I gave a fun presentation today with Citrix Online and Chief Marketer. We covered a lot of ground about organizing and producing public webinars and there were hundreds of comments and questions from the very large audience. In looking over the questions and tweets from the crowd, several people took issue with the fact that Citrix had elected to use a moderated question panel instead of leaving it open so everyone could see an unfiltered stream of what everyone else was typing.
I mentioned during the webinar that I often adjust that setting based on audience considerations. In a smaller webinar or one with a tightly affiliated audience, I usually leave the chat open for all to see. That lets audience members build a tighter sense of community and lets them help each other with answers or suggestions from shared experiences. This is perfect for training classes, in-house meetings, or professional group discussions.
But our webinar today was marketed to the general public. We had hundreds of people in attendance from every possible walk of life. There were experienced webinar coordinators and presenters as well as people new to the subject. There were people in businesses that compete with both Citrix and my company. There were people who wanted to concentrate on my rather fast overview of many items and others who wanted to linger on each topic point and debate details. There were people who used web conferencing for training, for corporate presentations, for marketing, for team meetings, and for dozens of other applications I can only guess at. It was simply too easy for the chat to have blossomed out of control.
Matt Bovell of Vell Group LLC wrote up a firsthand description of a public webinar where the open chat took over the focus of the session. It’s a good cautionary tale. I can add my own experiences of people promoting their directly competing companies, products, and services. I have seen people insult strangers for questions they thought were “stupid.” I have seen people fill up the queue with annoying repetitions and angrily demand attention from the speaker.
So we’ll accept that you might choose to take advantage of the extra security, control, and focus of moderated chat when running an open-admission public event. Does this mean (as one of my attendees tweeted) that you “turn participants into passive listeners” and that your webinar “may as well be video”? I say thee, nay!
Interaction in a webinar is not synonymous with audience open chat. You interact when you invite your audience to respond to specific questions and make reference to their contributions. You interact when you include polls or other canvassing tools (as long as there is a point to the exercise and you make reference to the results). You interact when you introduce subject material in a Socratic method and invite the audience to think instead of just listen. You interact when you choose to share submitted comments and use them to guide you in adding additional detail or changing your pacing or addressing concerns.
The fact remains that a presentation is different than a group discussion. They each have their benefits and their uses. If you advertise an opportunity for many people to hear information presented by one or two people, then you have an obligation to allow that information transfer to take place. If the desire of the group for a discussion period is great enough, you can certainly facilitate that kind of a peer-level meeting and the people who want to participate can take advantage of it.