Webinars are gaining popularity because they deliver superior customer engagement and actionable data.
Joe Hyland wants it known he has always been a fan of webinars. But even he needed some answers before accepting the role of Chief Marketing Officer at webinar software business ON24 in 2015.
“Webinars? Really?” he asked ON24 CEO Sharat Sharan during the recruitment process. “There's all this new hot technology. Aren’t you concerned ON24 will be left in the dust because webinars have been around so long?"
What Hyland soon learned is webinars provide something marketers say they all strive for: customer engagement. While marketing teams have spent the past 15 years using automation to maximise reach and scale, Hyland says, many have missed out on perhaps the most crucial ingredient for success – the ability to engage customers and provide personalised solutions.
“Other than [staging] a physical event, engagement is becoming a lost art for marketers,” he says. “What's fantastic about webinars is they are a nice, happy medium where you can provide content that is, hopefully, engaging, interactive and compelling, yet they scale.”
The webinar experience
San Francisco-based ON24, which Sharan co-founded before the dotcom bust, now has about 400 employees globally. More than 700 hours of ON24 webcasts are watched every hour across the globe. ON24 produces 300 webinars for its customers every year.
[caption id="attachment_1768" align="alignleft" width="300"] ON24's Joe Hyland[/caption]
Hyland says two things stand out about the webinar experience – how “captivating” the front-end experience is for attendees, and how much information can be gleaned from them for clients at the back-end. “We do a really good job of determining what attendees [were interested in], and we turn what is a lot of data into a handful, or maybe fewer, very actionable recommendations,” he says.
Hyland views webinars as “a microcosm of marketing”, not “random acts”. He advocates a company’s webinar strategy should tie in with its overall marketing strategy. “They are used at every stage of the funnel,” he says.
“A lot of companies, including ON24, do quite a good job using webinars for the top of the funnel – to get people interested. We've also turned most of our case studies into webinars, which is very much not top of the funnel. They can also be used for customer retention. We do weekly demos – called ‘deminars’ – for prospects at the opportunity stage. We do what we call ‘ask the expert’ webinars to educate [existing] customers on the best ways to use the product.”
The ideal webinar length depends solely on how much content you need to get across to your audience, Hyland says. “It could be an hour and a half, [it] could be 15 minutes.”
Why choose a webinar over a well-produced video? Hyland says webinars are at their best when they “feel live”, even if they have pre-recorded elements. While videos are static, webinars allow attendees to ask questions, respond to polls and give feedback.
“Sometimes one-way information dissemination is fine but we try to have it two ways whenever possible,” he says. “A typical example with our demo webinars [is] you'll get five or 10 people from a prospective customer who log in. They’ll ask very specific questions that help them decide to move forward or not. And we're tracking all of that as well. We then funnel that back to the sales rep and say, ‘Your prospect attended today's demo. Here are the questions they asked. We had a poll – here was their answer to that’. So it’s pretty powerful.”
The power of one
IBM has its own webinar department, as you might expect given the global technology behemoth’s size and influence.
That department, which is overseen by Christine Jacobs, who is IBM Cloud’s Vice President of World Marketing, uses ON24’s platform to produce more than 100 webinars every quarter. Most IBM webinars or webcasts run for 45 minutes to an hour, and aim to appeal to current or future customers across 160 markets.
[caption id="attachment_1917" align="alignleft" width="300"] IBM Cloud Vice President of World Marketing Christine Jacobs[/caption]
Jacobs’ entire webinar department, however, is not the scale you might expect. It has a staff of one. His name is Jim.
Jacobs says all of her performance marketers (including Jim) help IBM’s campaign managers and integrated marketing teams. They establish best practices, set targets and analyse results. IBM has had enormous success getting people along to its webinars, too – Jacobs says the registration to attendance rate is a healthy 40 per cent.
“It’s about targeting – understanding your audience and having content they want to listen to and participate in,” Jacobs says. “Our webinars are more top-of-the-funnel, leadership-oriented – discover, learn – kind of content.
“But what we're starting to do now is branch out and get much more persona-specific. If you're in a technical role – a user or practitioner – how can we use a 15-minute datacast series, say every week on Wednesdays at noon? You start to build a community around it. You start to build advocacy.”
Getting the timing right is important when trying to attract a webinar audience, Jacobs says. “Unlike a face-to-face event, where you have to get the dates out there and get it on people's calendars four, five or six months in advance, we think the optimal time to start promoting a webinar is three weeks out.”
Jacobs says most webinar registrations happen seven to 10 days ahead of the live event. “But even right up until that webinar starts, you have an opportunity to get ‘virtual butts’ in seats, which is pretty incredible. Our on-demand viewing should double to triple after going live.”
Spreading the message
As webinars become more popular, users find new ways to engage with customers using the platform. Jacobs says she can see a time when webinars might even take the place of some customer newsletters "to deliver product updates, enhancements, training opportunities and news case stories".
Using webinars as part of an account-based marketing strategy would be “an amazing opportunity”, Jacobs says. “It would be like a dedicated channel of communication. It could be a very interesting way to tackle some of the customer feedback we're getting through the net promoter score channel, whether it’s about our products or services. What clients like and what they don't like.”
ON24’s Hyland says businesses already offer clients “highly customised webinars that are specific to their challenge, their products and their personas – highly targeted and personalised”.
With personalisation, however, comes a “fear factor” – asking subject-matter experts to appear live, often on camera. Surprisingly, Hyland says three in five webinars on ON24’s network are not in video format.
“People have different levels of comfort,” Hyland says. “I love being on camera. For me, it's fun. Some people hate it. We have put a lot of work into the platform so that it's flexible. You can pre-record and then have it feel live – which we call ‘simulive’. You can record it at any time and then do live Q&A.”
Hyland says webinars don’t necessarily need to replace white papers or other platforms that pass on detailed information to prospective customers. “There’s nothing wrong with a white paper [but] you don't know how much people read, you don't know if they have any questions,” he says. “You can't throw a poll in the middle of a white paper …
“Webinars are a super engaging way to consume content. If someone's interested in a given topic, like when they want to be educated before making a $100,000 purchasing decision, damn right they will read a white paper … or attend a webinar.”
This is supported by a recent Demand Gen Report study that showed more than one in three marketers would be prepared to spend 30-60 minutes on a webinar researching a B2B purchase. Three-quarters of them said they would share more personal information to receive webinar content compared with other channels.
Hyland says ON24, which not long ago did 95 per cent of its business in North America, is keen to make more significant inroads in APAC. "International expansion is critical for us," he says. "We're growing very fast in this region. My goal personally is to get the word out on how ON24 can help marketers in this digital journey.
“For me, it's how we can help marketers solve their problems. I think we can, and we are. I just want a bigger microphone.”
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Further reading: Three keys to creating compelling B2B content