How to Choose and Implement a Webcasting Solution

So you want to produce a webcast, perhaps for training, marketing, or sales. You envision a presentation involving a talking head video and PowerPoint, and maybe some extras such as chat and Q&A. Price is definitely a consideration, but you also want to know the trade-offs involved with choosing a lower-cost solution and when a higher-cost solution makes the most sense.

At a high level, you have three types of platforms to choose from. The most obvious choices are webcast platforms such as those provided by On24, MediaPlatform, and OnStream Media, but these are usually the most costly. The least-expensive option will usually be a live streaming service provider (LSSP) such as Livestream, Ustream, or YouTube Live. Yet another option is conferencing solutions such as Google Hangouts on Air, Adobe Connect, and GoToMeeting.com, which started as purely collaborative tools but have evolved their toolsets to incorporate learning and webcast modules.

In this article, I’ll review the factors to consider when choosing between these three categories. Since each category contains many products and services, there will be few absolutes in the analysis, but you’ll learn the major strengths and weaknesses of each class of platform so you can make a more informed selection.

Note that most LSSP solutions are offered only as SaaS, which is also the predominant model for webcasting, though some webcasting vendors do sell software for on-premise installation and deployment. Most conferencing vendors also follow the SaaS model, though there are also some, including Adobe, that offer an on-premise option, a hosted SaaS option, and a managed services model, in which the software is installed on dedicated servers that are managed by Adobe Systems. In this article, I won’t make any distinction between how the product or particular features are made available by the vendor. As with all How-To articles, I’ll identify some products and services to illustrate certain points, but I won’t attempt to identify all products in each category. Let’s start with cost.

Cost

To a degree, the most significant advantage of the LSSP class of products is cost. Many are free, some with limitations on the number of viewers or video quality; some are advertising-supported, which may be inappropriate for many presentations. Still, if the budget dollars aren’t there and you need to get the word out, LSSPs are an alternative.

At the other end of the spectrum shown in Table 1 are traditional webcasters. While the most expensive option, traditional webcasters also come with technical hand-holding, which may be required for some users. On a single event basis, expect to pay around $600 or more for a base number of viewers, though you can reduce this price with volume.

Google+ Hangouts on Air is free, and, not surprisingly, the feature set is very basic from a webcast perspective. Most corporate users would be better served looking at products such as Adobe Connect and GoToMeeting, which start at around $20 per month, or higher with webinar-oriented features. For example, the base version of GoToMeeting costs $19 per month for up to five attendees, while GoToWebinar starts at $99 per month for up to 100 viewers.

When pricing potential solutions, identify the modules that you need and their cost for the expected number of viewers. Then identify what happens if you exceed the selected threshold. For example, with some vendors, if you choose a pricing tier of 1,000 viewers, additional viewers will get turned away. This sounds awkward, but it may be preferable to receiving an invoice for unbudgeted additional charges.

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Registration and Lead Generation

If you’re producing webinars for sales and marketing purposes, the ability to capture customer information is key (Table 2). No LSSPs provide these capabilities, though there are workarounds I’ll discuss later.

All webcasting products offer sophisticated lead-generation functions that let you create a fully branded registration page for viewers, choose the required data fields, and export the contact information for later use. Most let you offer Outlook and other calendar reminders to registrants to promote attendance. However, while some webcasting services let you send reminder messages, “thank you for attending” notes, and “sorry you missed the webinar” emails, some do not, usually citing concerns about being identified as a spamming site. If these types of emails are important to you, and they should be, make sure to enquire about the email capabilities included with the service.

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Most conferencing-only solutions are internally focused and don’t offer these types of lead-generation and attendance-management tools. Typically, however, they are one of the key features added with the webcast-oriented modules.

At the most basic level, campaign tracking details which registrants come from which sources, so you can identify the best channels for attracting attendees. Even better, some systems allow you to map lead qualification to the source, so you can find which source delivers the best-qualified leads. The bottom line is, if you’re using your webinars for lead generation, find a system that provides the data necessary to evaluate their effectiveness.

As a workaround, if you use an LSSP or a conferencing service without registration capabilities, you can capture the same information via a standard mailing list manager. Create a sign-up page and send invitation emails with links to that page. Then, you can send reminder emails as desired, though obviously you won’t have the data to identify registrants who attended or failed to attend.

Calendar links are also simple to create to either embed in the registration page or send to registrants in an email. In Outlook, for example, create a calendar item for the event and save it in iCalendar format (.ics). When a registrant clicks on the file, it will open the calendar item in Outlook, which the user can save to insert the event into his calendar.

Video Quality

Since video is its raison d’être, video quality is another strength of the LSSP category, where all services can input HD video and most can deliver adaptive streams to desktop and mobile devices (Table 3). That said, HD video is essential for LSSPs because the entire presentation is a video stream. If you want to incorporate PowerPoint or a software demonstration into the webcast, you have to input this into a tool such as the NewTek TriCaster or Telestream Wirecast, which converts it into the video transmitted to the LSSP for streaming.

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In contrast, webcasting and conferencing solutions deliver the PowerPoint slides in a much more efficient graphics format; that’s why you typically have to upload presentations in advance. In addition, in most webcasts, video is constrained to a small corner of the player, with other elements, such as PowerPoint, Q&A, polls, and quizzes, claiming the majority of the real estate. So for many webcasts, the webcam-only limitation isn’t a significant constraint, and neither is the inability to stream adaptively. On the other hand, if the bulk of your presentation is video, say of a discussion panel, a webcam won’t get the job done, and adaptive streaming will be a real benefit.

Another consideration relates to webcasts involving multiple speakers in different locations. LSSPs can handle multiple speakers sequentially but can’t easily integrate multiple speakers into a group presentation. Some webcasting solutions can integrate multiple speakers, but usually for an additional cost. In contrast, handling multiple video feeds from disparate locations is an essential component of virtually all conferencing systems.

Presentation Components

Along the same lines, once you start to look at other presentation components, conferencing systems begin to shine (Table 4). Most support a shared whiteboard, enable screen sharing, allow users to swap files, and have a robust chat function. In contrast, webcasting systems are typically designed to display PowerPoint slides and a talking head. Though you can demonstrate software or share a screen by sending video captured via a product such as the NewTek TriCaster or Telestream Wirecast, these capabilities are not intrinsic to the system. LSSPs don’t even support native PowerPoint; you’ll need a tool such as the TriCaster or Wirecast to integrate any screen-based element into the video.

LSSPs also lack interactive components such as polls and quizzes, which are very useful for engaging the audience to maintain their interest or help guide the direction of the presentation. If you’re training employees or partners, the ability to award and deliver certifications based upon quiz results is an important capability.

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Playback Platforms

Of course, the more features a service offers, the larger the task of porting it for mobile platforms. While mobile support is becoming increasingly important, it varies greatly among all the companies in all categories. If mobile playback and interactivity is important to your application, get this on the table early.

Analytics

This is another category in which LSSPs can’t compete; they’re simply not designed to provide user-specific viewing data. In contrast, the ability to integrate per-user viewing and response data for lead generation or training is an essential function of most webcasting systems. Most conferencing systems with webcast or training-oriented modules can supply this data, but you’re certainly not going to get if from a conferencing-only application such as Google Hangouts on Air (Table 5).

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Post Webinar Components

After the webinar, you’ll want to make it available as an on-demand presentation. Since there’s typically garbage time at the start and end of the presentation, you’ll want the ability to trim that out, which all three system types generally enable (Table 6). Again, webcasting systems are designed with effective post-webinar editing in mind and go much further. For example, since the video and PowerPoint slides are separately maintained, you can typically change the timing of slides, or even submit a new audio or video component or swap out a slide. Beyond this, many webcasting services can extract text from the PowerPoint slides and index the presentation to those slides. So if viewers want to jump directly to slide 14, How to Lose Weight Without Dieting, they can. Some even convert the speech to text to enable text search of the content. This not only helps viewers find what they want, it improves search engine optimization.

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Not surprisingly, beyond simple trimming, you won’t get any of these capabilities from LSSPs. You’ll also find a great diversity in the recording and output functionality provided by conferencing systems.

Summary

Every webinar is different, and every webinar producer has different goals and budgets. To choose the best category of product for your webinar, start by identifying your budget and high-level goals, and then define the types of content incorporated into the webinar, the desired user interaction, the target platforms served, the required analytics, and the features integrated into the on-demand presentation. This information will not only help you select which category is best for your webinar, but also choose between various alternatives within that category.

About Jan Ozer

I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks, and evaluate new encoders and codecs.

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