Buyer's Guide to Webcasting Platforms 2016

Viewed from a distance, most webcast providers look pretty similar; they all let you create a registration page, collect contact info for your registrants, and serve attendees a diet of PowerPoint and talking-head video, spiced with quizzes, surveys, and other interactions. They all offer analytics telling you who watched and for how long.

Truth be told, most platforms suffice for lowest-common-denominator webcasts when the most important thing is to keep costs low. But what about a high-level internal webcast to corporate offices around the globe, or a critical presentation to external partners? What if webinars are a critical element of moving prospects to the next step of the marketing cycle? In these cases and many others, you might have to dig beneath the surface to identify the best platform for the job. Here are some questions to help you get started.

Content

All major services can deliver PowerPoint slides and talking-head video, but the video quality varies. For example, for some webinars, such as an all-hands meeting, or a webcast of a live conference, you may want to broadcast fullscreen video, a problem for services that accept only webcam video.

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Sonic Foundry offers multiple hardware and software options, such as this portable ML800 recorder.

If you plan on producing a fullscreen broadcast at some point, explore how the system handles third-party inputs from cameras or video mixers. Ask if the system integrates with Telestream Wirecast or NewTek TriCaster (or similar products) to simplify production, or if the service offers a hardware or software capture solution of its own. Learn if the service delivers a single stream or adaptive video, and if you can select from various bandwidth levels. If your webcasts will include on-demand video, learn if you can upload the video beforehand; some services force you to play the video via some kind of a screen share or whiteboard function, which consumes bandwidth and can degrade quality.

If you’ll be broadcasting to multiple audiences internationally, ask if your webcast system can support a simulated live event, where your main content is prerecorded, but Q&A and other similar services are live and localized. This capability can help you extend your message around the globe with minimal effort from high-value speakers.

Branding and Configuration

Some companies don’t mind showing third-party branding on their webinar players, but others want only their own branding. If you’re in the latter camp, ask if a white label registration page and player are available. Also ask if you can embed the webcast in a page on your own website, or if viewers have to watch on a page in the webcasting portal.

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ReadyTalk’s Simulive feature can simulate a live event with prerecorded content.

Also check the configuration options for registration pages and email messages produced by the system. Response rates vary greatly depending upon the layout and graphics used in these pitches, so the more flexible the system is, the better.

Ensuring the Mobile Experience

Mobile consumption is increasing for all forms of video, including webinars, and you should count on an increasing number of attendees watching on tablets or mobile phones. For these viewers, adaptive streaming is a must, so ask if the mobile viewer gets full access to chat, Q&A, quizzes, and polls. Also, ask if viewers can configure their mobile screens to their liking; for example, can they opt for fullscreen video display while shutting other content windows?

It’s not generally a good idea to produce a webinar from a mobile device, but for some organizations it’s unavoidable. If you anticipate having some speakers transmitting from their mobile devices, make sure to inquire if the service supports this, because some don’t.

Technology and Integration

If you already have video conferencing units with professional lighting and sound, find out if you can use these as the source for your webcasts. If you’ll use the telephone as an audio source for your webinars, ask if the company manages its own networks or uses a third-party service. Third-party involvement represents another point of failure, which can make problems difficult to diagnose. Also ask how simple it is to add multiple presenters in different locations, which can be an issue with some systems, even without video.

On the playback side, ask if a webinar needs to be downloaded, and if an HTML5-only player is available. Most webinar providers started off using Flash, but at some point in the next 12–18 months, Flash’s installed base should start to decline on the most current versions of browsers. Before making a significant commitment to a webinar platform, you should ask about the plan for transitioning to HTML5

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Onstream’s Visual Webcaster webinar service lets you use your own branding.

Delivery

If your webcasts include fullscreen video, a content delivery network can help ensure high-quality delivery. Some webinar providers distribute via their own pipes. In some cases, these systems are designed and implemented very well; in others, they are simply a bargain basement approach.

If efficient delivery within the enterprise is a priority, ask how your webinar provider can help, usually by integrating directly with your internal networks, deploying multicast or P2P technology, or via other technologies. The different service providers vary greatly respecting their capabilities here, so if internal distribution is a priority, ask about this early in the selection process.

Support

Most webcasting companies have at least one self-service product offering, and if you’re reasonably technically proficient you should be able to configure and run a webinar without assistance. However, mission-critical or otherwise high-profile webcasts might need a higher level of support throughout the entire workflow. You might want to consult a professional beforehand to help with planning and setup, to have the service provider run the event, or even send experienced production professionals to help produce the event.

Before committing to a service provider, understand the breadth and depth of its service offering and the pricing associated with each level of service. For example, if your webinar is for internal distribution, and you need help understanding how to distribute via multicasting, ask if the service can help with this. If you need onsite production assistance, ask for pricing and for references. Ask if you’ll have a dedicated account manager, and whether there are onboarding services available for your first few webinars.

Marketing-Related Features

If you’re using webinars for lead generation, features such as lead scoring, which ranks the attendee’s interest in your product or service, are a plus. You’ll also want rich analytics that provide detailed data about user engagement, both on a user-by-user basis and as a group. Some systems even offer real-time analytics during the event, so you can learn about issues while you still have time to correct them.

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TalkPoint can help ensure the success of high-profile events with webcast and production services.

If you have a marketing automation (MA) platform, you’ll probably prefer to rank your leads in those systems, which makes integration between your webcast and MA system a must. The potential interactions enabled by webcast platforms, and the features that come with them, make webinars a very rich environment for measuring viewer engagement. In this regard, note that not all webinar/MA system integrations are created equal; some only measure viewing time and other basic metrics, while others capture every viewer interaction with the system. Obviously, more data is better. You probably will also want to create landing pages and viewer communications with your MA program, if only to match the look and feel of other customer communications, so make sure the integration enables this as well.

There are a host of marketing automation programs beyond the two mentioned, as well as customer relationship management (CRM) programs. Before signing on with a webcast provider, make sure it has the ability to feed critical marketing- and sales-related data into the MA/CRM systems deployed in your shop.

Finally, you’ll almost certainly be trolling for viewers via multiple sources, and it’s great to track the effectiveness of each source. So ask whether your service offers this capability. Finally, while on the topic of marketing, I’ll quickly mention payment processing as a rare but valuable feature for companies that want to monetize their webinars.

Transition to VOD

Most webinar producers will want to quickly transition the webinar from live to on-demand viewing, perhaps with an edit to remove rough edges. So check your options for editing the presentation after the fact. The best systems keep the slides and audio separate, and let you remove, reposition, or even replace slides, providing maximum editing flexibility. Also learn if you can easily extract shorter segments of the webinar to repurpose the content, and if you can download an MP4 file for uploading to YouTube or other services.

The Bigger Picture

Some webcast offerings are standalone products, while others are offered as a component of a larger system, such as an enterprise YouTube system, video content management platform, or online video platform. If your webcasts are primarily externally focused, say for marketing or lead generation, a stand-alone system can work well.

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Creating a webcast in INXPO’s XPOCAST webcast platform and sending its activity data to a campaign in Marketo.

On the other hand, if your webinars are primarily internally focused, for training, employee onboarding and the like, integration with a larger enterprise system can be beneficial, not only for knowledge management, but to integrate the webcast platform with other video content or security options. If you’re currently using another video-related system in the enterprise, check if it provides a webcast option, as this may be your best option.

This article appears in the 2016 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook.


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