Today’s request comes from long-time reader and all around nice person, Inga. Inga writes:
“Can you do a post on webinars/virtual events due to COVID and what you are seeing?”
Whew… how long do you have? I don’t want to write a novel, so I think I’d better jot down some brief observations in list format. I’ll number these for organization purposes, but the order is irrelevant. This is not a prioritized list.
1) Peer-level web meetings and web conferences are getting all the attention. The total number of webinars and webcasts being delivered worldwide has increased dramatically during the pandemic. But this number is dwarfed into insignificance by the growth in peer-level web collaboration. The media largely ignores structured presentation-oriented web events as opposed to peer-level meetings. Vendors such as Zoom, LogMeIn, and Cisco that make products for the two different use cases are prioritizing support, marketing, and development resources for the web meeting product. Vendors with a single product are doing backflips to prove that they can be applied equally well to both use cases. This is always a lie.
2) Vendor support has deteriorated. It’s a “Perfect Storm” scenario… More users, a higher percentage of new and inexperienced users, higher volume of web events, higher load demands on centralized cloud servers – all at the same time that support personnel are working from home and are not available as much because of childcare/health/computing setup issues. Company support hardware/software systems that route calls are designed for local in-office networks rather than remote home workers. The big third-party support farms in India and Asia are also affected in the same way.
Real-time interactive support channels (online chat and inbound telephone numbers) have been replaced by online forums and email addresses. I was talking to some colleagues recently and three of us shared that we had waited 4-5 months to receive a reply from Zoom to a submitted support request. In my case, I had a back-and-forth with a support person who did not understand how their own product worked and could not understand the operation question. After another month, his supervisor finally gave me an answer to the original question. I ran into a similarly clueless support rep from Webex who needed training on their own product features.
3) Convenience has trumped quality. This one is on the users, not the vendors. Presenters and attendees are using whatever is at hand rather than what will give the best performance. Built-in webcam and microphone on a laptop rather than higher quality accessories. Wireless networking rather than wired connections. Mobile phones for dial-in audio. This is completely understandable, but it interacts with the next point…
4) Network contention is a widespread problem. Home consumer wifi networks were not designed to handle the loads they are seeing. Dad is on a public webinar. Mom is on a company all-hands meeting. Little Timmy is taking a school class online. Teenage Debbie is streaming a movie on Netflix. Sure, it’s possible that they live in an area with high speed broadband or fiber connections and that they elected to pay for extra bandwidth, but you can’t count on that. Which is exacerbated by the next point…
5) Video is being overused. Web conferencing marketing teams have hyped video for several years: “You need video to engage your audience!” It’s a shiny, flashy product feature that is self-explanatory and easy to demonstrate or show in a product brochure. It catches people’s attention. Now every web meeting, seminar, or webcast seems to require everyone to be on camera all the time. It stresses presenters, who have to worry about how they look in addition to their sound and content. It stresses setup convenience in terms of lighting, backgrounds, camera adjustments, use of multiple monitors and sightlines. It stresses networks and cloud distribution networks with the additional bandwidth requirements. And increasingly we are discovering that it stresses viewers, leading to less comfort and satisfaction with online collaboration.
6) Vendors are struggling to deal with HTML5 differences in web browsers. HTML5 was going to be the great leveler… A secure, universal standard that developers could use to replace reliance on Flash in web browser audio/video communications. Except it turns out to be not so universal. Every web browser (and often different release levels of the same browser) have slightly different implementations of the HTML5 communications layer. So you see vendors placing a message somewhere in the middle of all their documentation, saying things like “We recommend the use of Chrome or Firefox.” Does that mean it won’t work at all in Safari? That there may be intermittent problems for some people? That performance may just be a bit slower in Microsoft Edge? We have no way to know as users. But I know I spend a lot of my time as a moderator/admin in client webinars responding to attendee complaints with a suggestion to just try another web browser and see if that fixes things. Not my favorite response strategy, but it’s the same response the vendor support teams give me!
7) Slide upload is getting supplanted by screen sharing. This one is actually not associated with the pandemic at all… It just happens to be coincidental in time, but it’s an important trend. Microsoft PowerPoint has become too powerful and is updated too frequently for webinar vendors to keep up with it and emulate its presentation capabilities inside their own products. Products like GoToWebinar and Zoom have never allowed a slide upload mode and presenters are still willing to use those products by the millions. So why should other webinar companies keep dumping resources into content upload capabilities? They will all eventually bow to the inescapable economic conclusion that it just tain’t worth it. That will be a sad day for me, as I prefer to use content upload when I can make it work.
8) Small frustrations now cause larger impacts. There are lots of little usage frustrations from webinar product to product that don’t count as bugs. They are just design decisions that make life a little less convenient or a little less efficient for webinar administrators, moderators, and presenters. Maybe generated reports require manual editing in order to analyze the data (date/time fields are not sortable because they are text strings, or minutes in session cannot be summed because they have “mins” attached to the numbers). Maybe copying and editing events requires additional steps or out-of-sequence visits to multiple pages and hidden options because the process hasn’t been thought out fully. As web event volumes and frequency go up, these little annoyances add up to create more work for the people who need to support them behind the scenes. The old cliché says that “time is the most valuable commodity,” but webinar vendors seem to place no value whatsoever on our time.
I promised I wouldn’t write a novel about this, so I think I’ll cut it off here and turn things over to my readers. I’d love to see your thoughts and insights in the online comment thread. If you are reading this offline, you can click here to visit the blog post on my site and let me know what else you see happening in our space. We all need to support each other during this time of isolation and remote collaboration!
(I do review and approve comments to keep out spam, and this is a particularly busy week. So you might not see your comment appear immediately, but I’ll publish it as soon as I can.)