Kate Maddox wrote up a brief piece on Ad Age, interviewing the new CMO at ON24, Ken Robinson. Most of it is standard boilerplate commentary that new executives say… "Make sure we are on the same page and share a common language." "My top marketing goals are to continue to further ON24's position in the marketplace." And so on.
But when Ms. Maddox ended with the obligatory "What challenges does your industry face?" Mr. Robinson responded intriguingly:
One of the bigger challenges we face in the webinar or webcasting category is that it is considered 'old-school technology' and has been around for awhile. It is not like the newer marketing automation platforms or some of the newer, next shiny objects. Most people have done a webinar or participated in one. So how do we recreate or create a new problem set in the mind of marketers, so they see us as providing different uses of the platform?
I think it is worth examining this purported "challenge," as it brings up a potential disconnect between webinar technology providers and webinar hosts (I am going to use the terms webinar and webcast interchangeably in this post, as the difference is not germane to this discussion).
Companies that create and sell software products tend to think like Mr. Robinson. They want to "create a new problem set" that their product is uniquely positioned to solve. Product marketing managers at software companies constantly push their engineering departments to add "shiny" new features and cosmetics that are easy to show off in sales demos.
But companies putting on webinars and webcasts should be concentrating on everything EXCEPT the technology! The medium is not the message… Webinar or webcast software should be (as much as possible) a transparent conduit for the smooth and easy flow of information between participants.
This is one of the reasons I shudder every time I see webinar technology vendors urging their customers to "add three polls per webinar to stimulate engagement." Or "make sure to use video of your presenters to improve relatability." Or "allow your audience to place markups on a shared document to foster buy-in."
The availability of all those features is fine. I like having plenty of options as an event coordinator or presenter. But the purpose of the technology vendor should not be to create something cool and then urge people to use it. The technology should allow the presenter to create a two-way communication channel that serves their business purposes without calling attention to itself.
Webinar/webcast technology does a disservice when events have to start with a long recitation to participants on how to use various features. As a moderator, I hate having to start an event by telling the audience how to access hidden panels, switch modes, or find audio options.
Vendors, we don't need new and shiny… We need you to get the hell out of the way and let us tell our story! The art of good presenting should not be contingent on the amount of technical setup and practice we do with your feature packs. It should be contingent on our presentation materials and delivery.
Amusingly, I have written many times in the past that ON24 is the technology that has already gone the furthest in achieving this goal. Their webcasting platform is almost completely intuitive for attendees, who can open, shrink, resize, and move content windows around their screen like all the other windowed applications we are used to dealing with on computers. There is really no need for a moderator to begin an ON24 session with instructions to attendees. They can point and click to their hearts' content and see what each window does in a natural and organic fashion. And although ON24 offers a lot of optional functionality "widgets" to webcast hosts, I would guess that the vast majority never get used. They can be added in if they help the presenter achieve a business communication goal in a particular context, but in most cases they are superfluous and don't even show up in the interface.
I would love to see a webinar/webcast vendor take this approach in selling their technology. Don't push it as the newer, next shiny object that enables you to solve new problems. Push it as the transparent communication channel that disappears into the background of your consciousness. The one that needs no explanation or instructions because "it just works."
Want to impress me? Show me how perfectly you manage to get all the audio and visual content to all participants, no matter their hardware limitations, poor bandwidth, or technical naiveté. Show me the high audio/visual fidelity of your recordings. Show me how little technical training is needed to let a guest presenter come in and simply give the presentation they want to give, without making concessions to limitations or requirements of the technology platform.
Yes, I am happy to have the additional advanced tools of specialized collaboration available to me. But they are not the reason I am going to put on a web event. Stop trying to make me believe I should be worrying about new technologies, new use cases, or new problem sets... I would be delighted if you would solve the existing ones more effectively.