I was listening to a vendor webinar this week and a question came in from the audience asking about the differences in terminology that are used to describe web-based online events. Is a webinar different from a webcast? Is it the same as a web conference? Why do some people say web seminar?
The presenter at first focused on the terms the audience member had asked about and said that "web seminar" is synonymous with "webinar." This is certainly true. Webinar was coined as a shorthand contraction for web seminar. The invented word itself has come under scrutiny lately for its legal protection and public domain status, as reported in The Webinar Blog (with a follow-up as people joined the discussion).
Then the speaker went a step further and intimated that "web event," "webcast," "webinar," and "web conference" were all synonymous since the industry hadn't really settled on any standards for usage. I will admit that you can find many instances where people use the terms interchangeably, but I think we can and should choose more exact meanings for these terms so customers and vendors can communicate clearly when talking about their requirements and product offerings.
Here are the distinctions I have gleaned from my experiences in covering and serving the web-based collaboration space.
"Web conferencing" is often used as an umbrella term for all web-based collaboration between two or more people over the Internet. As such, it may encompass webcasts or webinars depending on the context. But more specifically, web conferencing usually refers to interactive collaboration in work groups, such as brainstorming sessions between employees working on a new business strategy or product design. A typical web conference involves a relatively small number of participants, perhaps 15 as a maximum. Everybodyis expected to contribute to the flow of ideas and information. You sometimes see the term "web meeting" used in exactly the same context.
Technology features important in web conferences may include the ability for all participants to mark up documents or images. Some web conferencing software lets the users capture virtual flipcharts with notes entered by the attendees during the course of the meeting. Keyboard entry for chat is usually open forum and everyone on the conference can see and respond to what anybody else types. It is analogous to an open telephone call.
A "webcast" refers to information dispersed to a large audience via the Internet. It might be just a simple audio stream, or it might include visual aids, such as PowerPoint slides, recorded video clips, or live software demonstrations. In the United States, many large public companies webcast the audio from their investor calls each quarter to review financial results and provide a commentary from management. Some sports teams now webcast their games. Special events such as fashion shows may be webcast withlive video and audio. Webcasting is typically a one-way flow of information, where the audience cannot contribute to the content.
When looking at webcasting technology, companies are usually interested in the capacity for handling large numbers of viewers. Ease of connection and flexibility in supporting many different computer systems is also important.
A "webinar" expands the idea of a webcast into a more interactive format. The experience attempts to reproduce the benefits of attending a live seminar. Audience members can ask questions of the presenter, the speaker can survey or poll the audience and get feedback as he or she delivers the information.
Webinar technology providers need to support these interactive elements in addition to the basic delivery of the audio and video streams. Many software packages also include the ability to schedule events with automated registration for attendees. Some integrate billing and payment processing as well, to support seminars that have registration fees. Keyboard chat features and Q&A are usually subject to more control, where the presenters can see messages from the audience and choose whether to broadcast themto all participants, ignore them, or reply privately.
A "web event" could mean any of the previous three terms, but in common usage it most often refers to a one-to-many presentation such as a public webcast or webinar. It is unusual to refer to a collaborative group session as an "event."
Many technology vendors are loathe to pigeonhole their products for a single type of use by associating them with a narrow definition as described above. A vendor who supports "webcasting software" will typically attempt to make sales to customers producing webinars and web meetings as well. But with improved awareness of the differences in application and a more secure grasp of the subtleties of meaning in the terminology, consumers can make better decisions and engage in more meaningful discussions with theirsuppliers.