Practical tips for webinars and online conferences

I’ve attended a variety of online meetings over the past three months from mid-March – these meetings have ranged from small groups for an hour or so through to multi-company conferences lasting for the best part of a day. Some have been excellent, with the organisers fully understanding how best to use the technology and how to keep attendees engaged. More than half, however, have ranged from “OK” down to “woeful”. As a result, I’m departing from my normal style of blog post in order to provide what readers may find as a useful set of practical tips – if this can help in any way to lift the quality of webinar experience then I’ll have succeeded in my aim!

  1. In advance / set up
    • Invitations should make clear which video tool is being used.  Many firms are using Zoom or Microsoft Teams but there are many other tools and downloading the software or updating a previously downloaded version may prove necessary for a number of attendees – I lost the first 15 minutes of one webinar that I attended when my software demanded that it be updated before use
    • If people have to register in advance, please make it clear that they need to go through the registration process.  Without this, a calendar invite can go in the diary and then the attendee clicks on a link at the time of the webinar only to find that they’ve sent through a registration request and haven’t yet entered the webinar itself
    • Ensure that all your speakers and other key attendees are using the right software and they know how to use the functionality.  It’s easy to test this by setting up a briefing session in advance on the same software and explaining the process of the event and the functionality that will be used (e.g. chat function, Q&A, breakouts, whiteboards)
    • Agree any rules that you want to adopt for speakers and your own firm’s attendees (e.g. dress code, backgrounds, use of company logos)

  2. Dialling in
    • For the event itself, have all your speakers and other key attendees dial in early to check that no one has network issues (e.g. some properties have more than one Wi-Fi network and if someone has been moving around with a laptop or tablet they could be on a network that doesn’t work so well in the room they’re choosing to use for the event itself)
    • Some software has people dialling straight in – others hold people in a virtual lobby and you have to admit them.  Be ready for this and ensure that you’re in “professional mode” as soon as the first guest arrives
    • Have a welcome screen (e.g. an opening slide) or the person acting as the host being “front and centre” ready for when guests join
    • Admit people at exactly the start time and spend 2-3 minutes welcoming them in order to allow stragglers to get their software sorted, grab a drink after their last session or whatever and dial in
    • Plan to actually start the content around 3-4 minutes in

  3. Format
    • The best webinars, short or long, seem to be those that have a clear host person who welcomes people, explains the methods being used for submitting questions or comments, facilitates Q&A, introduces speakers etc
    • Where quite a bit of functionality is being used, it helps to have a person other than the host being dedicated to this
    • Speaking slots of 15-25 minutes, followed by immediate 5-10 minutes of Q&A with that speaker, work well
    • A wider Q&A at the end is good for questions outside the direct focus of the webinar, to mop up questions that couldn’t be answered previously and as a flexible piece of the agenda to either fill in time or, more often, act as contingency for speakers who have overrun
    • Events lasting over an hour benefit from not purely being one long plenary session of presentations and Q&A.  Insert instant polling, videos and/or breakout groups
    • Events lasting over two hours should have a ten minute break for urgent calls etc
    • Longer “conferences” should have a proper lunch break, maybe even for an hour

  4. Presentation materials
    • You must have some!  I’ve attended a number of webinars now where a speaker is simply speaking to camera and I’ve yet to witness one that has worked well – in fact, I’ve seen people who’ve left their cameras turned on clearly zoning out and getting on with other stuff, and I’ve witnessed many attendees simply dropping out of the webinar entirely
    • The only exception to this is events clearly labelled as panel discussions – these need strong facilitation and still need some material to lead into the discussion, as a minimum
    • Presentation slides should be few and have simple content.  Busy slides with detailed diagrams and small type can be difficult to see for some people
    • Short video clips can work well to keep attendees interested
    • Instant polling grabs the attention back of minds that have been wandering and can be good to get some interactivity in discussion

  5. Etiquette
    • The host and anyone else considered key must keep their cameras turned on and they must look engaged throughout
    • If you can mute attendees microphones remotely to allow an uninterrupted flow, do so and tell everyone that you’re doing it.  If you can’t, then ask them to do it.  They can always unmute if they really want to speak
    • Questions are best submitted through a dedicated Q&A function, if it exists, or through the wider comments function if not.  The host can always choose to ask someone to unmute to ask their question, or a follow up, directly, if that’s what he/she chooses
    • If you have “resident experts” attending, maybe because they’re facilitating a breakout, it helps with the overall feel of the event to ask them to answer a question in a plenary session, or add to a point that’s been made
    • You must finish on time, or even 1-2 minutes early.  You cannot overrun – people drop off the event to attend their next call and the whole thing falls into disarray
    • Don’t be “salesy” – if many attendees don’t know you then it’s OK to do a (maximum) one minute introduction to the firm – otherwise, stick to the topic
    • Confirm with any external speakers that it is OK to share their materials, and a recording of their session, after the event – this may be to attendees only, or all the way to a recording on your website that could get a link to it sent out via social media, so be clear what you want their permission for

  6. Breakouts
    • I haven’t yet seen software where attendees can elect which breakout to join and achieve it themselves.  You have to allocate people to breakout groups so it’s best to work out in advance who goes into which one
    • It’s unlikely that breakouts will be used for further presentations – they’re more likely to be discussion fora
    • Discussion breakouts work well with a facilitator and 3-6 guests.  Your planning should allow for dropouts – I facilitated a breakout session recently that should have had three other attendees, from different firms that operated in the same market – it could have been powerful but, in fact, only one attended the webinar so it made a discussion forum quite difficult!
    • Have someone managing the technology, to put people into the breakout “rooms”, allocate unexpected/late entrant webinar attendees into groups and end the breakout sessions, moving everyone back into the plenary “room”
    • Some software tools require people to press a button to enter the breakout room – others don’t.  If yours does, tell people as you’re about to send them into the breakout “room”
    • Most video tools have a simple whiteboard facility.  This can work well in breakout groups, especially when controlled by the facilitator.  Some whiteboard tools allow free-format drawing etc – in my experience this only works well when all attendees have touch screens, which is unlikely.  Most of the time, the whiteboard will be used for recording comments, thoughts, agreed actions and the like, so they can be typed by the facilitator.  It’s important that the whiteboard is saved (there will be functionality for this) before the breakout ends or else the content will be lost.  Saved whiteboards will most likely be placed on the facilitator’s computer hard drive and can then be pulled up in the plenary session by screen sharing, or can be emailed to someone central behind the scenes
    • The technology should have functionality to allow for a message to flash up a minute (say) before the end of the breakout and count down to zero – use it!

  7. Overcoming technical issues
    • The most likely technical issue is broadband speed which can vary for all of us
    • For this reason, more than one person should have a copy of all presentation materials – if the host has broadband problems, the whole event could fail.  Ideally, a second person with a copy of the materials would be able to step in as a replacement host in this eventuality
    • Passing control of a presentation deck to others can work if all involved are both used to doing this and enjoying good broadband speed (i.e. it is fraught with risk!).  It’s probably better to either have one person moving slides on the request of a speaker or for the first person to stop sharing their screen/presentation and the second one to start sharing theirs, and vice versa later

  8. Follow up
    • Send a copy of any slides or other materials to attendees (or a link to them), as well as a link to any recording made (Note: which you may need to edit rather than sharing the whole thing)
    • Ask for feedback, unless you already know how it went from comments left via the chat facility
    • Choose whether or not to send materials presented, or a link to the recorded webinar, to registrants who didn’t attend
    • After this mechanical follow up, move into a sales process in the same way that you would normally.

I hope that some of these tips prove helpful to readers.

Good luck with your webinars and online conferences – they’re here to stay so it’s worth getting them right!

Stay safe.

Update your consulting propositions now!

Consulting firms and their clients have now broadly adapted to the remote working world. Projects have been prioritised – some put on ice at one end, new urgent projects added at the other and a mix in-between.

Client thoughts are turning to the future, now that it’s clear that we won’t be “coming out of this” any time soon. When we do emerge, we’ll be doing it into a new world…but what will it look like?

Strategy consulting firms have seen backlog and pipeline drops by around one third over the past couple of months. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise – who has wanted to strategise over the past few weeks? I believe that these firms are about to come into a new wave of activity, however, scenario planning for their clients, working out what they’ll need to do to adapt to the new world. They’re getting ready for this and the volume of post-COVID-19 “insights” on the major strategy consulting firms’ websites has been steadily increasing over the past week or so – much of this is at an overall “preparing for the new normal” level but some is quite focused on individual sectors or the potential use of specific solutions such as AI. Interesting reading!

Every sector will have its own scenarios to consider – to mention just a few examples, will Utilities think about onshoring their call centres, how can airports utilise contact-free technologies to transform customer journeys whilst maintaining high levels of security, which manufacturing supply chains still operate effectively and which need to go back to the drawing board, will retail banks take the opportunity to radically downsize their branch networks, how much can the health sector provide via home-based care with the support of virtual patient engagement technologies? There will be a huge amount to do and a lot of advice and support to be provided by the consulting and IT industries in particular.

Don’t relax at this point, however. It’s not the case that all firms will benefit equally. You need to prepare, and do it now!

I was reviewing a consulting firm’s Financial Services Digital proposition recently. It was fine…good, even…but I realised that it was deficient in that it looked at the world through a “pre-COVID” lens. Financial Services has, to date, viewed Digital as primarily another channel.  Now that, for example, the over 60’s are using PCs and tablets for video calls and are having to use the internet for shopping, banking etc, there’s an argument that the “cork is out of the bottle”. Digital Transformation is about to hit Financial Services organisations like a tsunami! Digital will be expected by the majority of the retail and business customer bases and there will be a permanent switch in traffic volumes between channels. The impact on operating models, staff skillsets, data accessibility and the like is significant.

Taking this on board (admittedly just a scenario!), the consulting firm’s Financial Services Digital proposition suddenly needs a rethink – it should be more “all-encompassing”, at least in terms of providing the framework, and then the client can understand the scope of the overall transformation required and the elements that this consulting firm can help to address.

The same holds true for many consulting propositions – they need to be reviewed and then updated to take the new world into account. Oh, and just to add an additional flavour, I suggest there are two new world time horizons to think about – “medium term” whilst social distancing remains essential (probably until there’s a vaccine that many of us have been able to benefit from) and “longer term” when we’re properly in the new world.

Enjoy the rethink and stay safe.

Don’t be scared of “sales”!

A very high proportion of consultants has either come up through the ranks or joined from industry. They are subject matter experts, industry experts, team leaders, programme managers and the like, and we and our clients love them for it! Often, however, they are blinkered on the topic of sales, feel uncomfortable when asked to sell our firms’ services and shy away from sales activity, preferring to disappear into valuable client delivery activity, knowledge management or internal training. Why?

The clue is in the first sentence of this post – very few people in consulting firms have come from professional sales backgrounds and whilst IT Services firms tend to have some people with sales training, even these feel more comfortable in a product or solution “features and benefits” world. Professional Services and much of IT Services sales is around “concepts” – there’s nothing to hold, show or point to without creating it from prior client deliverables or accelerator tools, for example.

Sales training is useful in order to make consultants familiar with the “methodology” of sales but, in itself, can create a mechanical process. Adding sales targets to this environment can serve to increase the feeling of discomfort, leading to high stress levels and likely failure. What to do?

More fundamental than the mechanical tools associated with sales is the mindset. I’ve encountered many, many consultants, including at Partner level, who believe that sales is not part of their job description, that trying to sell to a client would damage their trusted advisor relationship and/or that sales is about responding to inbound requests from client organisations. Hmmmm! I can almost smell the fear!

There are many ways to address this but I often find that appealing to the ethical standpoint that all quality consultants have is the best way forward. Would we try to sell something to a client that isn’t in their organisation’s best interests? Would we try to sell them something that we’re not truly capable of delivering? Of course not! Good, so that creates a list of things (that we don’t need to write down!) that we’re not going to raise with them. So let’s look at what we are going to raise.

Whether we’re focusing on a new business sales campaign or expanding an existing account, understanding the relevant issues that the client or potential client is, or may be, facing is a good start point. We can do that, it’s called research and is part of what consultants are trained to do! Then we match these against our firms’ capabilities and identify which issues we’re able to help to address, using combinations of our capabilities – again, standard consulting stuff known as analysis. Next, we develop our proposition, how we can use our bundle of capabilities to focus on the client problem and produce a solution – otherwise known as design.

OK, so we have our head sorted out and we’ve used our core consultant training to develop something that we can go and talk to a client or potential client about – and it’s not just “something”, it’s something that’s in the client’s interests and something that we are capable of delivering. It suddenly isn’t so “scary” after all, is it?!

Now to put the mechanical sales training to good use!

Marketing is about “Being There”

Many Professional Services firms don’t really “get” Marketing – it’s a drain to pour money down which could otherwise go into Partners’ pockets!  IT Services firms tend to “get it” more but the spend can often be focused on things that take up lots of time and budget for little effect.  So what’s the problem?

Marketing professionals talk about the “Marketing Mix”.  In Services Marketing, the original 4Ps of product, price, promotion and place are expanded to 7Ps, adding in process, people and physical environment …. and some people even add an eighth, namely performance – this is a lot of Ps!  If we’re running a services firm and don’t have much Marketing experience, we find all these Ps a bit difficult and uncomfortable and, hence, tend to gravitate to one end of the spectrum and do only what we feel comfortable with (e.g. buy hospitality tickets for the rugby and invite some clients and a few prospects) or the other and try to cover all the bases.  Both approaches fail in most cases.

Let’s start with what we’re trying to achieve.  When we boil it down, we’re looking for Marketing activity to generate sales leads.  In services businesses, sales leads must lead to face-to-face sales meetings because we all know that, in this industry at least, people buy from people…so they’d better meet and get the chemistry going as soon as possible if any sale is going to be made!

Now, it’s increasingly true that there are hygiene factors to consider that don’t directly lead to sales leads or which, if handled poorly, can hold sales opportunities back.  A consulting firm that I’m working with had a sales campaign put on hold recently when the potential client wouldn’t introduce the consulting Partner to his boss to get a decision until the firm’s web site was more fit for purpose…which it now is!  Which hygiene factors to address and how much to spend on them is worth thinking about – I’d suggest that you do just enough to create an environment within which your target market might start to get a warm and fuzzy feeling.  So you want to tweet – why?  You want an article in the FT – do the people who buy your services read the FT?

It’s best to decide which specific messages you want to get to which specific audiences and then, alongside creating something of an environment around this, research how to get to these audiences – which industry journals they read, which conferences they attend etc – and then put Marketing spend and effort into delivering your messages into these places, consciously and deliberately avoiding spend in places that don’t fit with this.  If this involves face-to-face contact as part of the Marketing activity then this is fantastic since it gives you a better opportunity to start building a relationship and increases the likelihood of getting that all important face-to-face sales meeting.

About five years ago, I worked with an IT services firm focused on Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing – they had reached a plateau and were getting frustrated.  We took the same Marketing budget that they were spending by trying to cover all the bases and focused it onto getting specific messages into three vertical industries, and we aligned the sales team up behind these industry messages.  The result?  50% growth in revenues the next year and 65% growth on top of that the following year.

Decide where you need to be and then “be there”!