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Webinars grow, adapt and perform

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The webinar is not the newest or flashiest player in the online lineup, but it's still a b-to-b media crowd favorite.

Webinars rarely take the field alone anymore. They are placed at strategic points within a multifaceted integrated media program. That way, they can pick up sales leads, provide targeted product or market education, allow sponsors to interact with prospects or weed out those who aren't ready or able to make a purchase.

Gregg Pinsky, VP-online sales and operations at Computerworld, will oversee more than 100 webinars in 2007, and expects approximately 150% growth compared with last year. "Webcasting is certainly going to be a focus of ours going forward," he said.

While webinars have always been lead-generation vehicles, Pinsky pointed out that the definition of a lead is constantly changing. "The latest trend is lead nurturing," he said. In other words, advertisers are no longer looking for vast numbers of names and e-mail addresses. Instead, they want prequalified, sales-ready leads.

"You want to develop a program with multiple touch points so that you can get from a list of 1,000 prospects to 200 really qualified leads," Pinsky said. "You need three, four or five assets in the program, such as research, white papers and a webinar. The webinar is just one asset in the mix."

Getting better all the time

American Business Media has been producing its own webinars for two and a half years as a tool for disseminating information to members and providing training that can be accessed anywhere in the country.

Steve Ennen, ABM's VP-digital business strategies, said, "At this point, [webinars] offer a really good ROI because they're not cost-prohibitive anymore. The technology cost has gone down while the quality has gone up."

Online business publishers are putting more resources—creative, logistical and technological—behind webcasts because they produce results. But for that to continue, webinar content has to be attractive enough to get registrants to surrender their personal information and give up their time to attend.

"The quality bar keeps getting raised every year," said Shari Dodgen, publisher of Cygnus Business Media's The CPA Technology Advisor.

Tom Cintorino, Pennwell's senior VP-digital media, likens webcasts to face-to-face events: "You can't just do whatever you did last year." Even the most basic webinar format, an online slide show with voice-over, is growing at a 20% rate at Pennwell. "We're able to keep morphing them to match audience needs," Cintorino said.

The format of webinars has also changed in the few short years they've been around. Early webinar sponsors were able to use their own people to speak, focus exclusively on their own products and still attract an audience. Today, these sponsors need the guidance of editors or editorial resources that are not directly associated with their brands—similar to the custom media advertorial model.

At CPA Technology Advisor, "our editors brainstorm with the vendors and often recommend a third-party speaker," Dodgen said. "Sponsors come to us because we have that expertise and credibility with the audience."

For the Government Technology publishing group, the 25 webcasts planned for 2007 will represent a 25% increase over last year, said Don Pearson, group publisher and exec VP at parent company e.Republic. "We do sponsored webinars, but we bring in our expertise," he said. "The content is not pure editorial, but it's not pure vendor, either."

"There are a lot of webcasts out there," Computerworld's Pinsky said. "Vendors are learning to align themselves with publishers that can help them craft the message."

At Cygnus Business Media, greater focus, better execution and dedicated behind-the-scenes resources helped make webinars one of the top online growth areas over the past year, said Thomas Gensch, chief growth officer.

Cygnus has created a new program that helps publishers of its various titles share ideas and develop best practices. "We have tripled our growth in webinars through our ability to really innovate off of our best practices," Gensch said. Another key has been the creation of a new internal group "that picks up once a program is sold and works with the customer all the way through. Customers don't just buy a webinar; it's a full service."

New webcasting uses

Even though video webcast technology has been available for years, the audio-with-PowerPoint webinar remains the most popular choice in the marketplace, according to b-to-b publishers. While audio technology is less costly than video, convenience is equally a factor, they say. Audio webinars typically do not require travel, multiple speakers do not have to be in the same physical location and there's no need for video crews or cumbersome equipment.

Meanwhile, several sources are predicting that virtual conferences and trade shows represent the logical next developmental step for webinars.

"Virtual trade shows have become big in 2007," said Dennis Shiao, TechTarget's director of product management, webcasts. Since he first checked out the technology in 2005, "the platform providers have gotten a lot better. The platforms are pretty intuitive and easy to use. It's a much richer experience."

TechTarget held its first virtual conference in June, Shiao said, and has plans for more later this year.

"Virtual trade shows are definitely a growing area in the marketplace," Computerworld's Pinsky said. Earlier this year, Computerworld teamed up with sibling titles CIO and CSO to produce their first such event, which he termed a success. Two virtual trade shows are already on the schedule for 2008, and Pinsky expects more to be produced.

Noting that the definitions for webinars, video broadcasts and virtual trade shows are starting to blur, Pennwell's Cintorino expects more convergence in the future. "The biggest change is the transformation of the standard webcast into online events, which coincides with and sometimes includes the expansion of video content," he said. "I think that's the natural progression for webinars."

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