At Community Leadership Summit, Tamao Nakahara from VMware led a session called “Can Webinars Die Now?!” It was a lively discussion on the challenges of engaging and educating communities through online events. We all agreed that organizing events online is a great way to reach a broader audience, but execution of a high-quality online event is very difficult. The “slides on a screen” webinar format isn’t very engaging, and has become a form of lazy marketing. In our CLS session, we brainstormed lots of methods for moving beyond the standard webinar, many of which I will share below.
Platforms and tools
There’s no perfect tool for online event, but there are many options that provide different degrees of interactivity. Here are some tools and platforms to consider:
- GoToMeeting: GoToMeeting offers a paid webinar product to share screen, webcam, and audio. It also provides international dial-in numbers. Having used many of these platforms, I would consider it the most feature-rich. However, we’ve opted against using it at 10gen because it doesn’t officially support Linux. (Many of our participants are using Linux.)
- WebEx: Webex is a Cisco product providing screen and document sharing, audio broadcasts, and dial-in numbers. Unlike GoToMeeting, you can’t view the speaker while they are presenting. While it (mostly) has cross-platform support, in my experience, it can be a bit finnicky. When it works, it’s awesome, but we almost always have users that can’t log in for inexplicable reasons.
- Adobe Connect: I’ve been consistently impressed with O’Reilly webcasts, which uses Adobe Connect for their sessions. It’s one of the more expensive options but seems to have less issues than WebEx.
- Google+ Hangouts On Air: A Google Hangout provides a video and audio meeting in browser. While the number of participants in a Hangout is limited to 10 people, you can stream that meeting to a larger audience using the On Air feature. The recording is then published to YouTube. Using G+ requires a Gmail account, and their may be accessibility issues in China and at large cooperations that block social networks. (For more info, check out tips and tricks for hangouts on air.)
- Streaming platforms like Justin.tv, uStream, and LiveStream are also worth investigating.
- Wacom: Wacom produces tablets for interactive writing, drawing, and white boarding. With screen sharing using one of the platforms above, integrating the Wacom can make a session far more interactive and engaging. We recently used Wacom for an online MongoDB conference and it was a huge success. However, we had to spend some time with the presenters beforehand to get them comfortable using the tool — it takes some practice to be proficient.
With so many possible tools and formats for online events, it’s interesting to see how different organizations put it all together. Here are some real world examples of successful online events.
MongoDB Online Conference
The CLS session proposal was particularly timely for me, as we recently hosted our first MongoDB Online Conference. It was a two-track conference, with presentations broadcast via WebEx and live Q&A using Justin.tv with a Wacom tablet. We hired a film crew to record the event so that the presenter could focus on presenting, and not on the technology or switching between screens. The presentations sessions and Q&A are now posted online if you’d like to get an idea of how the event went.
We’re now in the process of planning our second online conference, which will be focused on MongoDB version 2.2. This time, we decided to do a single track using Justin.tv. While Justin.tv doesn’t provide registration as WebEx does, the audio quality and the ability to show video of the presenter made it a better experience for the attendees.
Dave Nielsen, the prolific organizer of CloudCamps, participated in the CLS session to share his experiences bringing unconferences online. Dave has successfully organized and facilitated dozens of unconferences around the world where people can exchange ideas on cloud computing. In an unconference, the schedule of session is organized by participants on the day of the event. It’s already a chaotic process in person, so I was surprised to hear that Dave attempted this format online!
Dave organized a two-hour event with 250 participants. In order to simplify the scheduling process, the online unconference was a single track event. He used UserVoice to let people propose and vote on sessions, scheduling the most popular sessions at the beginning of the conference. The sessions took place using GoToWebinar, where attendees could use the “hand raising” functionality to ask questions. There was also a chat room for backchannel conversations.
Alfresco Virtual Meetup
The Alfresco team organized a virtual meetup using Google Hangout on Air. Jeff Potts, the Chief Community Officer, moderated the session. Rather than show slides, he made the session interactive and conversational. Google Hangout allows up to 10 presenters who can broadcast video and audio online. The live stream was embedded on the Alfresco web sites, and after the event was published on YouTube. YouTube also has some light editing capabilities so they could clean up the broadcast after the event. The Alfresco team plans to make these tech talks a monthly event in order to better engage the community.
One drawback is that there isn’t a registration system built into Google Hangouts, which makes it challenging to track participation and follow up with viewers after the event.
Ultimately, content is key
After lots of discussion on the tools and formats, the CLS discussion group reached the conclusion that a better technology platform won’t fix a boring slide deck. Online or in-person, creating great content is crucial for a successful event. And unlike at a conference or a meetup where you have a (mostly) captive audience, during a webinar there are many more opportunities for attendees to zone out, get distracted, or start multi-tasking.
The purpose of a live, online event should be to make the experience as interesting and interactive as possible. Otherwise, people can watch a video on the topic or read about it in the docs or a book. Having a face on the screen can make a huge difference in engaging people, as can using interactive tools during your online session.
For more information on this section, please see the notes on the CLS Wiki.