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Webinars 101: What is a Webinar, and What Software Should I Use?

There are plenty of professionals out there who don’t know what the term “webinar” means, though most could make a pretty good guess off the name. While that’s still true for now, it’s not as true as it was ten years ago, and five years from now it will sound completely ridiculous. Webinar is, as you’ve probably guessed, a combination of “web” and “seminar” and it’s one of those things that’s exactly what it says on the label: A seminar or meeting held in an internet-only format. It’s a simple idea with a complex execution. When it’s done right, it makes it possible for people all over the world to watch the same audio/visual presentation, presentation, seminar, or discussion while participating in polls and asking questions, just like a physical event.

webinar_imgIn the last decade the modern workplace has not only become more electronic, but more geographically spread out. Computers with video and audio capability have become ubiquitous, high speed internet the norm, creating the opportunity for practical communication over distance. The simultaneous rise of outsourcing and increased delegation to specialized businesses rather than in-house departments for marketing, analysis, and other specialty services has pressured companies to leverage these new communication technologies. In other words, the days of all the investors meeting every first Tuesday of the month on the fourth floor are over; marketing is done by a vendor out of Tulsa, customer support phones in from Mumbai, R&D is in Phoenix, and the CEO is in Manhattan. Web conferencing lets them all present to the entire company or its investors together, no matter how far apart they—or their audience—are in geographical terms.

Webinar applications, or online event services, attempt to make it possible to do the things you would normally do in a meeting, presentation, or seminar, regardless of the geographic location of the presenters and participants.

Standard Features

Presentation Tools

  • PowerPoint or alternative slide show applications.
  • Live screen sharing, allowing viewers to see the presenter’s desktop.
  • Live presenter annotation of shared materials.
  • Electronic whiteboards.
  • Panels of several presenters.

Audio/Visual Input

  • Presentation of pre-rendered videos and promotional materials.
  • Live video streaming of presenters.
  • Live audio streaming of presenters.
  • VoIP options.
  • Live chat technology, with or without allowing audience participation.

As with any emerging major technology, web presentation software has a glut of options, as dozens of start-ups and offshoots of established major players jockey for a place at the table. As a business professional attempting to make the move to webinar-based meetings and presentations, this is both a blessing and a curse: On the one hand, you have a lot of options to choose from, on the other hand, you have to choose from a lot of options.

We’ve put together this quick guide of a few big names to help you make sense of your options:

Citrix GoToWebinar

GoToWebinar is simple, generally acknowledged to be the best in the business for smaller meetings, due to its streamlined interface. That does come at the expense of some of the bells and whistles included in other programs. It doesn’t necessarily translate well to large webinars with more than a dozen or three participants.

Adobe Connect

Adobe Connect is a swing at a webinar service from the people who brought you the beloved Photoshop and Flash. After a rough launch, Connect has become the prettiest thing in Webinars. Not the easiest one, but the prettiest.

Cisco WebEx Event Center

WebEx is fairly easy to use, with mobile device support, and a wealth of features. It’s robust, stable, and cross-compatible between almost everything. As long as you don’t want to record the video. Arguably the dominant name in webinars for the time being.