One of my clients sells a "webinar pass" to their target audience. A single payment lets you attend a series of webinars on a topic of professional interest. The webinars are scheduled without a registration page… Anybody with the login link is allowed to enter. Before each webinar, the company sends out an email to everyone who has paid for the webinar series, letting them know the date and time for the next webinar and the link to use for attendance. Then at webinar start time, they sit and wait to see if anybody shows up.
When the series started, we used to get a good number of live attendees. But over time, that number dropped lower and lower. Now there are many sessions with no live attendees at all.
It's not a case of bad content… Sales of the program remain strong. It's just that purchasers realized they could watch the content on demand, so they don't bother to show up for the live session. I see this same phenomenon occurring for many webinars. It brings up quite a few issues.
The first question is: Should you care? If you are delivering good content and getting viewership, does it matter whether your audience attends the live session or watches the recording later? In some cases, the answer is no. Think carefully about this point, as you may be able to use that fact to your advantage.
If most of your viewing comes from on-demand access, perhaps you should forego the live event aspect entirely. You won't have to worry about trying to find an event time that fits with multiple schedules, and you won't have to spend time on instructions, pleasantries, and interaction breaks that just slow down information consumption on the recording. You can make the delivery more concise and not worry about fitting content to fill an arbitrary time slot on a calendar. I see far too many webinars that start planning with "We have to fill 60 minutes" instead of starting with "We have 37 minutes of content." Let the content determine the presentation length instead of vice versa.
You also may be able to spend additional time on recording and editing to create a more polished piece of content that shows off your organization and presenters in a better light.
But perhaps you SHOULD care more about getting live attendees. There is an undeniable difference in perception from participating in a shared experience than there is from watching a recording on your own. Watching a recording is a passive exercise. It is easier to be bored, easier to be distracted, and easier to feel frustrated by not having a voice in what is being discussed. A good webinar presenter invites feedback and active participation in the talk. Attendees may develop more of a sense of community - especially if you permit public "chat" or facilitate group exercises. And I believe that people are more likely to be influenced and driven to action by a live presenter than by a recording.
If you decide that having people attend is a worthwhile goal with benefits to both you and your audience, what can you do to get them to show up?
1) Make them register. Having a login link that they "can use if they feel like it" is no match for having them proactively sign up for a specific time and date. Once you have captured their name and email, you can use your webinar software to send confirmation and reminder emails, including a calendar appointment to block out the time on their calendar.
2) Give them a time conversion page. Never assume that people can do the math to figure out the difference between your stated start time and the local time in their location. Daylight Saving Time is notoriously inconsistent from place to place. Don't guess… Just post a link they can click to.
3) Emphasize the value of live attendance. You should always include an explicit phrase along the lines of "Don't miss your opportunity to ask questions and get answers from our expert speaker." Or tell them that they will have the opportunity to share and learn from their peers' experiences. Anything that promises extra value from the live experience.
4) Restate the key value proposition in reminders. Never send reminder emails that just say "Your webinar is tomorrow." Add a sentence that reinforces why they were interested in the first place: "Just a reminder that tomorrow is your chance to learn ways to improve the efficiency of your operations."
5) Consider rewarding live attendance. This isn't always appropriate, but you might think about offering a giveaway to all live attendees (such as a white paper or eBook), or holding a raffle for something more special (a signed copy of the speaker's book) to one live attendee. Make sure you promote this in the confirmation and reminder emails. It's not an attendance incentive if people don't know about it!
6) Start on time. Don't penalize the attendees who make the conscientious effort to log in on time by waiting for an unspecified additional length of time in case an unspecified number of people happen to show up later. People who are late know they are late. It's not your responsibility to coddle them. Get a reputation for respecting your attendees' time.
I'd love to read additional comments on techniques you have employed to help boost live attendance. Let's get those numbers back up!