Zoom, Webex, and GoToMeeting have all updated their web collaboration products to put video conferencing front and center as the first priority for web meetings. I have no problem with that. It seems like we might be finally approaching the promise of the "Picturephone" first demonstrated at the New York World's Fair of 1964.
Large enterprise video conferencing has used dedicated purpose-built conference room solutions for many years. Polycom, Lifesize, and Cisco are just some of the contenders in that space. I'm always a little leery of their overhyped marketing claims about "just like being in the same room," but again… the concept is solid and seeing your colleagues in a conference is great.
Let's take the case of a presentation-focused webcast or webinar. Maybe using software such as ON24, GoToWebinar, Adobe Connect, WorkCast, BigMarker, or an endless number of others. The vendors are fond of pushing that same video-focused agenda.
I regularly see promotional materials and best practice guides from these companies urging their customers to make sure to include live video of the presenters in their web events. Stated benefits usually include things like better audience engagement and attention. Or greater opportunity to convey information when body language and facial expressions are added to the communication channel. Or even claims that attendees don't take companies seriously who still use "boring, old-fashioned slides and narration webinars."
Poppycock and balderdash. There are certainly a lot of boring and old-fashioned webinars out there. But putting a presenter on webcam does not magically solve the problem.
When it's done right, there is no doubt that presenter video can add to a web event. I will never argue against video in the abstract. In studies and comment roundups, audiences have repeatedly stated their preference for seeing the speakers while they talk. The positives are out there and are being vigorously promoted by the technology vendors. You don't need me to reiterate them here.
Instead, I want to step you through the problem areas you have to avoid. You should only choose to include live video when you have considered these potential traps and ensured that they won't actually make your webcast worse than if you had no video at all.
- Technical setup. When audiences say that they like seeing presenters on camera, do you know what they are thinking of? TV newscasters and talk show celebrities shot in tightly controlled studios with lights everywhere, professional backdrops, multiple cameras, camera operators, sound mixers, boom mic operators, directors, grips, and so on.
Now, what's your typical guest presenter using for your webinar? A cheap built-in webcam and microphone on a laptop computer placed on a desk, looking up into the speaker's nostrils. Harsh overhead fluorescent lights. A bright computer screen reflecting back into the presenter's eyeglasses. A background consisting of messy bookshelves, or a bright window, or colleagues walking past in the corridor.
You can overcome this and get good video, good lighting, good sound, and good "set decoration." But it's not necessarily cheap, convenient, or intuitive. You'll need to test and refine, test and refine. Do you have the time? The budget? The patience? Or will the image you project to the world be worse than the imaginary image your audience has constructed in their minds?
- Bandwidth. Video uses lots of bits flowing through those interweb tubes. The webcam image from each presenter has to go up to the conference server while a preview image comes back down. Attendees have to receive slide images, text streams for chat, audio, and webcam video (sometimes of multiple presenters).
Webinar software is amazing at dealing with all this. But you can bet that the engineers at those companies are testing on nice fat broadband hardwired Ethernet connections. Meanwhile, your presenters and attendees are using wireless internet in offices, airport lounges, and hotels. Even when they are in the office using a good strong wifi signal, they don't realize the router is in the opposite corner of the building on another floor. Or that their coworkers are downloading huge files, watching videos, or overloading the network in other ways.
Result? Buffering, image stuttering, audio breakups, lowered picture quality, angry remote attendees. You'll never be able to track down WHY it's happening, you'll just know it wasn't as good an experience for all participants as it should have been.
- Presenter comfort. Remember those studies and anecdotes saying that people preferred looking at presenters on camera? Presenters feel just the opposite. Everybody wants to see… nobody wants to be seen. Given a choice, most presenters will elect to keep webcam off in a formal presentation.
Presenting can be stressful enough. Add video and you have to worry about your clothing, your hair, your makeup, whether you got spinach in your teeth at lunch. You can't use a script without breaking eye contact with the camera. You get distracted by seeing yourself in a preview window in the conferencing console. Every little unconscious mannerism or movement is accentuated by the near-field focal length on your webcam. Rocking in your chair? Slouching a little? Absentmindedly rubbing your nose? Excessive blinking? Too little blinking? Audiences pick up on ALL these things. How ya feeling about your video celebrity now?
- Editing. This isn't a concern if you just post the raw recording made during your webinar. But what if you want to clean it up to create a higher quality archive of your event? You can't just blithely cut out little bits you don't want, like instructions to the live audience or pauses for interaction breaks. A hard cut on video is immediately obvious to viewers while audio edits may slip by our ears. You'll need video editing software, which is more expensive and trickier to use than audio editing. And forget making lots of little edits to fix small vocal flaws. Your video track will look like Max Headroom (anybody old enough to know that reference?). You can also forget about editing together pieces taken from multiple sessions. The video will never come close to matching.
- Combining prerecorded and live. This is a special case, but is worth a mention. It's on my mind because I've been doing it a lot lately with one of my clients. Let's say you prerecord the main portion of your presentation. Then you schedule a series of live webinars. In each webinar, you start by playing the prerecorded content and then answer the current audience's questions in a live Q&A segment. No problem in a non-video webinar. But if you want the presenters on webcam, you can run into problems (based on your setup and the webinar software you use).
Can you show the presenter webcam video in the same console location during the recorded playback and the live portion? On many platforms, the recording has to contain the slides and presenter video in a single rectangular frame. It gets played back as one complete video. So both the slides and the webcam image get squeezed down to fit in the playback area. Then you switch to live mode and the slides are bigger in the display area, while the live webcam image shows up in its own display space. The difference in the look of the webinar is obvious and jarring for audience members.
Every one of these considerations can be dealt with. I see great webcam-enabled webinars all the time. Well… maybe not ALL the time, but they exist. The question is whether you have thought about these potential pitfalls and worked ahead of time to avoid them. You need more time spent in preparation, setup, testing, and presenter training. Is everyone willing to put in the extra effort? If not, you can still give a webcast featuring presenters on camera, but it may not represent your speakers or your company in as good a light as a well-delivered "old-fashioned" web event using just slides and narration.
One final note... Don't overlook the fact that video need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. Try enabling video at select times during your webinar. Maybe during initial introductions and then again at the end, during Q&A. Or turn it on when engaging in audience interactions at break points throughout your talk. Or just when you need to demonstrate or show a physical object as part of an explanation. Sometimes the extra boost and engagement factor from a little bit of webcam can give greater returns than 60 minutes of a rigidly-framed talking head.