Joe Hyland of ON24 recently wrote an article about "The Screenless Internet." He focused on meeting marketing challenges as the public begins to untether themselves from looking at computer screens and rely more upon mobile voice-activated and voice-response systems.
What he didn't address was how that's going to affect webinar and webcast practices and platforms, which is a big part of ON24's business. That's a question I'm willing to have a go at.
First we need to examine Mr. Hyland's premise. I don't know of any scientific studies, but my personal anecdotal impressions align with his. I hardly ever manage a client webinar now where I don't get a question from an attendee asking how they can just dial in and listen by phone, as they are traveling or out of reach of good internet service. It's certainly early days in this trend, but I predict it will continue to grow. Just look at the explosive growth in the popularity of audio-only podcasts and automated voice assistants as a bellwether.
Meanwhile, webinar software vendors are largely going in the opposite direction. Their messaging tends to be "all video, all the time." The last Webex interface design change was very obviously designed to facilitate the use of full-screen video for participants. Zoom has become a darling of the investment community with its concentration on video collaboration. And so on, right down the line.
The Technical Factors
Two technical factors are important to understand in this discussion: Products that used to rely exclusively on a locally-installed program (examples include Webex and GoToWebinar) now offer and prioritize no-download web access to meetings. And the adoption of HTML5 and WebRTC as an audio/video communication backbone has imposed a buffered lag time on the A/V stream. In other words, participants may see and hear presenters 10-30 seconds after the presenter has spoken. In both cases, it becomes ever more difficult to coordinate visual imagery on a computer screen with telephone-connected audio. I know of several vendors who now mandate that participants must present and listen via computer audio, with no option for phone access.
And although most webinar platforms now offer a mobile app for smartphone connection, these have inevitable limitations due to smaller screen sizes. Visual information may be difficult to see. Interactive functionality such as polling and chat usually replaces the content display. And in most cases, presenting from a mobile device is still prohibited or discouraged by the webinar vendor.
Now, I am no luddite. I'm all for the option to employ high-tech videoconferencing when desired. Dedicated videoconference rooms with installed hardware can be amazing. And using video-enabled web conferencing solutions can be an excellent ad hoc, low cost way to achieve similar collaboration between individuals or teams. The videophone promise is finally being realized, a mere 140 years after it was proposed and 80 years after its first public implementation.
The Human Factors
We have to acknowledge the harsh realities of the practical world. Video eats up a ton of bandwidth. And broadband, hardwired internet connections are vanishing faster than the endangered black-footed ferret. I work with guest presenters every week of the year. No matter how hard I emphasize the importance of a good stable setup for a video presentation, they show up with a laptop computer and wonder why they don't look and sound very good using the internal microphone and built-in webcam transmitting over a shared Wi-Fi internet connection hosting dozens or hundreds of other simultaneous users. They sit in front of bright windows with their faces in shadow, shot from a desk with the camera staring into their nostrils. They read their scripts, not maintaining eye contact with the audience.
Creating a professional business video image is hard. It's damned hard! If you want to be respected as an expert speaker, representing yourself and your company properly on video takes serious thought, effort, and practice. Attendees are less tolerant when listening to a formal presentation than they are in a more casual collaborative video session. They notice your clothing, your background, your lighting, your audio quality, your behavior on camera… And they make snap judgments that spill over into their impression of your content in a mostly unconscious halo effect. As the conundrum is sometimes summarized, humans have a bias towards "What is beautiful is good."
Changing Our Approach
Given all these contributing factors, should we be looking for ways to reduce reliance on video and visual elements in our presentation-oriented webinars? Not in all such webinars, certainly… There are always good and valid reasons to make use of visual elements. But in many cases, we can make life easier for our entire population of potential audience members by examining whether the visual element is actively improving the content and consumability of our message.
Is your "talking head" fixed-frame webcam image helping or hurting the impression you make on attendees? Are your slides providing support for your talk, or is your talk just a reiteration of text-heavy slides that would work better as a handout document?
Is your webinar perhaps a candidate for a different approach?
- Distribute a document to registrants ahead of time with facts, graphs, supporting details, and key points you want to make. Tell registrants that the webinar will not restate the document, but will be their opportunity to clarify points and answer their questions.
- Prioritize the discussion aspect of your webinar. Look for more opportunities to poll attendee opinions, priorities, understanding, and agreement. Encourage group sharing of ideas or engage with more audience questions typed in "private mode."
- Use slides as a dynamic agenda, organizing the discussion into clear topic areas, introducing key topic points, and showing a sense of progress towards a shared goal. A simple image and single title or text box is usually enough to communicate a framework for that part of the discussion. If someone is in audio-only mode, they can still follow the presentation without seeing the slides.
Advantages Of Audio Orientation
Organizing a webinar that is less dependent on visual content has other advantages as well:
- Cleaning up and editing the recording gets much easier. The editor does not need to try to maintain audio and video synchronization with full-motion video of presenters. You can make more detailed small edits to remove little pauses, stutters, and vocal inconsistencies. Video edits are always more obvious to casual viewers than audio edits.
- The content becomes easier to translate for multilingual repurposing. A graphic slide with one line of text is a snap for translation agencies to deal with. Transcripts of the vocal presentation become more self-explanatory as well, since they rely much less on "as you can see here" kinds of visual references. A translated transcription becomes easier to repurpose for expanded multicultural reach.
- Compliance with disability access becomes easier. Non-sighted individuals have less penalty for not seeing busy slides and non-hearing individuals can review transcripts that are more self-sufficient in terms of content and context.
- Simpler visual content automatically transfers the "expert" role back on the presenter rather than on the materials.
How Vendors Can Help
Vendors can help to make this kind of webinar easier to deliver. There are several features that would better integrate telephone and computer integration to facilitate audio-oriented webinars (Most of these are available as standalone options in one product or another, but I don't know of any vendor who has attempted to combine them all for a complete audio-oriented solution strategy):
- Better native phone integration - Options for presenters to be on phone or computer mikes if not using webcam. No lag between phone and computer audio channels. Provide local access numbers from as many countries as possible. Options for all attendees to listen via their choice of phone or computer. Options for hosts to allow toll-free access. Use of individual telephone PINs so the host and presenters can tell who is on the phone on each call-in line.
- Better management of phone attendees - An online console that allows a moderator to see and toggle functions for each call-in attendee: hand raise, hand lower, open mike, close mike, volume controls.
- Phone polling options for single-choice polls - Allow dial-in attendees to participate in polls by punching in a number corresponding to their choice. Integrate the phone responses with computer responses to display complete audience response metrics.
- Smartphone interaction for phone listeners - Allow attendees who call in and listen by phone to use a simultaneous smartphone login to answer in-session polls and to type questions or chat messages.
- Podcast creation - Provide an mp3 format audio recording of a webinar session to allow easy podcast repurposing.
- Audio transcription - Provide automated speech-to-text transcription as part of the standard webinar reports delivered after a session. Or partner with a professional transcription company to provide a low cost transcription service option for webinar recordings at a set cost per minute of recording time. Automate the delivery of the audio recording to the service and delivery of the transcription back to the host's account so that the host doesn't have to manage the process.
A Final Note
I want to close by reiterating that every webinar has its own sweet spot in terms of what materials are optimal to facilitate engagement, interaction, and understanding. The approaches I outline here should not be taken as the way to run every webinar. But vendors and users should both spend time thinking about whether offering audio-oriented webinar options would be a useful option.