Marketers have heard the calls over and over for how they should operate over the last two months: Be transparent. Be empathetic. Be compassionate and considerate in messaging to recipients under duress during a pandemic. But how about the ways marketers can do that? What media, for instance, can marketers turn to to demonstrate these necessary traits as the world still operates under a cloud of uncertainty amid COVID-19?

Webinars are naturally spiking since we’re glued to our virtual worlds more than ever. “We're connecting like never before,” said Mark Bornstein, vice president of marketing for ON24, a webinar software platform. “Social interactions and digital interactions all used to be bite sized, and now people are so hungry for engagement and for communication and connection and those long-form digital experiences are actually what people are hungry for.”

We reached out to Bornstein and others to share some tips on providing a strong webinar experience. Is it time to throw out the usual playbook for webinars in this unprecedented time? Or is "sticking by the book" the safe choice?

People Are Connecting on a Human Level

For starters, Bornstein said he’s encouraged by recent webinars he’s seen and ones in which he’s participated. Marketers and webinar leaders, he said, are throwing out the playbook and just being themselves. They’re not worrying about the perfect slide deck, or the best visual backgrounds with superior lighting.

In times like these, when all of us are accustomed to sometimes spotty virtual connections through platforms whose bandwidths are reaching new levels, listeners and viewers are rather forgiving, Bornstein said. “Honestly, I feel like these have been some of the best webinars I have seen in a long, long time,” he said. “People are just being more of themselves, and they're less robotic. They’re connecting on more of a human level. Instead of having to give best practices, it's happening naturally.”

Don’t be afraid to seize the opportunity to just show your truest self, Bornstein said. We’re all delivering webinars from home now. Show off your home and be yourself. Don’t try to be perfect or set up the perfect background, he added. If your pet jumps into the presentation, roll with it. “We’re all in the same situation,” Bornstein said. “We’re becoming more conversational. I can’t tell you in the last few weeks how many webinars I’ve seen where there were no slides. And it’s like open office hours and kind of a discussion where you've got two or three people on this screen, almost like a collaboration tool, but it's a webinar where we're talking to each other.”

Here's a good example of a webinar that brings out the human side of the presenters and relies less on slides and visual charts:

Make Things Interactive

Interactivity with your audience is crucial for a successful webinar, especially in times like the COVID-19 crisis, according to Daniel Burstein, senior director of content and marketing at MECLABS Institute. “There's nothing worse than rambling on and on and ignoring your audience,” Burstein said. “If it is not interactive, why should your audience go to the effort to watch at a specific time? They could just be watching a video instead. After all, a webinar is just a live video. So the webinar has to be what TV execs call appointment viewing. Why should they pay attention? They could just zone out and check their email, or hop off the webinar entirely.”

Given the current stay-at-home orders, this interactivity is probably more important today than it ever was, he added. It’s about answering the audience's questions, learning from the audience, allowing them to connect with each other, and, for today's unique challenges, just fostering some virtual human connection. “This all really ties into my bigger tip: make it about the customer,” Burstein said. “Put the customer first. While webinars usually don't have a monetary cost, they are not free: customers pay with their time and information. So a webinar is essentially a product that should deliver value.”

Related Article: Virtual Events Will Not Replace Face-to-Face Events

Remember Your Webinar X’s and O’s

Can some of the standard webinar tips be tossed out the door since most seem to be more understanding of shaky home virtual environments and odd backgrounds? Not exactly, according to Becky Wilkie, who spearheads webinars and is a senior associate for Lionbridge. Essentially, don’t forget the “blocking and tackling” of webinars: having solid speakers, robust, clear agendas, great audio, great video, dynamic content that targets a specific audience, on-demand viewing options, lead generation, etc. Despite the "forgiveness" part of the viewer, webinar producers and presenters should still strive to meet these common objectives.

“The standard best practices for hosting webinars should still be applied,” Wilkie said. “Setting yourself up to succeed from the start will help minimize avoidable errors. For the things you cannot control — like a toddler running through the background or a barking dog next door — attendees are more likely now than ever before to smile and understand.”

Learning Opportunities

Sure, naturally you want to produce a solid webinar that goes off smoothly. But remember: we are accustomed to a 100% virtual environment today, and even presidential candidates are dealing with shoddy technical components now and again. 

“The technical elements of this are becoming more forgiving,” Bornstein said. “Somebody is out there having some bandwidth problems. We all know what that's like. People are more forgiving of everything right now. There are those human moments when the cat jumps in front of a presentation or your wife or husband comes into the room. It’s all normal and natural, and it’s making us better.”


Webinars Serving up Broader Digital Experiences

View webinars today as part of the broader digital experience program you should offer as a digital marketer, Bornstein added. Think of webinars beyond a lead generation tool and more so an opportunity to connect customers and prospects.

Digital marketing will be transformed by the lessons learned in this pandemic, Bornstein said, particularly moving marketers from "an era of digital spam to digital experiences. And the bar is going to be raised for how we engage in the future.”

“You should be thinking about how to create digital experiences like this in your product marketing, in your customer marketing and as part of your ABM programs, mid-funnel and your bottom-funnel experiences,” Bornstein added. “I'm seeing the whole discipline of marketing being transformed right now. We're seeing companies that have literally transformed a basic bottom-of-the-funnel demo into something that’s more experiential. Build experiences everywhere in your marketing.”