A webinar is one of those irritating cyber shorthand words, meaning a “web-based seminar”. I was initially very sceptical about the value of webinars. Why would anyone take time out of their working day to click into a remote access meeting? It felt soulless, boring and quite frankly, a bit geeky. At least that was my view until I received an invitation email from a company hosting a webinar on a topic that I was actually interested in – social media, as it happens – and a new means of learning, developing, marketing and networking was opened up to me.

As a participant, a webinar is essentially a way to attend a conference, seminar or group meeting without leaving home or your office. Through your computer, you can hear a presentation as if you were on a conference call and watch the presenter’s slides on the screen.
Sometimes webinars are one-way, i.e. there is no interaction between the speaker and the participants, but increasingly you can either type in questions at the end of the webinar for the presenter to answer or ask them directly, as in a normal Q&A session, through your computer (VoIP) or over a telephone line.

Often to make the experience more interactive, the participants’ opinions are sought through polling during the presentation. Documents such as the slide pack and recordings of the presentation can also be shared.

The participant receives an invitation to participate in the webinar via email and registers ahead of time to confirm a space and obtain the URL of the webinar and any password needed. Then a couple of reminder emails are sent before the webinar itself reiterating these details. At the set time on the day of the event you simply copy the URL into your internet browser, type in your password and you’re into the seminar.

Not only are webinars a great way to increase your own learning opportunities without leaving the house or office, but as a business owners they can be a brilliant way of connecting with existing customers, potential prospects, or staff. They can be used to sell, to teach, to brief, to market, to network and to broadcast to people around the world at the touch of a button. When used well, they can be an incredibly cost effective way to communicate and educate.

So as a business owner let’s imagine you’re now interested in the possible benefits of holding a webinar. What’s next?

The first thing to decide upon is what to have as the topic of your webinar. If it’s an internal briefing such as teaching staff about a new product or updating them on the company’s progress, then that’s fairly straightforward. But if it’s to an external audience such as prospective customers, then the key is to add value.

People attend webinars when they think they are going to learn something or take something away for free that they did not have before. So try to focus on education – demonstrate your expertise and share your knowledge. Are there new developments in your industry they could benefit from hearing about? Is there a new product that could improve their performance as a business? Are there changes in legislation that could affect their business that you can help with? Try to find something topical, interesting, informative and educational that your clients or potential clients want to hear about.

Once you’ve decided on your topic, then the key to a good webinar is in the preparation and the execution. Firstly you need to find someone to host it for you. There are many service providers offering to host webinar services for companies – just search on Google for a comprehensive list of choices but Livestream, AnyMeeting.com, GoToWebinar, Dimdim and WebEx offer affordable options. Here are some tips when choosing a service provider:

1. Several providers offer a free trial period so take advantage of those to test a few out. Have some dry runs hosting a webinar using members of staff as “guinea pigs” to ensure you’re comfortable with how they work and what the process involves.
2. Ensure easy access for the participants. If the registration process is too long or complicated people will click off before completing registration.
3. Think about whether you want a Q&A, polling facilities, live video and ask for a demonstration of all the features. Make sure the audio and video quality is good and try out the Q&A facilities. If you are going to host a webinar you want it to reflect the quality of your company, service or product. Poor technology will let you down and will turn people off.

Once you’ve chosen who you’re going to use to provide your webinar service, then there are some other things to consider.
Should you charge for webinars? Received wisdom is that it’s better not to charge, particularly while this technology is still in its relative infancy. It seems more sensible to encourage more people to attend by offering information for free, as discussed earlier, to generate goodwill and more leads as a consequence.

How to promote your event? Use social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to get the word out. Use your company’s blog. There are many listing sites such as webinarhero.com which act as directories for webinars by topic, date and speaker, so make sure you’re included on those. Send an email to your client list and prospects list inviting them to the event with clear details of how to register. Follow up with an email one day before the event and another one an hour before the event to remind people.

Once the logistics are in place and you’re comfortable with the technical side of things, then how does a webinar presenter need to prepare?
Essentially you need to treat it as you would any other event that your company may host. Simply because you’re at the end of a computer rather than face-to-face does not mean that your presentation should be anything less than you’d offer in person. In fact, quite the opposite – given the natural barrier between you and your audience, your content needs to be even more engaging and interesting. Put yourself in the position of an audience member and think to yourself, “What would hold my attention? What would I want to hear?”

As well as interesting content, your delivery style needs to be authoritative, engaging and entertaining. How can you make the presentation visually interesting for the audience? Will you include video and audio clips? Will it be just you speaking alone or would an interview-type formula work better to vary the voices the audience hears?

It’s helpful to have an agenda with timings that you stick to at the beginning of your slide pack, so everyone is clear as to the direction and structure of the event. Explain at the beginning how questions will be handled (will you take them during the session or at the end? Will you be polling for opinions through the seminar?)

Ensure your slides support your presentation but don’t duplicate it. As a presenter, you should always have more to say than your slides actually show, but it’s particularly relevant in a webinar where the slides almost entirely hold the attention of the audience.

Make sure you meet the audience’s expectations. Don’t lure them in with an offer of information and educational content then launch into a sales pitch. Make it relevant, interesting and ensure you reflect exactly what you offered when you invited them. It’s far easier to switch off a computer than it is to walk out of a packed conference room.

Pace the seminar – again this can be done through rehearsal. Make sure you don’t rush through slides and make the changeover from one slide to the next slow enough for people to assimilate what they’ve just heard. Remember they may be taking notes as you speak.

The Q&A session can be a testing time, so don’t forget to prepare for that. Rehearse the areas that might be covered, in particular the difficult ones, and work out beforehand how you’ll answer in a succinct fashion. Also ensure there are a few “planted” questions for the moderator to ask. This ensures the Q&A session gets going if the audience are slow to post their questions.

Of course afterwards don’t forget to follow up. Not only is each participant a possible sales lead or source of referral but also be sure to get their feedback on what they enjoyed about the webinar and what they felt could be improved. Send out a recording and slides to the participants within 24 hours of the webinar to increase goodwill and demonstrate professionalism and responsiveness.

Webinars may be a current buzzword of big business but it seems to me that there’s a huge application for them within the SME community as well. Something that’s both cost effective and cutting edge must be worth a try!

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. www.nabcommunications.co.uk