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Webinars are better, but not yet best

From my sunny office in San Diego, I checked into the happenings at CLO’s spring conference in Miami. I did this by tracking the twitter stream, #closym. One tweet grabbed my attention. A researcher reported that the keyword, webinar, was searched more often than the keyword, elearning. Think about that. People are seeking information about webinars more often than they are drawn to elearning.

A few years ago, Colleen Cunningham, Antonia Chan and I examined the webinar phenomenon. The article, published in CLO magazine, had this snarky title: What Stinks about Webinars. It traced Colleen and Antonia, graduates of the SDSU EDTEC program, as these new graduates sought to continue their professional development via free webinars. The two webinar addicts worked with me to look at the webinar from an instructional design perspective.

That was the problem we found then. Most webinars paid scant attention to instructional design. Consider what you have seen or done recently. Is this true of webinars today?

Their purpose is sales and marketing, not learning and performance. First and foremost, it’s buy our LMS. Appreciate the way we do leader development. Come to our conference. These are not evil purposes. They are fine. And for the audience, it’s not a bad way to look into an idea or vendor. But the webinar in and of itself is a skimpy way to develop yourself to be a better decision maker about, for example, alternative approaches to leader development or the pros and cons of mobile learning for your organizational strategy. Expect that, for the most part, the position taken in the webinar is going to be positive. Do it. Buy it. Try it. Go for it.

They succeed by casting a broad net, not focusing on narrow, tailored needs. Webinars are about numbers, big numbers. The offerings for our community are constructed to attract many workplace learning professionals. That leads to Mobile 101, ID Basics and Five Steps to Better Sales Training more often than advanced, textured, targeted or controversial offerings. While savvy learning and development professionals labor to customize programs for particular needs and opportunities, webinarians go large.

They are about telling, not reflecting, doing or collaborating. one-way webinars
The visual tells the tale. An authority presents, the audience receives. While polling often transpires, the polls tend to the demographic or superficial. It is the rare webinarian who thinks long and hard about how to help attendees work with these ideas and make them meaningful in their organizations. Some grisly webinar tales involve one-way communication, isolation and inactivity. Although hundreds may be gathered online for the event, only sometimes are you permitted to see who is there and to get in touch. One famous author chastised attendees about not paying sufficient attention, although attendees were never sure how he could be certain of their misbehavior. Projection? Just like face-to-face instruction, if you want attention and engagement, you have to design it in.

They are one and done, not systems that reach into the workplace to educate, support or inform. The webinar is what it is, a scheduled moment in time, sometimes available afterwards as an archived asset. Most webinars are popular because of this very limitation. They make a small promise and demand little or nothing of participants. You want to know about ice breakers or mobile performance support, well, here’s 55 minutes about it. You don’t have to read prior and you won’t have to read afterwards. No homework, collaboration or ongoing relationships. That’s a selling point AND a critical weakness. Let’s call it a small investment for a puny return.

Antonia Chan, now an experienced Instructional Design Consultant for Amway, responded to my inquiry about what she now thinks about webinars, four years after we wrote the stinky webinar article.

I feel, overall, that webinars have gotten better  (or perhaps I have learned to pick better?)  Here is what I am seeing:

  • Delivery: Organizers are opening up more interactive features! Presenters are talking more to the audience, they read/laugh/comment about what’s happening in the chat, they provide contact information so attendees are able to follow up with them.
  • Content: There is a great variety of topics, and many are of current interest. Not the same old, same old. I have left webinars feeling that i have learned something new that i can share with my team or use in a project.
  • Marketing: I have found the names/titles of the webinars to be more accurate regarding what will be covered. In the past I was often disappointed with webinars I registered for because they did not meet my expectations . (Advice: Keep webinar’s name catchy and be clear about the content. For example, if you use “new approach” in the title make sure it is really a new approach you are going to be talking about.)

Antonia delivers some good news. Should I recant? I think not quite yet.

Is the situation different today? What is your experience with webinars?

I think that webinars remain, for the most part, as I described them above. They are limited in what they do and deliver. Elearning, on the other hand, is not limited. Elearning is various, with webinars, in fact, serving as one form of elearning. Jim Marshall and I studied this, asking the question, when workplace learning people are doing elearning, what are they doing? Are you delivering via scenarios? Assessments? Personalized learning? Mobile? What about performance support? And webinars, too? Are you blending several strategies that boost learning and also provide support, as needed? While webinars typically rely on a single uni-directional experience, and present as the main event, elearning offers many ways of educating, assessing, guiding, and supporting.

Webinars remain popular with their takers and their makers, and are perhaps now beginning to approach their potential. This will happen when the makers pay intense attention to design, systems, and the value participants take away from the event. The best webinars put the audience first– before, during and after.

What of our expectations? How often do we sign up for one and skip it? What of those who collect snail and email to read while tuning in? Are your moments in webinars perfunctory? Why should webinars deliver more and better when we expect so very little?


  1. I do at least 2 webinars each week, mostly to keep my team together, focused and in-touch with one another. We have about 100 locations scattered across the country and it’s rare that my folks actually see one another. So our webinars are informational (we always have something to share) and inspirational (recognition of top performers and best practices), but they are also personal. We spend a lot of time interviewing participants out in the field, finding out what they’re doing, responding to issues that have come up during the week. Chat logs and raised hands provide the stimulus and often we un-mute several people at once to have a more robust conversation. I think a key is to not be too addicted to your agenda: be prepared to shift gears and go where the meeting is heading – that really makes for a dynamic session. Oh – we also saw a nice increase in participation when we changed the name of one of our meetings from the ‘Broker Roundtable’ to ‘The Power Hour.’

  2. Many webinars do come off as one big sales pitch. However, webinar sponsorships done the right way are a win/win for both the attendees and the sponsor. I invite you to log onto TrainingMagNetwork.com where this is very evident.

  3. Patty Machun says:

    Great article! I too have attended far too many webinars that are more of a sales tool for the speaker or their company than a chance for me to learn something new. As a webinar junkie, I now will attend only those from larger institutions, such as ASTD or ISPI, and will avoid those from sources that appear “too fun” to be true.

    Recently, I watched a webinar touted as the latest and greatest in keeping viewers engaged. It was provided by a for-profit company, and I now know what whistles (literally…the presenters blew whistles and had a boing sound!) to use to capture attention and what smiley faces work best. Their bottom line, money, was more important than my bottom line, helping me create better webinars.

    Like Antonia, I am developing a sixth sense on how to choose them. When they are good, they provide such value. The best thing about a bad webinar? Typically, you can tell very soon, just close up and you didn’t waste a lot of time!

  4. Great article Allison … thanks for providing a great “food for thought” meal for us to chew on. I’m not sure I agree with comparing a webinar to elearning, any more than I would comparing a book to a video … the individual end-user/learner will determine the successful transfer of knowledge. We do about 70 programs a year here at TrainingIndustry.com, and we’re seeing more and more acceptance of webinars as a medium for information delivery.

    I think it’s important to remember that a webinar is no different than a classroom … Both are blank sheets of paper that can be filled with brilliant insights or time-wasting chatter. The webinar is only as good as the people who plan it and deliver it … and attend it.

    To that point, all students/learners need to take responsibilty for their own education. While it’s true that a typical webinar does not have to have follow-up reading or additional lessons you might be given in a classroom, it’s also true that dedicated learners can see these programs as the start of a process, not the culmination. In a classroom (in person or online), a professor starts the process of learning by interesting and inciting his/her learners. The same thing happens in webinars.

    I think the important part is what happens next. If a learner views the webinar experience as something to check off a list and move on, the learning likely ends there. If the learner takes the ball and runs with it, then where they take it is up to them.

    • I do so agree, Tim.

      Webinars can be as good as we make them.

      It’s about expectations, as I said towards the end of the blog post. Consider the expectations of the makers of the webinar. If we are more ambitious about our aspirations, if we actively seek to deliver inspiration and high value ideas to our participations, good things will happen. The webinar form will evolve.

      Just this morning I did a webinar with 366 in attendance. Some threw themselves into it. They chatted. Did most? I don’t know. Hope so. I fear that many were listening to my NY accent as background to their daily activities.

      Participants themselves expect too little. I wrote this above: How often do we sign up for one and skip it? What of those who collect snail and email to read while tuning in? Are your moments in webinars perfunctory?

      Why should webinars deliver more and better when participants expect so very little of themselves and of the webinar form?

  5. My company is also attempting to engage employees using webinars. We are currently in the process of using webinars to market a new leadership series offered by HR. We have had our share of expected mundane technical struggles (audio not working, dead links on slides, etc), not to mention a few entertaining user gaffes (one participant failed to mute herself and shared her full grocery list with the audience).

    As we have continue to roll out more and more webinars we have gradually resolved many of these minor issues, and now our attention has turned to what other people have commented on here– how to encourage and maintain active participation. We made the decision to “mute” all attendees’ audio, but encourage them to chat and ask questions. We make sure to frequently ask questions and encourage them to share their thoughts via chat.

    This strategy has worked nicely for us, but it does not change the fact that just like any classroom, some attendees will actively participate more than others in a webinar. We have learned that with our typicaly audience of 10-15 attendees, we will consistently receive feedback from only 4-5 participants. Quizzes gain more participation, but usually in the range of 60-80%, not 100%.

    Overall, we’ve learned we can expect about 1/3 of the audience to actively participate, 1/3 will listen and respond to quizzes, and 1/3 of participants are likely “participating” in something other than the webinar. In short, it seems to me a webinar is alot like any other classroom; some students engage, some students don’t, and it is up to the instructor to be creative and encourage active learning.

  6. Allison: As always your point of view is like a blast of fresh air. Your insight reflects a deep involvement in what remain the foundations of oiur field, Instructional design, and you artfully inject these ideas into our increasingly complicated instructional technology environments.
    Suffering a tad of jet lag now, was up early reading e-mail and here was you as I experienced the beginning of a new day in Beijing. What a neat dualism…webinars, your artful observations, and a surprisingly blue sky over China’s capital!

    Heading to Lhasa on the 15th…on my China bucket list; see and experience it while I can.

  7. I loved that article and not just because Colleen and Antonia mentioned me by name (I don’t stink as a webinar facilitator!). In a class of 20, I can typically get 90% participation (often 100%). How? I design an interactive, engaging, facilitated learning experience that is dependent on the learners as my collaborators and problem solvers. I tell them up front that I’m not a talking head and that their participation is needed to create a dynamic learning experience. I mention their points aloud, build on their ideas and praise their brilliant comments. My goal is to create a peer-to-peer learning experience in which they get to know each other and I get to know them. It makes delivering a webinar a joy.

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  1. […] Allison also writes, “The best webinars put the audience first– before, during and after.”  Agreed. That’s part of the 3C by 3T Matrix for planning webinars (the 3T are the times of T1 -before, T2-during and T3-after your webinar). […]

  2. […] ample potential. But it is no slam dunk in and of itself. No single solution, not mobile or webinarsor games or even gamification, is the answer. The value of each emerges within systems. Our goal is […]

  3. […] Rossett, A (2012, April) Webinars are better, but not yet best. Retrieved May 20, 2012 from http://www.allisonrossett.com/2012/04/10/webinars-are-better-but-not-yet-best/ […]