First things first. In the title of this blog post, I'm using the term "webcast" to mean a live, in-person event that is streamed online, not a traditional "webinar" where the entire audience is virtual. Some people use the terms "webcast" and "webinar" interchangeably when referring to the latter type of event, so I want to be clear up front that for the purpose of this article, a "webcast" is the broadcast of an on-site event over the internet. Also, I'm not implying anything nefarious with the word "hack." I'm using that word in the do-it-yourself, MacGyver sort of way.
A while back, one of my webinar clients approached me about helping them produce a webcast. They were planning a customer product presentation at their offices and they wanted to maximize exposure by streaming the session online for people who couldn't attend in-person. I first explained to my client that a "webcast," as opposed to a "webinar," is a completely different type of event to produce, requiring "webcasting" software, professional audio and video equipment, and an on-site production crew. Perhaps you've seen large companies streaming these types of events online. Just the other day, Apple streamed a "special event" during which they introduced the world to their new iPhone X. Of course, not every company can produce an Apple-caliber webcast from a shiny, new spaceship-shaped auditorium with $14,000 leather seats, but even an ordinary, everyday webcast is beyond the budget and resources of many organizations.
I'm in the webinar business, not the webcast business, so I offered to help my client by researching the costs of hiring a webcast production outfit in their local area. But the more we both thought about it, the more we realized that there might actually be a way to "broadcast" an in-person event without the costs and technology requirements associated with a bona fide webcast. I'm not pretending to be the first person to come up with this idea; many others have certainly already done this. Indeed, there's really nothing very clever or revolutionary about the whole concept. But I'm presenting it here with the hope that it might be helpful to someone else.
To hack a webcast, you'll schedule a webinar in your favorite webinar platform and you'll follow your usual procedures for inviting people to attend and collecting their registration information. It's important to be clear in your invitation that you're inviting them to a broadcast of an in-person event and not a traditional webinar. Otherwise, they'll be confused when they log in and hear background sounds like laughter and applause coming from the audience.
You'll need two computers: one computer is the "host" computer; the other computer is the "stage" computer. The former is logged in to the webinar platform as the "organizer" or "host"; the latter is logged in as a "presenter" or "panelist."
The trickiest part of hacking a webcast is the audio set-up. Your presenter will need to speak into a USB microphone that's connected to the stage computer just like if you were using computer audio during an ordinary webinar. The microphone could be a standard desktop mic positioned on a lectern, but a lapel mic is probably more convenient. Of course, if the presenter is using a wired lapel mic, they'll need to stay close to the computer, which might not be preferable for an in-person event. I would normally never recommend anything wireless for an online presentation, but a wireless lapel mic is probably the only option if the presenter wants to be mobile. If there are multiple presenters with lapel mics, you'll need to find a way to connect all of them to the stage computer, either with a USB splitter or wirelessly. If you also need to amplify the audio for the in-person audience, you'll need to arrange for that too. My client has an audio technician who comes in and sets all of this up for their "hybrid" events, as we've begun calling them, but there's no reason why you can't purchase the equipment yourself and do all of it on your own. Just make sure to test everything out beforehand.
The presenters won't actually be interfacing with the webinar software (the only reason to log in on the stage computer is to connect the audio for the online attendees), so once you're logged in and the presenters are miked up, you can just minimize the webinar console or interface and forget about it. The presenters can then bring up and project their slide presentation like they normally would for an in-person event. But how do the online attendees see the slides? That's where the "host" computer comes in. The presentation slides are imported into the webinar software or loaded onto the host computer and broadcast via screensharing (i.e., however your webinar platform dictates) and someone is assigned to keep the slides in sync with what the presenters are doing on the stage. In this way, the webinar attendees get the "online" experience and the on-site audience gets the "in-person" experience.
If the presentation calls for more than just slides—for example, a software demo or some other kind of real-time screen presentation—then the person assigned to the host computer won't be able to keep up with or anticipate the presenter's screen actions and navigation. It's just too difficult and not practical. In cases like this, you'll need to share the stage computer's screen through the webinar platform. Just start the screensharing before the event begins, leave it alone until the end, and make sure the presenters don't accidentally turn it off. Then, whatever the presenter shows to the in-person audience can be seen by the online audience, including any slides. Depending on the webinar platform used, the in-person audience might see a small screensharing toolbar or some other kind of presenter control panel on the screen that's hidden for the online audience. It's not ideal, but there's really nothing that can be done about it since webinar software isn't explicitly designed for this type of use case.
Regardless of whether the presentation is broadcast through the host computer or the stage computer, the person on the host computer can monitor any questions that are submitted by the online audience. How those questions get relayed to the presenters is up to you. One method that works well is to have the person staffing the host computer raise their hand during the Q&A session and the presenters can alternately take questions from the in-person audience and the online audience. Just make sure to remind the presenters before the session that they need to paraphrase every question asked by either the staffer or an in-person attendee so that the online audience can hear it too.
It will be easy for the presenters to forget that their presentation is also being streamed over the internet, so also make sure that they remember to acknowledge the online audience at the beginning of and throughout the event so that the webinar attendees don't feel ignored or left out. By doing so, they'll also loop the in-person audience in on the fact that it's a hybrid event. This will prevent any confusion or ill will on either side of the audience.
My client has successfully streamed several of these hybrid events now and they're getting pretty good at it. I've encouraged them to consider taking it to the next level and really making the event akin to a webcast by connecting a video camera to the webinar software and pointing it at the stage. Nobody will ever confuse one of these "webcasts" with a state-of-the-art online broadcast from Apple Park in Silicon Valley, but it's a relatively easy and cost-effective way to extend the reach of your on-site events to your online audiences.
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