Oh dear… This is going to be one of those long and detailed posts for people who really like thinking about webinar details. Get a cup of coffee and prepare for a deep dive!
The subject is what webinar attendees see if they log in before your formal presentation has started. It’s different in every webinar product, and sometimes is different within those products depending on how you use them. In most cases I would argue that the cosmetics and psychology are not well thought out by the webinar vendors.
I’ll pick a few of the most common and well-known webinar platforms as tangible examples, but you’ll find similar things to look out for in whatever technology you happen to use.
We’ll assume that you are familiar with the underlying goal… You want the presenters, moderator, Q&A assistants, and whoever else has a finger in the pie to be able to login early and test their connections, go over last-minute details, and prepare to start on time. Meanwhile, you have encouraged attendees to log in a little early to make sure they are able to connect and start on time. Ideally you don’t want your early bird attendees to see and hear the chitchat going on behind the scenes. The attendees should feel as though they are welcomed, acknowledged, and are encouraged to be a part of the proceedings. In a classic physical auditorium event they would probably hear music piped over the room speakers while seeing some nice graphics on the projection screens at the front of the stage.
Common terminology that goes along with this includes: “Green Room” – this is the private space where presenters can hang out and chat without audience members seeing or hearing them. “Lobby” – this is a holding area where audience members can wait before the show starts.
Let’s start with Zoom. As with most everything else in that product, simplicity is the overriding priority. You don’t have much choice in configuration… It is what it is. The tricky part is that you have to remember to tick a checkbox when you schedule your webinar in order to get the option for private setup time:
I think “Practice Session” is a misleading phrase for this functionality, but there you have it. Now presenters can enter the webinar and communicate in private before the host officially starts the public broadcast. During that time, audience members who attempt to connect see a window like this:
I like the fact that it confirms the start time and the webinar title. I like that it gives attendees an obvious and easy way to check their audio. I don’t like the fact that they see a rotating circle icon, which gives the impression that the system is still processing something and hasn’t completed the information display. I don’t like the fact that it uses the qualitative phrase “will begin soon.” Is it really soon if people have logged in 30 minutes early? I’d be happier with options to edit the displayed text (especially on the fly to send announcements). And I’d love a way to be able to get on audio and say something to the waiting throngs. But those are more advanced features than I have a right to expect from Zoom.
Our next example comes from GoToWebinar. That product gives you two ways to handle green room time. Your first option is to run the event in “Practice Mode.” Almost identical to the Zoom operation discussed above, this keeps early attendees in a holding status, looking at a similar predefined window:
Pros and cons are similar to those mentioned with Zoom, but once again there are unfortunate choices of phrasing baked into the window. “The meeting will begin when the organizer arrives” makes it sound like the host simply forgot to show up for their own event, not that things are going on in the background. I also don’t like referring to webinars as meetings. And at the bottom, it offers a question and option that are not appropriate for registered attendees. I’d rather they see something that doesn’t make it look like we have no idea who organized this thing or where they are. I get the distinct impression of a “Does anyone know how to fly this plane?” scenario.
But there is another choice in GoToWebinar. You can start the webinar and choose to hold off on starting the broadcast. In this mode, attendees actually complete the login process and see anything that is currently being shared by the active presenter. They can type questions, they can see typed chat announcements from the host, they can benefit from “lobby slides” that give instructions or questions or information before the official start time. It’s a great way to add early engagement and really make people feel like they are sitting in the auditorium waiting for the show to start.
What are the drawbacks?
1) Presenters can’t really “flip through” their slides. The audience sees whatever the team sees.
2) There is no way to give an audio announcement while staying in private mode.
3) In GTW, panelists need to be raised to organizer authority in order to see typed audience questions. That presents them with a big prominent button at the top of their control panel prompting them to “Start Broadcast.” They’ll push it, trust me. If they are on telephone audio, they’ll get a similar confusing voice prompt to press 1 to start audio, which sounds like something they have to do for their own audio. It’s terrible design.
4) If panelists use webcams, early attendees see placeholders for the camera feeds with no content. It lists each person’s name and the word “Paused”:
I might not want to show the names of everyone on the team. I don’t want attendees wondering why the visible content area is small and they can’t see something. It’s just not necessary… If no cameras are broadcasting to the audience, don’t show the camera area.
For our third example, let’s take a look at Webex Events. Webex offers a Practice Mode that isolates the presentation team from attendees. So attendees complete their login process to the conference room and they can type questions. But Webex offers a couple of lovely extra features…
1) You can load a PowerPoint slide deck into the conference room and set it to automatically scroll through the slides on a timing delay of your choice:
Now you can enter Practice Mode and flip through your content slides with the team while attendees continue to see the auto-advancing slides in the main room. Great for displaying instructions, greetings, branding, etc.
2) You can exit and enter Practice Mode as many times as you like. So as host, I can tell the rest of the panelists to shut up while I take us public to deliver a standby announcement, then bring us back to Practice Mode immediately afterward. Very handy if you are facing a crisis and have to delay the start of your presentation.
But of course all is not perfection. Webex has that same old fixation on presenter video, showing placeholders for webcam feeds even when no panelist has webcams turned on… In fact, even when the event has been explicitly set up to prohibit use of webcam video!
And did you happen to notice the wide oval near the top of the slide display that says “Viewing Lobby”? Lobby.pptx is the name of the PowerPoint file I loaded into the room. Webex shows the file name to the attendees. Why? Why on Earth would I want them to see the arbitrary designation I gave the file in my directory? Ugh.
As I mentioned, other webinar platforms have their own capabilities and quirks. It behooves you as a webinar host, administrator, or presenter to understand how things work in the technology you are using. If practical, try to log in on a separate computer as an attendee so you can see their view.
As a general best practice, attempt to get out of private “green room” mode as early as possible so you can start interacting with your audience and making the experience conversational. Getting them in the mood to be active participants will pay off in greater engagement and satisfaction during the formal presentation.