Over the last two weeks I have moderated events for several clients serving international audiences. Looking back on the webinars, I am struck by some of the differences I saw.
One of my clients has been hosting professional development web conferences for grade school teachers around the world. We have had attendees from countries as diverse as Zambia, Angola, Sri Lanka, China, Singapore, Norway, South Africa, and dozens more. I repeatedly saw people logging in an hour before start time. When I greeted them, many spoke tentatively about this being their first experience with this “new and unfamiliar technology.” Many were noticeably anxious about the experience, and asked me what they needed to do.
I assured them that they could just relax and let us (on the presentation team) do all the driving. I showed them how to type chat messages and use their microphone to communicate. We ran polls during the sessions, we showed slides, we demonstrated web sites. And at the end of the webinars, they were enthusiastic and called for more such virtual get-togethers. It is easy to forget that there are still many people outside of the high tech and professional B2B communities who have not yet used web conferencing at all.
Another client ran thought leadership webinars for professionals in a particular field. The same content was presented at different times – convenient for Europe and convenient for the USA. The audience makeup was the same, the content was the same, the promotion and communications were the same. But the attendee behaviors were different.
Many of the Europeans logged in 20-30 minutes before the announced start time. They wanted to make sure everything worked properly and they didn’t want to miss anything up front. When I typed messages to the audience as a group, I got back many personal confirmations or responses, as if we were having a one-to-one conversation. It felt like ten years ago in America, when business webinars were accepted, but still something of a novelty that was worth making a special effort to attend.
On the American version of the webinar, I was all alone 15 minutes before start time. Ten minutes to go, and there were still only two or three attendees. Most of the audience joined within 1-2 minutes on either side of the announced start time. When I typed messages to the group, I received few (if any) responses. People knew they didn’t have to treat each chat message as a personal conversation. Questions were comingled with sometimes sharp commentary about presenter statements they didn’t agree with.
It was a much more business-like and impersonal vibe. These US audiences treated webinars as a commonplace, and had no doubt been burned too many times by poorly organized, poorly delivered business webinars that started late and took too long to deliver value.
The takeaway is that you should be cautious of ascribing your own level of web conferencing familiarity, comfort, and behavior patterns to your audiences. There is still a wide spectrum of user expectations and knowledge about webinars, and you need to be ready to respond to their needs rather than your own.