Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Webinar: Poised for a Face Lift

There are a number of reasons why the webinar format has not advanced in close to a decade.

A webcast is at its essence a "few to many" broadcast experience. Like radio, it is designed for a small group of content creators to communicate with a large audience. Live Q&A via text, polling and surveys can create some interactivity, but true collaboration with an audience of hundreds or thousands is impossible - both technologically and practically.

There have also been some technology limitations placed by encoding formats and user bandwidth that has kept the audio webinar in a predictable "audio with slides" box. But in my opinion the biggest reason for the stagnation of the webinar is the prohibitive cost of the next logical step: video.

With an audio webinar, slides are uploaded in advance and converted to the correct format. Speakers then simply have to dial in to a telephone bridge and access the webinar software with their computers to advance their slides. The webcast provider will connect the telephone bridge to a hybrid audio device for encoding in the right format for streaming. In short, the production costs are limited to the cost of a conference call.

Speakers can be anywhere with a telephone and a broadband connection. That portability is what has made the audio with slides webinar a relatively inexpensive yet effective lead generation tool.

With a video webcast, the production requirements go up dramatically: lights, cameras, onsite encoding, etc. Speakers have to be in a studio, or production equipment has to be brought to the speakers' location. Either choice is expensive.

And while having multiple presenters with an audio webinar is as easy as having another participant join your conference bridge, having multiple video presenters in different geographies is a significant technological challenge.

The statistics out there vary from 60% to 90%, but I think we can all agree that a majority of communication is non-verbal. Video is always preferable to audio-only, and the video webcast market is growing. But the standard "webinar" format has remained video-free because until recently the cost increase from audio with slides to video with slides has been as much as tenfold.

Even if the cost increase is only five-fold, a video webinar would be a richer experience for the audience but the audience would not grow by five times. There would not be five times as many qualified leads generated. The sponsor would not pay five times as much for the sponsorship. So, the webinar remains firmly entrenched in audio.

But this is about to change. The webinar format can now easily and affordably include live video - with presenters in multiple locations.

My company, IVT (Interactive Video Technologies), has a webcasting software that allows users to easily accommodate video from multiple locations. You can input video from a high end capture card or a simple plug and play webcam. The administrator can switch between multiple video feeds with a click of a mouse.

With our software, the encoding is handled by the Flash Player that is already loaded on the remote speaker's computer so the encoding process for a remote speaker in an office or a hotel room is transparent. As a matter of fact, the administrator can remotely control the settings of every camera or capture card connected, so technical people do not have to be on site with the speaker to make things work.

This brings the cost back in line with the audio webinar. In this new model, a speaker needs only to plug in a webcam to be a video presenter in a webcast; a process just as easy as calling a phone bridge. In both cases, speakers would have to also access the webcasting software with a broadband connection to flip their slides.

IVT software also makes it easy to combine pre-recorded video with live video, share a desktop for application demos, white boarding, etc. I am sure as encoding formats continue to advance, even more innovations will follow.

Another important tool I believe future webcasts will utilize is the ability to embed an IFrame right on the media player. In the past, webcasting software limited the ability to customize the audience experience. With our software you can embed active code right on the player. For example, instead of the common text Q&A experience, you can embed a popular IM program like AIM right on your player and enable the audience to instant message (IM) the speakers and each other throughout the webcast – enabling a running commentary.

This is a significant advance over the standard text Q&A interface, where viewers can submit questions but cannot see the questions submitted by others in the audience, nor can they communicate with others in the audience.

Admittedly, this ability might scare off many content creators who do not want to allow a running commentary and cross-talk that they cannot control. But the point is that the conditions are ripe for the "webinar " to undergo a significant face lift.

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