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10 Steps for Planning a Successful Webinar

Tips for organizing and producing webinars for your nonprofit, charity, or library

Webinar audience members participating in a discussion
Ariel Gilbert-Knight - September 02, 2016

If your organization needs to share information long-distance but has limited education and travel funds, webinars can help you save money and provide more services to your constituents.

Nonprofits and libraries can use webinars for training, sharing information about a new product or service, or promoting a program. There are many tools that make it easy for any organization to host a webinar, even with limited technology expertise. Below, we'll outline some of the major steps you can take to plan quality, affordable webinars at your organization.

1. Ask Yourself Whether a Webinar is the Right Tool for Your Needs

A webinar can be a powerful training and outreach tool, but the decision to use a particular tool should be based on your goals and the needs of your audience.

When determining whether a webinar is the best medium for your needs, consider

  • Your audience.
  • The subject matter.
  • The time you'll need to cover your topic. Most online audiences tend to lose interest after about two hours (or less!).

While webinars work well for some topics, they're not suited to every training need.

You may also wish to solicit the feedback of subject matter experts, other nonprofits that have conducted their own webinars, and even the audience you plan to address. Informal conversations, formal interviews, and surveys can all help you assess whether a webinar is right for you and your audience.

2. Recruit Speakers and a Support Team for Your Webinar

There are usually three main players in a webinar: the organizer/facilitator, the presenter or presenters, and assistants.

  • Organizer/facilitator. The organizer is the person responsible for developing the webinar topic, locating a speaker, marketing the event, setting up the registration, and communicating with participants before and after the webinar. During the webinar, the organizer usually participates by introducing presenters, interviewing the subject matter experts, moderating audience questions, and encouraging audience participation. The organizer also helps troubleshoot problems. Time commitment: roughly 10 to 20 hours per webinar.
  • Presenter(s) (also known as subject matter experts). Ideally, presenters should be able to concentrate their efforts on preparing and delivering their presentation. Worrying about the webinar software, event registration, troubleshooting, and other logistical details detracts from the presenters' ability to give an engaging presentation. Time commitment: four to six hours per hour of webinar.
  • Assistants. Assistants can help by answering questions that the organizer and the presenter don't have time for. Assistants are particularly helpful for answering technical and logistical questions ("I can't hear the audio," for example). Experienced organizers often produce webinars without any assistance, but you should consider asking for help if: you or your audience is unfamiliar with webinars and webinar tools; you plan to play a large role in the conversation (either as an interviewer or a participant); or you expect a large audience. Time commitment: one to two hours per hour of webinar.

In most cases, you should at least divide up the organizer and presenter roles. For large, complex webinars, you'll often need an assistant or assistants.

3. Determine the Format of Your Webinar

Below are some popular formats you might consider:

DescriptionProsCons
One SpeakerA single presenter speaks, demonstrates, and answers questions from the audience.Fewer people to coordinate and train on how to use the webinar tool.Lack of variety in voices and perspectives.
Interview StyleInterviewer asks a set of predetermined questions.
  • More engaging to hear multiple voices.
  • The fact that the interviewer is asking questions of the expert(s) often encourages the audience to do the same.
More people to schedule, train, and coordinate.
Moderated Panel DiscussionMultiple people on the line at the same time, with a moderator facilitating the discussion.Offers a variety of voices and perspectives.
  • More people to schedule, train, and coordinate.
  • Can be challenging to keep panelists from talking over each other.
InteractiveAudience members participate fully via instructor-led exercises and facilitated conversations.If done well, participants receive a deeper understanding of the topic because they're fully engaged in the dialogue and the exercises.
  • Can only accommodate a small group.
  • Requires a very skilled, experienced facilitator.

4. Plan the Visuals for Your Webinar

Because webinars rely on audio and visuals to get the message across, both should be engaging. Plain slides with a lot of text don't work very well. Here are seven ways to make your presentations more engaging.

Some slides you may wish to include are

  • An introductory slide reminding your audience how to log in to the audio and what time the webinar will begin.
  • A slide introducing each presenter, including job title, organization, and a photograph if available.
  • A quick overview of the webinar agenda and the topics to be covered.

5. Pick a Webinar Tool

Dozens of web conferencing tools exist.

Eligible nonprofits and libraries can request discounted access to ReadyTalk and Citrix webinar and training platforms through TechSoup.

When weighing your software options, here are a few questions to ask:

How Many People Will the Webinar Tool Accommodate?

Most tools and pricing plans set a cap on the number of participants. For free and low-cost web conferencing packages, the cap is often as low as 15 or 20 participants. Other plans limit you to 50 or 100, while enterprise-level packages allow 1,000 or more participants per webinar.

How Much Does a Webinar Cost?

Some packages are free. Other vendors charge for web conferencing and audio separately, some charge per participant per minute, and others charge a flat fee per month or per year. When you add in the fees for hosting recorded webinars and the cost of a toll-free telephone number, the pricing schemes can be complicated.

Which Features Will You Need?

Do you want to just show a presentation or demonstrate how to use a specific piece of software? Would you like your participants to be able to take control of your desktop? Do you want a live video feed of the speakers? Make sure you choose a tool that allows you to do what you want.

How Is Audio Handled?

Some products offer integrated, web-streaming audio, which allows participants to listen to the presentation through their computer speakers or headsets. Other webinar platforms require that participants and presenters dial in to a special phone number.

You usually have two options for this:

  • A toll number, for which the participants have to pay the fees charged by their long-distance or cellphone provider.
  • A toll-free number, for which you or your organization will usually pay a set fee per minute for each participant. This can add up quickly during webinars with a high turnout.

Finally, many webinar platforms offer you both web-streaming audio and dial-in phone options. You can choose to enable one or the other, or both.

Do You Want to Record the Webinars for Later Viewing?

If so, ask how the webinar vendor handles recording and whether the vendor charges extra to make that recording available online. Most vendors charge for storing the recording online, rather than the recording feature itself, but you should check to be certain.

You will also want to ask what exactly gets recorded. Some tools record the slides along with audio, but don't record the chat conversation or the desktop sharing. Vendors also vary in terms of how long they save the recording. Some delete it after a month, whereas others save it until you delete it yourself.

6. Create an Agenda for the Webinar

About three or four weeks before your webinar, hold a conference call with the speaker or speakers to determine

  • What questions you'll ask and the order in which the speakers will present.
  • Deadlines for materials. Ask presenters to send you slides or other visuals at least two to three days before the practice session so you have time to proofread and finalize the presentation.
  • An agenda with the order of the speakers and the duration of each segment.

Follow up this initial call with an email containing notes from your discussion.

7. Schedule a Practice Session for the Webinar

A few days before your webinar, you should schedule at least one 30- to 60-minute run-through with all participants to work out any unresolved questions or technical issues.

Your practice session should cover the following:

  • An introduction to the webinar tool and its features. Discuss how to use the tool and what features are available to the presenters. Also make sure everyone knows whom they should turn to if they have questions or problems during the webinar — and how they can reach them.
  • An equipment check. Ensure that all of your presenters' operating systems, browsers, headsets, and other equipment are compatible with the web conferencing tool. Most webinar tools let presenters and participants test their computer for compatibility before the event.
  • A review of your agenda and visuals. Go over the agenda and move through the presentation to ensure that slides are in the right order and that speakers know where they come in.

A practice session is also a great opportunity to generate enthusiasm for the upcoming event and rally your presenters.

8. Reserve Your Equipment and Space

Regardless of the equipment you use, you will need a quiet space to conduct your webinar. Reserve a conference room or other space where there won't be background noise or interruptions.

You will usually want to have the following equipment:

  • Headsets. The organizer and all presenters will need headsets — telephone headsets if your webinar tool uses a phone bridge, or computer headsets if your tool uses integrated web audio. Never present a webinar using a speakerphone. Even in a quiet location, the audio quality is often poor.
  • A power cord if you're using a laptop.
  • A network cable to connect you directly to the network if you aren't using a wireless connection.

9. Set Up Registration and Decide How Much (or Whether) to Charge for Your Webinar

Before you begin marketing your webinar, determine what tool you will use to register attendees. Some online conferencing and webinar tools include built-in registration options. Signing up participants using a separate event-registration tool is another option.

You will also want to decide whether you will charge for your webinar — and if so, how much. Many fee-based webinars are in the $25 to $50 range, but others can be upwards of $200 per attendee.

With free webinars, you can expect that more than 50 percent of the people who sign up will fail to attend. One advantage of charging for your webinar is that it provides an incentive for participants to show up.

Participants will have higher expectations when they pay. The more you charge, the greater the expectation that you will deliver an engaging, well-produced webinar. If you plan to charge more than a small fee (for example, more than $25), make sure most or all of the following are true:

  • You have a wealth of hands-on experience, you have an especially deep knowledge of the subject, or the topic is not well covered elsewhere.
  • You have a lot of experience with training in general and online training in particular.
  • You can collect payments easily.
  • You plan to conduct webinars on a regular basis.

10. Publicize Your Webinar!

You will want to begin sending out information two to three weeks before the event. You should

  • Create an engaging, succinct description.
  • Clearly convey the intended audience for the webinar — for example, beginner or advanced, accidental techie or executive director.

Good places to advertise your event include your website, online event calendars, newsletters (online and printed), Twitter, Facebook, and at local events in your community. Don't forget to promote future webinars at the end of current webinars.

To see TechSoup's upcoming free technology webinars for nonprofits and to view previously recorded presentations, visit our Webinars page.

This article was originally written by Chris Peters and Kami Griffiths. It was updated in 2016 by Ariel Gilbert-Knight.

Image: Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock

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