Zoom has become ubiquitous over the last several months of global work from home operations. Has Zoom’s widespread adoption as a peer-to-peer conferencing tool led to greater use of Zoom Webinars for presentation-oriented events? I can’t find any hard data to answer the question, but it certainly feels that way. After years of almost no interest in Zoom Webinars from my clients, I now see frequent requests for that platform.
This has given me the opportunity to revisit my early impressions of Zoom Webinars from three years ago. Has the product matured? Have they incorporated design improvements learned from years of practical application in the field?
In certain specific areas, I’m pleased to say yes. Typed Chat and Q&A functions work more intuitively these days. Reports are no longer jumbled together into one big worksheet with sections that don’t match up under consistent column headers. So hooray for that!
But in other ways, I remain frustrated with the technology. The webinar-specific product still reflects a lack of clear intentional design. You can tell that functionality has been added in a piecemeal fashion, without attention to logical groupings or workflow efficiency. It makes the product more difficult than it should be to learn and use properly.
The main strength of Zoom Webinars is the strength of Zoom Meetings…. The participant experience is smooth, uncluttered, and to repeat a phrase you hear a lot when people talk about Zoom: “It just works.” It’s easy to join a webinar, easy to turn on your webcam and microphone, easy to share a screen. Screen sharing and video camera performance is very good. Part of that is inherent in the performance advantages of an installed client over a browser-based solution. Part of it comes from the fact that this was the design goal of Zoom from its founding.
The problem areas are mostly seen by administrators and hosts working behind the scenes. Few of the issues are actual bugs… It’s mostly a case of things just being frustratingly restrictive, inflexible, confusing, or poorly designed.
I’ll start with a situation I ran into with one of my early webinars in Zoom. My client wanted to use Breakout Rooms in their event. It turns out that Breakout Rooms are not available in webinars… They are only enabled in meetings. This is a pity, as the functionality is perfect for controlled sessions with presenter and attendee roles. The bigger problem is finding that limitation.
The online help documentation for Breakout Rooms mentions meetings, but that term is loosely applied across different help articles in the Zoom universe. Sometimes it means “Zoom Meetings only” and sometimes it means “Zoom sessions – Meetings and Webinars.” Nowhere in the article does it mention that the feature doesn’t work in webinars. Nor does the restriction show up in the section on “Limitations.” I had to search the documentation library for “Meeting and webinar comparison,” which included a table of features. Then I had to look down the Webinar column to look for features that have an N/A listed. By scrolling through the long list, I could find that Webinars do not support reaction emojis, file transfer, and breakout rooms. Now I know, but it’s one of those learning curve issues that could definitely be improved.
Webinar setup and customization leaves room for improvement as well. Take setting up a custom registration page as one example. You can enter custom registration questions that get added to the page. But once they have been added, you can only add new questions at the end of the existing list. There is no ability to change the order of your custom questions or insert a new one in the middle of the list. I had tons of fun when my client asked me to add “Other” as an optional text box after our first custom question. I had to delete everything below it and then type them all in again, one after the other. Not a calamity, but time consuming and irritating.
Email customization is rudimentary at best. You can cancel registration for attendees and you can set an option for canceled people to receive a notification email. But you can’t customize any part of the email they receive. Registration confirmation emails allow you to slip in two text blocks in designated places in Zoom’s otherwise strictly formatted message body. The upper text block throws away preceding or trailing blank lines, and jams the custom text against the surrounding Zoom template text. The lower text block always adds preceding and trailing blank lines.
Follow up emails are another highly restrictive design area. You can schedule a follow up to go out up to 7 days after the event. If you miss that window, you are out of luck… There is no way to send anything. And if you want to change the Reply-To name or email for your follow up emails after the event? Forget it. There is also no way to see a preview of your email while editing, and the system will only email a preview to the designated account host.
Recording and reporting remain areas where Zoom would benefit from a design review in both Meetings and Webinars. It’s almost impossible to predict where webcam video will end up in a recording based on whether it goes to the cloud or a local computer, how many presenters have cameras on, and other factors I still haven’t figured out! If you show a poll in your webinar and share the results in the session, the results display does not end up in the recording. In reports, Webinars lack the feature to consolidate multiple records per participant that Meeting reports have as an option. This means you get a row every time a person leaves and rejoins the webinar (or more commonly, has a brief internet drop that isn’t even noticeable to them during the session).
I’ll close this by mentioning a big problem at the moment. Widespread adoption has placed an overwhelming support workload on the Zoom customer support team. Three years ago I wrote about how impressed I was with my ability to quickly reach a knowledgeable support rep through online chat at almost any time. Throw that comment right out the window. The standard “Pro” paid account now receives low priority responses by email whenever they get around to it.
I asked a tech question during the pandemic and received a reply four months later. And the person who replied did not understand the area of functionality I needed help with. He simply gave me a link to a page listing the difference between a Zoom Webinar and a Zoom Meeting. I finally asked if he could escalate my request to a supervisor or more senior rep. I received no response… He simply stopped sending emails. After another month, I received a reply from someone else in the tech department who understood what I was asking. I mentioned this to colleagues and they told me that they had seen similar delays of 3-4 months before receiving replies to support questions. But one of my contacts said that after upgrading his Zoom account to a higher-priced business license, he received rapid responses to questions. So it looks like they may be prioritizing those accounts. This can be a real problem for webinar hosts… If something is going wrong, we need a way to get help that doesn’t involve waiting for months.
My final analysis? Sure, you can use Zoom Webinars. The in-session performance is good and both guest speakers and attendees are likely to be familiar with the basic operations. As a webinar host, you’re going to have to resign yourself to some things being confusing, some things not offering the flexibility you might have hoped for, and some things taking more time and manual effort than you would like.
Three years ago I closed my review with this sentence: “It's not that it needs more features… It just needs some hardcore use case analysis and refinement of existing functionality to make it more intuitive and flexible for webinar administrators and presenters.”
That seems like a reasonable way to end this review as well.