Friday, 14 March 2014

Hosting webinars: lessons from a recent ‘on air’ experience engaging stakeholders in real-time

By Adrian Bannister

As part of a recent e-dialogues week delivered by the Making All Voices Count programme team, colleagues from IDS Research and Knowledge Services departments worked to convene an entirely web-based audience of invited stakeholders to two online events. 

These book-ended 5 days of asynchronous online discussion that took place on the Eldis Communities platform – you can read my top tips for facilitating online discussion here.

So what’s a webinar?
For the uninitiated a webinar is simply defined as ‘a seminar conducted over the Internet’. Like a real-world seminar this generally involves one or more presenters speaking to, and receiving questions from, an audience. 

It happens in real-time and typically involves the streaming of audio and video. For the audience it enables them to be ‘virtually there’ - for the project team it means working like a television production unit.
By Jorge Díaz (Flickr: On air) CC-BY-SA-2.0 

One key distinctive feature, and advantage, is that nobody (from the panel of speakers or the audience) has to be in the same location. However, each participant must have a broadband Internet connection and knowledge of ‘where the virtual room is’ i.e. a web link. In some cases it is also necessary to download software e.g. At&T Connect.

Rationale and approach
We chose to open the e-dialogues week using a webinar event for three reasons:
:- to present the programme’s own thinking on the questions the e-dialogues week was posing (the focus was on the experience of Technology for Transparency and Accountability Initiatives - T4TAIs) 
:- to provide an opportunity for programme stakeholders to ‘meet’ the programme staff and hear them speak directly, and;
:- to begin to stimulate thinking and interaction among participants around aspects of the online discussion to come

Both events were an hour-long and followed a broadly similar format. A panel of IDS colleagues sat together in the same room, though they could have each been disparately located, and each shared a short presentation that was live-streamed to the audience. 

The audience were able to interact with each other via a chat-room and, and also to queue-up questions to the panel. These were fed to the speakers during an extended question and answer session. 

The closing webinar provided a mechanism for the panel to verbally summarise and provide commentary on the areas of the discussion that they had facilitated. 

A note about technology
To host these webinars we setup dedicated and private virtual rooms using the Click Meeting platform, which was provided and supported by Webgathering. Participants were able to access the space via a web browser, which only required a minimum software download, the popular Adobe Flash plug-in.

Though there were only 80 or so invitees for our events, Click Meeting can host up to 1000 attendees for large webinars and has useful text translation features for a variety of languages. It allows for meetings to be recorded as a video file (in MP4 format) which makes it accessible and shareable with most computer users afterwards. 

Web Gathering has an extended facility with Click Meeting so they can accommodate more presenters than a standard plan however a free trial is also available.

Key lessons
Based largely on these experiences, we’ve gathered our thoughts into the following: 15 top-tips for managing webinars which may be useful for your own projects.

Adrian Bannister is the Web Innovations Convenor & Eldis Communities Coordinator at IDS