YouTube or cut a podcast.   That’s a fine thing to do. It means your event will become asynchronous content, which is most of what the digital world is, after all.  You’ll be able to focus on the appropriate kind of production for the best result.

Perhaps you don’t think you can support audience conversations. Maybe you’d like to, yet you think you just don’t have the capacity.  There’s no shame in that.  There are media and facilitation professionals, after all, who took the time to hone skills, and not everyone can be that good. You might feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of moving parts involved in webinar software plus wrangling dozens or hundreds of human beings at a distance. Maybe you fear not being able to deal with abuse and trolling.  Or you’re actually part of a team, and it’s not clear you have the skills between you or the ability to organize a discussion.  Fine – go to YouTube instead.

Maybe you want feedback but would rather have it spread out over time, when you can focus on it.  That’s a really good idea.  Post to YouTube, make sure comments are turned on, then check those out as they come in – and be sure to react to them.  Or post your stuff to another platform for feedback, from a blog to whatever social media site you’re into. You can host the conversation, just asynchronously, rather than synchronously.  People might respond on various platforms and by making their own content. The result is not an event but an ongoing discussion, which can be awesome.

Yet too many webinar presenters haven’t gone through this internal questioning process.  They think: live video! webinars are easy! and run with it. Which is why there are too many vile ones.

Signs of a webinar that despises you

Once you think of this basic problem, of webinar organizers not honoring people’s attention and contributions, you can see evidence of it in many ways, large and small.

Craiyon imagines terrible webinars.

Craiyon imagines “terrible webinar.”  These are nine separate visualizations, but I like the way combining them looks like a Zoom gallery view.

Not recognizing the audience exists.  Listen to how presenters and facilitators speak of the event. They will usually praise or announce themselves and their content, which is fine. If they have sponsors they should thank them. But will they say anything about the audience?  Will they describe who’s there, or call out individual groups or participants?  Will they describe how the audience can participate in the session? Do they offer technical help for problems?

What I see instead, all too often, is webinar leaders speaking for posterity, not the present. They name themselves, not the rest of us involved. They introduce presenters and what they’re talking about – and that’s all.  Those of us paying attention may as well not exist.

One more detail: does the introduction address the audience’s nature? That is, are the opening remarks generic, or do they take into account who’s actually there?  For an academic webinar, do we just get the traditional academic obituary format, or are remarks pointed to the specific situation? (This is a general problem, not just limited to webinars.)

Making the audience invisible.  Here I’m not referring to when audience members have the option of turning on cameras and choose not to. I’m talking about webinar organizers who do this unto the audience, both literally and metaphorically.

In many Zoom meetings you can literally see other people, or at least their handles, if they’ve turned off their cameras.  In my Future Trends Forum avatars appear on half of the screen; people can also add some information about themselves (their institutional affiliation, their title) which other people can easily find with a mouseover.

We’re actually used to this kind of social presentation in many digital environments. In a shared Google document you can see “Anonymous Cetacean” flitting across a memo or spreadsheet.  Miro will display a floating pointer with a name for other users. Think of multiplayer computer games or virtual worlds for another version of this form of interpersonal presence.

Now think of webinars where the audience is effectively invisible. No avatars appear on screen, nor video feeds or handles.  (On24 is especially bad at this, among other problems.) You can’t even tell how many people are with you and the presenter. Are you alone or amid a horde?  It’s such an odd psychological experience, like staring into a camera lens for the first time and not knowing who’ll eventually look back.  On a practical level such invisibility keeps people from knowing who the literal audience is, if they’re thinking of what to communicate and how. It blocks networking, meeting people, seeing colleagues, making friends – what we do when we socialize.

Polling badly. Polls can be very useful tools. They can surface some of what the audience is thinking. They can wake up the disengaged, since responding to a poll is easy.  Depending on the tool being used, they can be playful.  I’m fond of how they often get more responses than a more qualitative approach can elicit, as some folks would rather click a single button than write a paragraph.

Yet webinar after webinar misuses polls, starting with just not using them when a quick poll would have assisted the presentation. I’ve also seen presenters show a poll’s results, mumble something about them being interesting, then – moving on, without responding meaningfully, much less incorporating the results into the rest of the program.  A good poll should impact the event. It should change things.

Worse, I’ve seen presenters misread polls in a basic way, like overstating one response over equivalent others, usually to pretend the exercise confirmed their preexisting ideas.  This is spectacularly dumb, since being surprised by the audience can be a real joy and learning opportunity.

Hiding questions. Many videoconference platforms have a formal Q+A box. This has some nice advantages, like encouraging people to phrase feedback as a question, and giving presenters/facilitators a steady stream of questions to work from without having to sift through a firehouse of discussion.

I love seeing other people’s questions when I’m in an audience.  It tells me something about the group, and can also expand my thinking about the material.

Yet some webinar organizers block other folks’ questions from view.  You can see your own, but no one else’s.  Which is so strange, like being in a classroom wearing blinders and earmuffs, with your head strapped in place so you can only behold the instructor and board.

Even worse are presenters who tell us they’re getting questions and comments, then don’t share them. I literally watched one academic presenter brag about getting dozens of questions, then saying they’d rather ask one of their own.  A fine way to diss your audience.

One more way to misuse a Q+A function is to only allow responses from facilitators.  Have you ever experienced this?  Type in a question, see it appear, and then only the webinar team can reply.  Nobody else is allowed.  If you’re allowed to see someone else’s question and you have a response, too bad.  Honestly, humans can be very creative in strangling other people’s abilities to communicate.

Anonymizing audience contributions.  It’s a truism in online teaching that it’s a good idea to mention someone’s name when you’re interacting with them, and I think that’s a fine idea for webinars.  “Good point, Ivan.” “Jeanne has this question…”  Names are powerful, as every society knows, and using them is a way to hail and recognize people.

Yet too often I hear presenters or facilitators strip away identity in favor of something anonymous, or semi-plagiarized.  “Here’s a comment from the chat…”  “I like this question, and it aligns with what I wanted to say, which is…”  If people took the time to share a query you should name and thank them, just from common decency, not to mention the way it can encourage others.

Shutting down chat. Chat boxes are one of the most ancient internet technologies, dating back to the early 1970s.  They appear in all kinds of forms, from ICQ and chat rooms (kids, ask your elders) to Discord and gamers trash talking. It’s a classic, low tech, wide open way for people to communicate.  All videoconferencing platforms I’ve used have chat functions, although in different configurations. Some try to deemphasize them by hiding boxes at startup or pushing them to one side, but they’re there.  They complement video and slides, offering another way to communicate.

I think I’ve seen just about everything in chat.  Arguments, lighthearted chatter, abuse, bad puns, professional assistance, hyperlinks, pedantry, budding romance… it’s clearly a versatile tool.

So why do so many webinars shut chat down? I’ve heard a reliable set of reasons over the years.  First, because the host(s) don’t think they can monitor chat. The possibilities are overwhelming and so they nix it. Second, because they fear abuse, either arguments overheating or outsiders zoombombing.  Third, because they think it distracts from the main event.

I am sympathetic to these reasons, especially as I’ve encountered them all, but I don’t think they are actually sufficient in many cases.  If people can’t monitor chat, they can deputize folks to do just that.  Or they can learn.  (For myself, when I run a webinar I track the audio and video conversation, any Q+A, backchannel on Twitter, email for emergencies, text messages ditto, *and* chat, while taking screenshots and looking to a text file for notes. I might be an outlier, but neither am I a hacker nor a cyberkid. People can learn.)

The Future Trends Forum admin view, with three computers.

I admit to overdoing it with hardware this one time.

The fear of abuse is a real one, but I think folks turn it into an unstoppable demon unnecessarily.  We’ve been handling Zoombombing for a while and have developed good ways to ward it off – here’s one easy to find list, and here’s another.  On top of those, we can turn to the online facilitation world to help keep discussions from going nuclear.  I also find some communities are robust enough to corral themselves.

You might look at me and say, “Ah, but you’re a white man and hence immune to abuse.” The former is true but the latter is not, yet I take the point about other populations being more likely to be targeted.  I try to structure events to make sure this doesn’t happen. The Future Trends Forum has hosted its share of white men, along with many women, people of color, a trans gubernatorial candidate, scholars writing about topics which have already elicited horrendous attacks online, and more.  We have a good record on this so far.  I’m not saying all chat is delight, but I am saying preemptively killing webinar chat instead of actually taking useful steps is often a bad move.

As for chat distracting from the main event, I tend to view that possibility as commentary on the video.  If the talking heads or slides are going on and people are lighting up the chat, see what’s going on in chat.  If it’s not about the content, then mostly likely either the content might be to blame (seriously) or something came up in the chat which energized people, and thus the presenters should address it.

Have you noticed what people do when a webinar kills chat?  Some folks check out, as far as we can tell, but others will start working other platform functions for that purpose.  A snuffed-out chatbox sometimes drives people to the Q+A box, which means they might not be asking questions, or end up cramming comments into interrogative shapes.  They may also take to Twitter, productively (to discuss the topic) or not so much (to complain about chat and moderation). The human desire to socialize is powerful. People will find a way.

And speaking of which –

Not making backchannel arrangements. Some webinar participants will multitask away from the video platform to discuss the show elsewhere, especially if the session makes the mistakes I’ve been talking about. Before Musk bought it Twitter was a favorite destination.  Nowadays we have many options, yet the idea remains.

Webinars can own this. It’s easy for a presenter to suggest a backchannel.  Just pick one you’d like to monitor or have someone monitor for you, say as much before and during the event, and do what it takes to make it work, like identifying a hashtag. If you don’t like social media, pop open a Google Doc or Etherpad and share connecting information.  Use a collective whiteboard if your platform allows, or pick out an external one, like Jamboard or Miro if not.

If you lack the capacity to carefully monitor the backchannel, you can do several things.  First, say so.  Be clear that while there is a place to chat, you chat at your own risk. Second, get other folks to do so. Maybe you can pay someone professionally, or ask another to assist on a volunteer basis. You might be surprised by the latter, and end up building both a good experience and a nice connection.

Blowing you off after the show. Some webinar hosts will follow up by email with thanks, or pointers to recordings, or maybe a survey.  Others will not, which is disappointing.  If folks came to your show, contributed their attention, and also added content, the least you can do is appreciate it afterwards.  (I try to email individuals who stood out.)

I think you all get the idea.

Today I asked ChatGPT about bad webinars.  One response from their list of ten was:

Inadequate Interaction: A lack of interaction with the audience, such as not addressing questions or ignoring the chat, can make participants feel disconnected and uninvolved.

I also asked about good webinars, and one answer from 13 was:

Interaction: Engage with your audience by including Q&A sessions, polls, or chat features. This interaction can break up the presentation and keep attendees involved.

Weirdly, in neither response did the bot say “please kill chat” or “turn Q+A into a howling voice” or “make sure to not name or thank participants.” Which means other folks have been thinking and talking about this problem for years, which is how OpenAI found the sentiment and expressed it through this large language model.

There are other reasons for webinars to turn foul, but I think disrespecting the audience is one we should be better about in 2023.