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Webinars: Are they worth it?

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Howard Sewell runs a marketing company—Spear Marketing Group, in Walnut Creek, Calif.—that helps b-to-b companies increase webinar registration. So he's probably not the first guy you'd expect to say something like, “Generally speaking, I'm of the view that webinars are too popular as a marketing vehicle.”

But that's exactly what he says.

“Our experience tells us, all things being equal, that more than twice as many people will download a white paper than will attend a webinar on that same topic,” Sewell said. “The reason for that disparity is simple: A webinar demands more of the prospect, namely his or her time.”

In fact, there's a surprising agreement among marketing experts that webinars are a less-than-ideal way to generate leads or close sales. So if that's true, then what are webinars good for? Why bother going to the expense and hassle of finding talent, creating a broadcast and promoting it?

According to Brian Carroll, CEO of InTouch Inc. in Arden Hills, Minn., they are worth it; the key is to know your audience and understand the limitations and strengths of webinars. “Webinars won't create sales-ready leads,” he said.

Instead, Adam Needles, director of field marketing and b-to-b marketing evangelist at Silverpop in Atlanta, says different kinds of webinars should be used for different stages in the sales cycle.

Earlier in the sales cycle, third-party, information-rich webinars are useful for buyers “who are wrapping their heads around a problem,” Needles said.

Later, they can be used to help educate customers who are very close to making a decision or who have already basically decided and want more technical and specific information on how to use a product.

“They are useful when the audience already has a familiarity with your company and product,” Sewell said. “For example, in marketing to customers, or partners or existing prospects, perhaps as part of a structured lead-nurturing program.”

In either case, however, measuring the ROI of any webinar is going to be difficult. The number of attendees is a valuable metric, but it's also a poor bottom-line indicator of the webinar's value, and it can be difficult to generate a cost-per-qualified-lead figure for any individual webinar.

In fact, this is an excellent argument for marketing automation, Needles said.

“In a complicated sale, there are multiple steps and multiples touches,” he said. “If you're automated, you can measure all the touches and track how they relate to sales.”

Although it might not be possible to assign a dollar-value ROI to any particular webinar, it may be put into context as part of a longer campaign to attract customers.

Marketers also boost the value of their webinars by making sure they reach the most people possible—which extends long past the initial broadcast.

“Whatever webinar you're doing, it's worth recording it,” Carroll said. “We've been able to show that 300% to 500% more people watch a recorded webinar than attend a live one,” Carroll said. “If you don't record it, you're missing out on more than half of your audience.”

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