Hooray! I’m finally allowed to talk about the new release of Adobe Connect (Release 9). It has been in beta for some time, but today they made the formal product announcement and removed the embargo on talking about its new features.
Unfortunately you still have to wait a while to use it… Availability is scheduled for late summer, starting with on-premise licenses and being phased in across Adobe’s various servers for customers using the hosted (SaaS) model. I seem to recall that Release 8 took a long time to finish the phased rollout to all hosted customers when it was released, so there is no telling when you might see Release 9 on your account.
This is the release I have been waiting for. Adobe got serious about upgrading Connect’s applicability for external business webinars. They added significant functionality around registration, attendee communications, customer-level and event-level branding, lead tracking, reporting, and analytics. Enterprise marketers should go gaga for the new capabilities.
In addition, Adobe beefed up support for mobile devices… Not just for attendees, but for presenters as well. And they enhanced features to support enterprise-level eLearning while they were at it.
Current users will be happy to hear that there are no major changes to the look and feel inside the conference room that would require retraining your presenters or that would shock recurrent attendees to your webinars. Improvements have been made in mostly subtle ways… For instance, you can hide title bars on pods and you can use your own arbitrary graphic as the background wallpaper inside the room. Pleasant and appreciated, but not earthshaking. My favorite addition in the room is the ability to run a real-time interactive poll that allows type-in answers. You can display the responses to the audience, acting as a great brainstorming whiteboard.
The mobility story is easy to summarize as well. You will be able to present from or attend from just about any mobile device -- whether iOS (such as an iPad), Android, or BlackBerry PlayBook. They added some touch-screen enhancements to allow “finger painting” whiteboard annotations and selection of meeting content. The one restriction I noted is that you can’t select document files living on an iOS device’s local memory. So presenting slides, PDFs, or anything other than a simple photograph from an iPad requires a pre-meeting step of uploading the content to your Adobe account on the server. Android devices do not have this limitation.
The eLearning side of things will now support HTML5 and SCORM 1.2 content. They are adding a more comprehensive course registration module, while Presenter and Captivate will get upgrades as part of Adobe’s ELS (eLearning Suite).
With that out of the way, let me return to the big enhancements in webinar management. Adobe is making a clear statement here. They want to go after enterprise and government applications of web conferencing for lead generation and public outreach. Management of these public-facing web events is necessarily more complex than simple ad hoc web meetings or internal web conference sessions. Setting up webinars and taking advantage of all the new features takes extra time and effort. A designated webinar administrator will need to become familiar with the behind-the-scenes functionality and will do plenty of customization work when creating webinars. But the results you can get justify the extra labor.
The base level Adobe Connect product will work much the same way that it currently does. You’ll have access to a meeting room supporting web conferences of up to 100 people. If you want more capacity in your meeting, you purchase a “seminar room.” These can go up to 1500-person meeting sizes (newly upgraded from the previous 600 maximum).
Adobe used to charge a large fixed amount for these seminar rooms, no matter how many people you wanted to support. So as soon as you exceeded 100 people, you had to pay for the full maximum possible room size. When I spoke to Guillaume Privat, the director of product management for Adobe Connect, he confirmed that seminar room pricing will now be tiered, enabling customers to create a more reasonable relationship between capacity needs and cost.
The second optional purchase you can make for your account is the Events Module. This is where the fun comes in. To be perfectly honest, I never thought the Events Module in Adobe Connect 7 and 8 was worth the extra cost. Its functionality didn’t match the sophistication and flexibility of the rest of the web conferencing platform. I’m singing a different tune with Release 9.
Here are some of my favorite enhancements for Events:
- Rich customization of public-facing pages. Registration page customization in most webinar products consists of “place a fixed-size logo in the upper left corner of the page and select the additional fields that should appear after our standard registration fields.” But Connect will now let you do customization that is worthy of the term. Using an integrated online version of Adobe’s CQ content management system, you can drag and drop text elements, graphic elements, event-specific runtime parameters (such as title, start time, duration, etc), registration fields, and more onto a web page. The event can truly look like you own it, rather than Adobe owning it. In addition to registration pages, you can construct landing pages for event information; speaker information with pictures, bios, and links; and login pages for entering the event. Unfortunately you can’t get to the underlying HTML code, as CQ is not a code-generator system. But this is the first do-it-yourself ability I have seen for being able to fully customize and test different landing page layouts, colors, and branding.
- Rich customization of emails. Everything I said in the last paragraph applies to attendee emails as well. You have full drag and drop customization of HTML emails for things such as registration confirmation, reminders, and follow up messages. The limitation here is that Connect cannot send multi-part messages with a text version for people unable or unwilling to view HTML emails.
- One-time registration. Connect currently requires webinar registrants to create an account on your system, with an email and password. This is convenient for people coming back to multiple events, but is a pain for people just wanting to get to a single webinar. Being forced to create an account can definitely reduce registration rates. Now Connect lets you bypass that step and just fill in the registration fields for the one event in question. By the way, you can create tracked registration to give access to individual documents or recordings on your server as well.
- Lead tracking analytics. Adobe has integrated full lead tracking all the way through the engagement process. You can set up parameters on the URL that brings people to your landing page or registration page. From then on, Connect tracks them all the way through the system. You can get reports showing the “funnel numbers” for each tracked campaign or lead source. How many people visited the landing page. Of those, how many clicked through to register. How many of them completed registration? How many then attended? How long were they in session? How much did they interact with the software during the session? And if your company uses Adobe’s SiteCatalyst, you can dump all the information into that marketing analysis tool to be cut, aggregated and reported as desired. You can even set up lead qualification criteria based on a combination of an attendee’s registration field demographic answers and their real-time behaviors during the webinar. So a sales rep could give higher priority to an attendee who asked a lot of questions than to someone who just passively watched the presentation.
- Graphical reporting. Post-webinar reports get some very fancy online eye-candy. Lead funnels, minute-by-minute attendance and engagement, poll results, and more can all be seen online with nice graphic depictions. Some even allow interaction to focus in on details. This feature needs some extension in a future release to allow saving or downloading the information in graphical format. For the moment, downloaded reports are numerical only.
- Microsite event catalogs. Does your company run a lot of webinars? Now when you set them up, you can generate a customizable, branded “microsite” that displays a catalog of your webinars. You can categorize them to let people browse within a particular topic area. They can sort the list by name or date, or see the webinars on a calendar. And the entire microsite can be embedded as an iFrame object on your company’s web page. So you can make it an integrated part of your website hierarchy.
As I mentioned earlier, the Events Module won’t be appropriate for everyone. The cost (not released at this time) and the administrative effort required won’t be practical for most individuals or small businesses. But larger organizations with dedicated marketing departments should be able to create more effective public webinar campaigns than were previously possible in a do-it-yourself product.
I’m guessing this will be a boon (and economic boom) for the many value-added channel partners who work with Adobe to resell Connect and provide service and support for clients.
If you ever wondered about the difference between webinars and web meetings, the Events Module in Adobe Connect 9 makes it abundantly clear.