Most web conferencing products give hosts the option of displaying or hiding attendee chat messages for other attendees. In a small collaborative session, chat is usually left public, as an open forum to stimulate discussion and a sense of community. In larger webinars and webcasts that are open to a wider audience, hosts often keep the chat “privatized” so that presenters and administrators can see questions and comments, but participants can’t see the general discussion stream.
You are certainly under no obligation to choose one mode or the other for any particular webinar you may present. But if you do choose to open up the chat display, I recommend keeping some best practices in mind.
1) The most important tip is that you MUST assign someone on your team to the task of monitoring and dealing with the chat stream. This is not the responsibility of the presenter. Sure, the presenter should check in with the chat stream now and then. But they can’t respond to every message or constantly interrupt their own delivery to deal with issues. One or more people need to have this as their assigned responsibility.
2) Respond to complaints. When people complain, they want to feel like they are being heard. It is tempting to stay quiet and just let them vent. “If I respond, it will only add fuel to the fire.” But what I see much more frequently is that unanswered gripes escalate. Other attendees start chiming in as well. The original complainer gets more and more irate and suddenly a minor frustration has turned into an all caps curse-fest. You can often cut this off early by simply acknowledging the legitimacy of the annoyance (yes, publicly). “I’m sorry you are having problems seeing the animations. We can’t fix it right now, but we will be sure to address it before our next webinar. Thanks for letting us know.” Now there isn’t much else the originator or anyone else can add. A complaint has been raised, and you have acknowledged it with a plan of action. What’s left to be said?
3) Deal with troublemakers privately. Some issues should not be dealt with in the public forum. A private technical problem or user error doesn’t need to interrupt everyone else’s discussion stream. Inappropriate contributions may deserve a warning message in private. Hopefully your software has a way to send a private message to an individual attendee even in a public chat room. If it doesn’t, you might want to reconsider your vendor.
4) Quickly answer “is this actually a live session?” The whole point of a live webinar is to build a sense of two-way collaboration. If people think they are just watching a prerecorded presentation and that they are being played for chumps, they can become non-receptive. If you are using prerecorded content, try to find a webinar product that lets you see and respond to live chat while the content is playing.
5) Be prepared to remove inappropriate posts or attendees. One of the features I love in omNovia is the ability to delete an individual chat message from the discussion stream. I have removed messages from people advertising their business, messages abusing other attendees, messages accidentally typed by presenters thinking they were communicating privately with the hosting team, and more. This is still an unusual feature and I wish more vendors would implement it. If you can’t remove individual messages, you may need to boot an abusive attendee right out of your webinar. Learn how to do this and give your chat monitor the authority to do so.
6) Consider switching between private and public chat during the webinar. Again, this functionality may or may not be possible in your web conferencing product. I will often use an open chat panel for ten minutes before the official webinar start time. We can chit-chat about the weather, where people are located, or other innocuous topics. I want attendees to see that this is live, collaborative, and safe to participate. Then during my main presentation I might go to privatized chat. If I want to get some brainstorming or open participation, I can switch back to public mode again. Adobe Connect has one of the best implementations of this functionality, as you can switch between multiple chat windows. This lets you open up chat for a specific purpose without showing all the other comments and questions that have been coming in behind the scenes. Very convenient!
I think a half dozen tips are probably sufficient for you to get the idea. Attendee chat is one of the best features of web conferencing, but it can definitely be a double-edged sword. How you prepare and manage it has an effect on the professionalism with which you come across.