Hi everyone,

Our organisation puts on a lot of conferences and events, primarily for finance staff in the NHS - traditionally this has been the bread and butter of the business. Three years ago we also launched a suite of e-learning modules which has gone down extremely well.

With the recession about to bite into NHS budgets we are finding conference numbers starting to dip (in previous recessions, our events have pretty much stopped altogether as a result).

I am looking into the feasibility of hosing many of our events in the form of Webinars, which will reduce cost and travel time to delegates and offer them an interactive experience with its obvious secondary benefits. I am hoping that potential delegates will be drawn to these online events, thus allowing us to sidestep the effects of the recession and bring in revenue from these events. That’s the plan anyway...

Does anyone have experience in moving from traditional events to webinars? Are there any hidden pitfalls? How easy is it to draw numbers into these online events? Do delegates feel that they are getting value for money? These are some of the questions that I am mulling over... If anyone has any advice I would be most grateful.

Many thanks,
Guy.

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Hi Guy,
I'm very interested in this as I'm looking to use more Webex for training - in my case more as an addition so we get more out of the face to face sessions, than as a replacement. I'm worried about the notion that face to face could be 'ported' to online sessions!

Preparation
I think first of all you need to be serious about redesigning your material. It's a different tool with different pros and cons - which you should keep in mind during the design and development of your material.

Participants Commitment
It's important to be a bit strict with these sessions - people need to sign up, you should take attendance and make sure that there is some kind of follow-up (or report to managers). For some reason we tend to be more casual about web-events than face to face, so you need to make extra effort to get commitment, which leads into the next point:

Making the session work
The session needs to have a lot of interactivity built in to make up for the lack of physical presence. It's very hard to know whether your audience is with you or not during the webevent. Webcams can help, though it's not always practical or desirable. As an example, if you use Webex, create offline polls and try to have some kind of poll every 5 or 10 minutes. Use the chatroom and build in moments where your participants discuss.
For both of these, you can see who has/hasn't voted (this is very difficult to do by phone / audio unless you call out each participants name), or who has contributed to the discussion. You can comment on an individual contribution, or ask the opinion of someone that has been quiet.
Often a question or poll can be silly, the objective is not necessarily to gather infomation but more so to make sure your session is engaging and interactive, and to give you a sense of whether your audience is still with you.

As a mixed solution - is it an option for you to cut half your travel time, and change your event into a preparation by Webex, and a shorter face to face event? I think it can be really powerful - having 2 sessions, of a different formats with some time in between could be a lot more effective than one session in one format!

Hope that helps,
Looking forward to seeing more comments!

Bas
Many thanks for your helpful comments Bas, I agree with you when you say that it may be hard to get people to commit to on online event (I am far more likely to find an excuse to miss an online event over a real face-to-face event), but hopefully attitudes will change when it comes to online events. I think promotion and marketing will play an important part in this...
You can accomplish much the same with a webinar as you can with a face-to-face conference, so there's no reason why quality should suffer in any way. In fact the experience may improve in some ways because participants will not have to travel, the sessions can be recorded and archived, and the text chat facility allows for ongoing participant interaction.

However, an online conference will look very different to its face-to-face equivalent. It's very unusual for webinars to go on for longer than 90 minutes, so your product is going to have to be conceived very differently. Your customers will appreciate the chance to purchase just the sessions they want, although the implication of this for you may mean that they purchase less. Of course you could bundle a number of webinars together over one or two days, but if you do this then you must leave lengthy breaks between them.

Don't forget that there are some new skills to learn when you start to deliver live sessions online.
Hi Clive, its good to hear your positive feedback - thanks for this. I envisage that we will need to re-design our events timetable somewhat.
the biggest pitfall is a one-way interaction. very difficult to get group dynamics during web-event. it becomes more web-casting, not discussion. especially once you get more than 10 people.... it helps when webinar is amongst people who have already met and know each other, but still the same limitation. we found it more effective for introducing a new tools, updating on latest developments, lecture... it won't replace discussions/dynamics of face to face interaction, we need to be clear about it. also, it was always difficult to get enough people on - somehow when they committ to face to face and travel, they make it. when they confirm invite to a virtual, they find it easier not to make it :0)
Thanks Svetlana, outside of some interactive keypad action at our live events, there isn’t a great deal of interaction within our conference sessions - so if anything I am hoping that the online environment will increase audience participation - however I do worry that the technology may be a bit scary for some delegates!
It would be useful for some topics but not for everything, you would have to be very selective, constructive and innovative to engage and maintain the interest of the delegates.

I have over the past 6 months booked to participate in 6 webnars, 4 I have managed to attend, 1 I got as far as login in and then work interceded, even though it was obvious I was otherwise engaged, I was in the office therefore expected to respond. The 6th one I found that no priority was given to it as a valid learning tool and another booking was made of my time/services.

Yes, I think they can be useful, Yes I think they can work but there needs to be alot of work around promoting and getting the image improved to reflect that they need to be taken as a serious learning tool.

Su
Hi Su, thanks for your reply. I have had a similar experience in the past with online events! As many of these events will be paid for, our marketing team will be busy promoting them, so hopefully delegates will see the value in attending.

Out of interest - what persuades you to attend an online event?
Hi Guy,

Hope your well?

It's great that you are considering a new delivery channel and being innovative instead of just thinking they are going to stop because of cost. Webinars do offer so much now and I agree with Clive when he says you can accomplish pretty much everything online as f2f. You can of course never replace the interactivity and personal touch of f2f.

What is the desired outcome of these online conferences? Can it be measured?

How long were the previous conferences and what were the numbers?

If they are there to generate cash then you will need to re-think how to package these sessions and promote what value they can add - yes they may be cheaper but will you also reduce your costs as a result?

There are so many free webinars around at the moment what is the USP of yours and how and where will you advertise them? Are your target audience a closed group within the NHS i.e. if the f2f don't go a ahead then they don't do anything or get any development? Who would pay the cost of attending online sessions - is it worth doing some research with them to find out if there is any budget and if so what?

In terms of interactivity I would say (having used webex now for a number of months) that 12 is your limit as if you are using multiple whiteboards / breakout areas and passing privileges around it is hard to manage more than this unless your co-facilitating.

Then again it depends on the subject matter and that is only my opinion.

I say go for it and perhaps run a free pilot first and test the water - if you always do what you've always done you'll always get what you've always got
Hi Mike - good to hear from you, thanks for replying. Our desired outcome would be 'virtual bums on virtual seats', so in that sense it can be measured by the number of paying delegates booking / attending. Also feedback would be valuable in terms of measuring levels of satisfaction. Our current events range from half a day to three days long, so obviously some rethinking will be needed when looking at how we can offer this amount of information online.

Many of our events give delegates CPD points for attending, so I am sure we could offer the same incentive, delegates are typically sent on events and paid for by the NHS Trust that they are part of.

I was hoping that we could offer this to more people than 12, but we would have at least 2 people facilitating.
Hi Guy

I may be repeating the points that others have made, but these are my thoughts. The success of webinars lies is in the preparation. They need lots of planning and back-up arrangements up front. Then you need a presenter who is willing to facilitate, not control, the proceedings. Delegates need to have some buy-in to motivate them. What will they get from a webinar that they can't get from an asynchronous online presentation. Interactivity? A chance to ask questions? An opportunity to work with people they might not meet otherwise? Skills in online collaboration that they can transfer to their work? The biggest pitfall in my experience is lack of engagement. It is just as important in a webinar as in face to face to find ways of introducing delegates, breaking the ice and letting the learning evolve. Why not try out a few taster events to test the water? Good luck,
Jane

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