I am finally ready to follow through with a promise I made in November. At that time, I reported ON24’s announcement of their Webcast Elite webcasting software. You should go back and read the previous post to get the basics of ON24’s market strategy and target customers.
What with the holiday season and a rush of year-end activity, it took me till January to try out the new product on a trial basis. Here are my impressions. Please note that this is based only on quick testing. I have not used Webcast Elite for a real public-facing webinar.
My admiration is undiminished for the user experience that the new ON24 Webcasting Platform 10 allows. Pretty much everything that I reported as an attendee at a recent ON24 web event can be provided through the Webcasting Elite product.
But setting up and delivering a public webcast is a mixed bag. Some things are fancy, new, and exciting, full of configuration features. Others are waiting for enhancements that will obviously be coming later.
This is ON24’s first foray into letting their customers run the show themselves without extensive customization, setup, and support services from ON24. I was able to navigate my way through the process, but there are little rough spots that will be easily smoothed in future product revs with additional explanatory text and context-specific help. Help is currently provided through a single long scrolling help document in HTML format. I wanted more instances of tooltip popups and little notes right on the setup screens for things like telling me what size graphics I can import for logo customization and similar details.
My single biggest complaint is the lack of configuration allowed around registrant/attendee emails. ON24 has canned emails for registration confirmation, two reminders, thank you for attending, and sorry we missed you. You can choose to send or suppress any of those, but that’s all you can do. You cannot change when reminders go out (2 days and 2 hours before the event). You cannot change a word of text in the email. You cannot send one follow-up message to all registrants. This will definitely need to be opened up for customization.
The major new piece of functionality in Webcast Elite is the Console Builder. This runs as a web-based application, letting an administrator control the content and interactivity that will be available in the webcast. The best analogy I can use is that the attendee’s browser window becomes a little webcast operating system. They can open, resize, move, and shrink windows to do different tasks. They get a menu bar with icons that acts like the taskbar in Windows. So the administrator’s job is to layout the applications that will be available in the webcast world.
Obvious choices include a presentation area for slides and a Q&A window. You might choose to include a group chat window. And maybe a media player to show a presenter on webcam or to play back a canned video clip. But it gets much fancier than that.
Even in this early phase, there are 27 of these application widgets available. Some are excitingly novel. For instance you can display a brainstorming window that lets participants add ideas, comment on existing ideas, and vote them up or down. Or you can add a “Share This” window that lets attendees quickly post about your webinar on common social media sites. You can let them tweet inside an event using their own Twitter account and see a stream of tweets related to a hashtag or a keyword. You can add presenter biographies, contact links, additional resources, images, an RSS feed reader, and even an in-room access to Wikipedia! In fact it is easy to get carried away and add too many of those toys to an event, overwhelming your audience or giving them too many distractions from the real content.
The administrator can choose many customization features, such as replacing ON24’s default icons, changing the order of the icons on the menu bar, deciding whether to let attendees move or resize the widget window, etc. Unfortunately there is no “Big Brother” functionality to let the presenter dynamically turn on and turn off widget functionality for the audience during a webcast. Either it’s there and usable, or it’s not. So you can’t turn public group chat on and off based on audience behavior. You can’t remove distractions such as the brainstorming widget when you aren’t actively using it. Any attendee might choose to open any available widget window at any time. I would like to give the presenters more dynamic control over the active environment during a webcast.
Administrators lay out the size and position of each widget window when it first displays. Then you might let attendees move them around. But you have to be careful… If you have a big wide monitor running at high resolution and you place a widget’s initial display position to the far right or bottom of the display area, an attendee with a smaller screen might not be able to see the widget when they open it. There are no scroll bars… Information off the screen is lost. If none of the widget window is in the active screen area, there is no way to grab it and pull it back onto the screen. So it’s important to keep the initial layout compact. This will be more critical as ON24 moves towards greater support of attendees on mobile devices. I think they need to add a scrollable display area so every attendee can get to the entire console layout area.
As you can see, building a console and configuring everything is a serious administrative task for someone who understands the ramifications of each decision. It is not something that a casual presenter would do. But ON24 has added the ability for companies to create layout templates that can be used for new events. An administrator might have a standardized “marketing webcast” layout that any presenter could use for a new marketing event. It would be nice if ON24 provided one or two starter kit layouts for their customers so that a new administrator is not faced with a blank page the first time they see the system. But I think their account support team helps new customers get things set up initially, so customers are unlikely to come at the system completely cold like I did.
There are some other features that deserve special mention. One of my favorites is that each event comes with a reports link. The administrator can send the link to stakeholders on the event team who can use it to get an instantaneous update on registration and other aspects at any time. This takes a burden off admins having to run and forward reports on demand for team members.
Question handling also has some great functionality. Admins can set arbitrary status codes that the presentation team can use to mark questions for each other (such as “Ask Me This” and “Skip This”). Questions can be assigned to an individual for handling. The presenter can select a question and automatically show it in the slide presentation area to all attendees. This is a great feature for public Q&A sessions at the end of events, so attendees aren’t looking at a boring “Q&A” slide for 15 minutes.
While ON24 has been busy creating an exciting new model for webcast layout, functionality, and interaction, the same cannot be said for the presenter experience. Presenters use a Presentation Manager application that is separate from the fancy interactive console layout and has been used with the last several releases of ON24 webcasting. Oh, it does what you need, but it is definitely a generation behind the Flash-based interactions in the attendee console. Pushing slides, pushing polls, displaying poll results and so on feel kind of clunky by comparison. Mark Szelenyi, the Senior Director of Webcasting Product Management at ON24, confirmed that updating the presentation experience is next up on the roadmap. But that should not stop people from using Webcast Elite right now. The presentation controls are fully functional, just not pretty yet. Thousands of presenters have used them successfully over the years, so it’s nothing to worry about.
Although there are lots of other details I could write about, this is already too long for a simple blog post! Let’s sum it up…
ON24 Webcast Elite offers an exciting new way to provide more interactivity and user control during a webcast. Audiences should love it. Setup is more complex than with other fixed-display web conferencing consoles and someone at your company needs to take on the task of becoming the expert who understands option choices, widget functionality, and layout considerations. Presenter controls are the same as in previous ON24 products and don’t feel integrated with the fancy new display interface.
Major drawbacks at the moment include a lack of options and customization in registrant emails, and support that is limited to “Fill out a form and we’ll get back to you” except in the emergency case of something affecting an active web event.