Cheap to put on and generally free to attend, Webinars—in which a publisher delivers a seminar online to a remote audience—have reached critical mass. Publishers that did a handful of Webinars in 2006 have hundreds planned for 2007 and 2008. Penton Media has gone from doing about 14 Webinars per year to more than 300. Edgell Communications, an early adopter of Webinars, has seen the competition explode since they first started doing them in 2003. “As our competitors got more assertive about selling Webinars, the competition intensified for that hour of our audience’s time and attention,” says chief operating officer Dan Ligorner. “That, as we know, is the coveted prize, and whoever wins that most often wins the marketing dollars. That really is the new media value chain, and it’s the battle we’re all fighting now across many of our businesses.”

Webinars have gained traction to the extent that many publishers are taking the responsibility away from existing print or online staffs and handing it to custom media groups. Penton Media, which sees more than $1.5 million in Webinar revenue and is enjoying nearly 30 percent growth each year, runs its Webinars through its custom media group. “Every magazine is considered its own business unit with its own e-media team,” says Tim Stark, director of online events for Penton Media. “When it comes to Webinars, because of the length of the process and special technical traits—they don’t have expertise on staff for Webinars. We have a dedicated online events staff within the custom media group. During budget planning, I’ll be pulled in to discuss dates. For sponsor-driven education events, throughout Penton a workflow is in place so when the Webinar is sold, they contact me. I make sure we don’t have conflicts with other magazines or Webinars, and I put together a production schedule and start contacting the players involved.”

Nielsen Business Media recruited two former Ziff Davis executives—Elliot Markowitz, former editorial director of Ziff Davis Media seminars, and Eric Biener, formerly national sales director of Ziff Davis digital events—to ramp up its digital event business. With Biener recently promoted to vice president of business development, Webinars and digital events will take on even more prominence for the company. “Nielsen hasn’t been a big player with Webinars in the past despite being a billion dollar company—they’ve got a huge magazine business and a very big tradeshow business, the missing piece of the puzzle was Webcasting and virtual trade shows,” says Markowitz, who serves as editorial director of Nielsen Web seminars and digital events. “This ties in their print brands and even trade shows. We will start doing virtual trade shows for brands that don’t have print publications or even real content-driven Web sites. The Webcast model and the virtual tradeshow model can fit in every business Nielsen has.”

Markowitz develops content, moderates events, works with speakers and acts as go-between with print editors and sponsors. “I bring 20 years of editorial experience to the sponsor without stepping over the church and state line,” says Markowitz. “Editors can present the content without worrying about the sponsor. Content and editorial quality are the two keys.”

Getting the Message Through
But how to break through without alienating your audience? “With Webinars, list burn is on everyone’s mind,” says Stark. “When you’re sending out postcards and three newsletters per week, your audience is just getting blasted.”

Penton narrows its audience focus for the Webinar, rather than targeting the entire audience within a niche. “We try to do segmented lists, we don’t just throw it out to the masses,” says Stark. “We use our audience development group to pull a targeted list of names that deals specifically in this topic. What do you want, 400 people who are really into the topic or 1,000 who just sign up to see what it’s about?”

Many publishers are mapping out their Webinars for the year in an editorial calendar format. That helps both attendees and sponsors sign up well in advance. But it also puts publishers in the sticky situation of constantly reminding registrants about the upcoming Webinar without overdoing it. “Sending out invitations two months before looks good for the sponsor as the event comes closer, because you’re letting them know how many people have registered, but with today’s schedules, everything changes on a daily basis,” says Stark. “We will start start early by putting notices in newsletters or medallion ads and banners on the Web site, but the vast majority of registrants come from direct e-mail campaigns. We don’t start those until three weeks before the Webinar.”

Penton has also developed a multiple registration environment that allows it to promote multiple events off one registration page. “It’s a huge list burn reducer,” says Stark. “If you can promote an event in January and also get them to sign up for one in October, how awesome is that?”

Still, the multi-registration page locks publishers into executing events far in advance. “You have to know which events you’re doing and when, and commit,” adds Stark. “You’re taking your readers’ information and you’re expected to give them something back for that.”

The KISS Principle Still Applies
While Webinars are getting more advanced in their reporting and interactive capabilities, publishers are advised to keep it simple. “We’ve been through multiple vendors in our quest for this goal,” says Ligorner. “In the early days, despite meticulous practice and preparation, when the phone or your speakers would suddenly go silent, or the key analyst on your panel would announce that he can’t see his slides, it’s like getting the wind knocked out of you. It can take two months to generate attendance for a Webinar; it can take two minutes to lose them if it’s too complicated to register or it’s disrupted in the process.”

Penton has opted for the ON24 platform. “From the attendee side, you need to keep it simple,” says Stark. “For the end user, having Internet Explorer as the only software you need to be in this environment is huge. We have no idea the networks people have out there. We’ve got groups in the convenience store market that could still be using Windows 95. With some of these virtual conference monsters like WebEx, the user has to download a whole software series. It’s great once you’re in there but, we still don’t know if our audience is at the level where they won’t have issues or if they’re on a network that restricts downloads.”

Publishers should keep it simple for themselves too. “Having to do 300 events per year, if it wasn’t so easy for our back-end, we couldn’t handle it,” says Stark. “We can customize it—WebEx always looks the same. With ON24 we can go into Photoshop and design a custom background. That’s why we see so much repeat business.”

Look for reporting features that enable sponsors to track their own results, rather than rely on the publisher to constantly do it for them. “With the number of events we do, giving sponsors their own URL to pull leads from is huge for us,” says Stark. “We will do initial metric reports for them but we can give them that reportingURL anytime they want and not wait for us.”

As with Web design, don’t be wowed by unnecessary features. “Nielsen said synchronized PowerPoint presentations weren’t sexy enough and that the audience wouldn’t show up,” says Markowitz. “But we said they will show up as long as the content is there.”

Tailor the Webinar for your audience. “We knew one platform wouldn’t work for all brands,” adds Markowitz. “Some can do video and streaming audio. With a training/management type magazine, it’s more for a tutorial or demo. In a service provider, we want to be able to customize it without running up costs. We’re also looking for scaleability. We can have anywhere from 50 to 5,000 people and it costs the same. Billboard may get 1,000 attendees, Progressive Grocer may get 150 core businessmen.”

And while a vendor may have great technical features, don’t forget to gauge their customer service. “For those publishers currently evaluating vendors, it’s important to have your arms around the level of ongoing hands-on attention you will need both on the back-end and in event production,” adds Ligorner. “That will drive the biggest variations in cost and quality.”

The typical Webinar model offers free registration for attendees in turn for their information but sponsorship pricing can vary wildly. “It’s completely based on the market,” says Stark. “Some of our magazines in business finance—where readers are c-level—can easily command upwards of $40,000 for an event. For smaller markets such as food service, where we have a lot of on-demand viewers because during the day they’re whipping up food, it’s in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. Cheap prices are nice but the quality of leads justify our price points.”

Beyond the Webinar
While Webinars account for about 25 percent of Edgell’s total e-media revenue and remain highly profitable, the company is tweaking its approach and packaging other types of content with its Webinars. “The market has dictated a price decrease, which we make up for in volume as well as in more integrated packages, most often including a white paper or thought-leadership advertorial that lends itself to compelling live discussions,” says Ligorner.

Virtual tradeshows are gaining ground as well, offering attendees and sponsors more interactivity than the typical Webinar. “People go to a Webinar and what’s the interactivity?” says Brent Arslaner, vice president of marketing at Unisfair. “They might be able to ask a question or two. That’s not very engaging. But if you can go in and interact with speakers and peers, it’s much more compelling.”

Unisfair offers a virtual tradeshow model with capabilities similar to social network LinkedIn, in which instead of going through a standard registration page, participants can share profile information and actual files or videos. The system will also perform “match-making” duties for attendees and vendors. And unlike live shows, virtual tradeshows can last for months. “This emulates every aspect of a live tradeshow except it doesn’t have to end,” says Arslaner.

Nielsen is preparing to launch a series of virtual tradeshows. “We’re trying to recreate the tradeshow experience all online,” says Markowitz. Half of the format is educational tracks with four or five individual Webcasts, while the other half is a tradeshow floor, where Nielsen will build vendor booths. Attendees can download anything from white papers to media kits to marketing promos. “It’s everything you can get without physically shaking someone’s hand,” says Markowitz.

Adweek will host a virtual tradeshow in October that consists of a keynote, followed by three separate Webcasts, and access to a tradeshow floor. The show will be live for one day then archived for six months. Other Nielsen titles, including Hospitality Design and several travel publications, will create a virtual marketplace that runs all year long. That format will skip the Webcast portion and create tradeshow floors that will be updated throughout the year, including the occasional seminar. “We’re dealing with different brands and different sponsors with different needs,” says Markowitz. “At Ziff Davis, it was all technology.”