Webinar wisdom

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Maturing channel has business media companies tapping more of their own editorial resources for content It's been a long time since audiences or marketers flocked to a web-inar to experience the exciting new webcasting technology. Today, business media companies are concentrating on improving the quality of lead-generating Web events rather than trying to reinvent the model. This shifts more attention to the content, which is key to attracting audiences regardless of industry, according to people who run webinar programs at media companies. Yet improving the content of webcasts requires editorial involvement that's not always easy to come by. Eight to 10 years ago, webcasting entered most b-to-b media companies through the business-side door. Editors, for the most part, were not involved in early vendor-driven webcasts. Marketers and audiences became much more discerning and sophisticated as time went on—raising the bar on editorial quality—but webinar content creation didn't necessarily shift to the editorial team shepherding the brand as a whole. B-to-b media companies are still wrestling with questions surrounding the editorial leadership for webcasts. Should they be overseen by the editorial department like other content? Should they reside in a separate department like custom media? Should they fall under marketing or sales? Should all webinars be overseen by a centralized corporate department? The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which has been offering webcasts since spring 2007, used freelance editorial help to get the program up and running. But as of this fall, IEEE's editors have become involved in the webinars. “We've been working with them to shift their workload and behavior online,” said Marion Delaney, associate publisher-advertising sales director of IEEE Media, which publishes IEEE Spectrum. “We're organizing the editorial team to become business channel experts, regardless of media. They will be moderating webinars as an extension of their editorial coverage; it's now part of their jobs.” Delaney added that editors have come to realize that their audience values the webinar content. “The editors are seeing how their involvement in webinars is an extension of what they do in print and online,” she said. After presenting nine webcasts last year, IEEE plans to produce 26 this year. “This will increase in 2009,” Delaney said. Editors at Edgell Communications have been involved in webcasts ever since the company began producing them four years ago. Edgell is now running about one webcast a week, said Rob Keenan, VP-online media. “We try to blend our editors' knowledge with an analyst's perspective, then have an end user—someone from the audience served—make a presentation,” he said. “Sponsors get "airtime' but not for a product pitch. They have to provide some higher-level information.” Keenan said content creation is a team effort involving editors, publishers and himself. A dedicated project manager oversees the scheduling and logistics for all Web events to make sure all participants do their part. Otherwise, the company could never produce its heavy schedule of webinars, Keenan said. At Bobit Business Media, the 12-title automotive group overseen by Sherb Brown, VP-group publisher, is grappling with the logistics of a rapidly expanding webinar schedule. “We did six all of last year and we've been doing one or two a month in 2008,” said Brown, whose group includes such titles as Auto Rental News, Business Fleet and Work Truck. The group's webinar business has exploded because sponsors like the measurable response they've been getting, Brown said. “Our sales staff winds up doing most of the heavy lifting because our editors don't have the capacity to take these on,” he added. “I could do double or triple the amount we do if we had more people and a better process.” Now that Brown has had hands-on experience with webinars, he said he's ready to hire a sales assistant to manage them. “We'll be able to do 20 to 30 next year,” he said. Sebastian Rupley, editorial director of PCMagCasts at Ziff Davis Media, oversees about 50 webcasts a year. Roughly half are editorially driven, with PC Magazine category experts providing a portion of the content. The others are driven by marketers. Even without the involvement of the editors, webcasts on new product introductions are particularly popular with vendors and audiences alike, Rupley said. Although was an early adopter of virtual trade show technology a few years ago, this is not a growth area for the brand at the moment, Rupley said. “We did three last year but only one this year. They're far more expensive to put together and run than single webcasts,” he said. Instead, the hot format for is its Learning Centers. “We run three-part courses made up of 20-minute lessons,” Rupley said. “Users who take all three can test their knowledge at the end and get a certificate.” The lessons are sponsored, but the sponsor has no say in the content. PC Magazine editors create and conduct the lessons, and coursework is available for attendees to download. “We've already done more than a dozen of these courses,” Rupley said. “I could see us having as many Learning Centers as webcasts in a year or two.” Rupley listed a few reasons why the format has been successful: the time commitment of 20 minutes per module is easier for attendees to accommodate than a full hour; multiple sessions on one topic encourage users to return and the audience enjoys educational content created by PC Magazine's editorial specialists. IEEE's Delaney said in 2009 she will concentrate on developing webcast series. “We're introducing the idea of producing series of webcasts on particular topics,” she said. Previously, sponsors might book one webinar, then come back with one or two additional webcasts on the topic. Going forward, Delaney plans to be more proactive and suggest series to sponsors from the beginning. Delaney also wants to sell more editorially driven web-inars with multiple sponsors. This year, IEEE has produced 15 multiple-sponsor programs with two to eight sponsors each. In some cases, she said, sponsors will ask to be the exclusive sponsor for their category; but if the topic is hot enough, “everyone wants to jump into the pool.” She plans to ramp up to 25 multiple-sponsor webcasts next year. Most of Edgell's webinars today have single sponsors, but Keenan also sees multiple-sponsored ones as a growth area. He also is encouraging the sales and editorial teams at Edgell to think about webinars as they develop their calendars of special research reports for print. “A webinar is a great way to extend the research in another medium for the sponsor as well as the audience,” he said. M
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