Dave Clark | Jun 24, 2021 | CWC Blog
Nope. It's not what you're thinking.
My headline doesn't refer to attendees who connect a few minutes late and miss the beginning of a webinar.
True, some webinar organizers obsess over this. Their solution is to delay the start of the webinar by a few minutes to accommodate any late-comers. In the process, they disrespect the attendees who did show up on time by making them wait for other people who may or may not show up at all. Your late-arriving attendees know they are late. Don't worry about them.
Instead, I'm referring to a very specific flaw with a very specific webinar platform. Normally, I don't write about the countless design flaws rife in every webinar platform. But this webinar platform is so big and used by so many people—and this problem is so camouflaged and yet so potentially damaging to your webinars—that I decided to provide this public service message of sorts.
The webinar platform, of course, is Zoom—the new overnight behemoth of the online meeting and conferencing world. To be clear, I'm not writing about the standard version of Zoom used by millions of people every day for peer-to-peer conferencing. This design flaw exists in the special "webinar" version of Zoom used to conduct large, formal presentation- and panel-style events.
The issue is with the way webinar attendees are admitted to a webinar. You may be familiar with Zoom's standard "waiting room" feature that allows meeting hosts to keep meeting participants outside a meeting until the host is ready to start. The same basic concept is used for the webinar version of Zoom. In fact, for a formal webinar event, this is must-have functionality for any webinar platform. You wouldn't want early bird attendees eavesdropping on any last-minute conversations and preparation among the webinar presenters and host. Instead, the host or producer can start the "broadcast" and admit the attendees when everyone is ready, presumably at the official start time that was advertised for the webinar.
Here's the problem: With the webinar version of Zoom, attendees are not connected to the broadcast immediately, nor are they connected all at the same time. I've conducted multiple tests on this using a variety of devices and connections. I've experienced connection delays of up to at least 30 seconds, and I'm not convinced that even longer delays aren't possible.
A webinar host or moderator can say a lot in the first 30 seconds of a webinar. If attendees aren't getting connected to the webinar broadcast immediately, they're not hearing any of those initial opening remarks. Indeed, even if an attendee made the effort to join the webinar on time, or even early, they're getting connected to the broadcast at an arbitrary moment after the webinar has officially commenced. That's an inexcusable design flaw.
What makes this even worse is that there's no way for a webinar host or producer to know this is happening! There's certainly no indication of a connection delay on the screen. And it's not the kind of problem that would even occur to the average user. When you push a "Start" button, common sense dictates that any waiting attendees will be connected to the broadcast at that moment, not up to 30 seconds later.
Zoom says that the time it takes to connect each waiting attendee to the webinar broadcast depends on each attendee's individual internet connection. An attendee with a faster internet connection will get connected faster than an attendee with a slower internet connection. I'm not buying it. I don't care how slow your internet connection is. It shouldn't take 30 seconds to transition from a "waiting" attendee to a "connected" attendee. Plus, the standard version of Zoom has no trouble connecting everyone in the waiting room to the meeting room immediately, and all at the same time. In any case, regardless of the cause, it's a real problem with real consequences.
For some reason, unlike other webinar platforms, and unlike the standard version of Zoom, the webinar version of Zoom doesn't indicate how many attendees have logged in and are waiting for the webinar to begin. Not until the webinar starts and the attendees are connected to the broadcast does anyone know how many attendees are present.
If we knew the number of waiting attendees in advance, perhaps Zoom could also show us a percentage of those waiting attendees who have actually been connected to the live broadcast after the webinar has started. That way, the first speaker could wait until the number hits 100%. Otherwise, how in the world is anyone supposed to know when to start speaking? Do you wait 5 seconds... 10 seconds... 30 seconds? How do you know when the last waiting attendee has been connected? Does the increasing number of attendees shown on the screen indicate "waiting" attendees who have now been connected—in other words, attendees who logged in on time and who deserve to hear every word of the webinar's opening remarks—or late-arriving attendees who have just logged in right now? There's no way to know!
When I first discovered this problem several years ago, I started a practice that I continue to this day. When producing and hosting webinars for my clients on Zoom, I let the presenters and panelists know that we'll pause and remain silent for 60 seconds after starting the broadcast. To ensure that they understand what's happening and don't panic when they don't hear anything right away, I tell them this right before we start and I'm very clear about why we're doing it. Because I don't want the live broadcast to start late, I "start" the webinar 30 seconds before the official start time and then signal the first speaker to start speaking 60 seconds later, ensuring that the webinar still starts at the advertised time, to the minute. Why 60 seconds? Because I don't trust that a 30-second connection delay is the ceiling.
I've reported this issue to Zoom but I haven't received any indication that they think it's a problem that needs fixing. Usually, it takes more than one person to convince a software company to make a design change. They won't take it seriously until they start receiving numerous complaints. The problem is that most webinar hosts aren't aware that this is a problem in the first place. Perhaps more webinar hosts will start receiving complaints from their own attendees and that will get the ball rolling. In the meantime, I wonder how many millions of attendees are missing the opening comments made during thousands of important webinars conducted on Zoom every single day.
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