Technology is supposed to improve over time. It's supposed to get faster, easier, smaller, cheaper, better. We've all heard of "Moore's law," the observation that computing power doubles every two years, while cost is cut in half. Most of the personal technology we use every day has become more efficient over the years. So why is webinar audio heading in the opposite direction?
If you don't think the quality of webinar audio is declining, you probably don't attend enough webinars or haven't been attending them long enough to notice. But it's a safe bet that a webinar conducted 20 years ago probably had better audio than one today. One of the reasons why this is happening is because technology is evolving and improving over time. Smart phones have replaced landlines. Wi-Fi has replaced Ethernet. Bluetooth has replaced wires. The problem is that nobody told the webinar software developers, and it's unlikely they could have done anything about it anyway.
Twenty years ago, a webinar presenter's only option for audio might have been a telephone. And in 2000, they were probably dialing in on a landline desk phone. It's indisputable that a landline desk phone sounds better than a cell phone. It did then, and it still does today, even with the digital lines that have replaced the old-fashioned telephone company copper lines. But the convenience and utility of a mobile device far outweighs any decline in audio clarity or reception, issues that are inconsequential in most everyday situations. Over time, landlines have mostly disappeared both at home and in the office. And webinars have suffered as a result.
Fifteen years ago, a webinar presenter's internet connection was probably secured with a cable running from their computer to their wall. There's nothing like a wire to ensure a solid, reliable connection. But in the same way that phones have evolved to become wireless, so too have internet connections. Wi-Fi is certainly more convenient than a tangled mess of wires under your desk. But it's not as stable or as fast as an Ethernet cable. And webinars have suffered as a result.
Ten years ago, a webinar presenter might have opted to use computer audio instead of telephone audio by plugging a USB microphone into their laptop. If they were using a wired internet connection, their audience probably enjoyed crystal clear webinar audio. Today, it's still easy to get a USB microphone. I like to use a headset microphone, but some people prefer a desktop mic. Unfortunately, many more people prefer to use wireless AirPods or other non-USB devices. The problem with wireless technology is that it can lose its pairing or become prone to interference from other devices. And the problem with non-USB devices is that they don't work with most webinar platforms. You think you're delivering crystal clear webinar audio through your device while you're actually speaking into your noisy, low-budget built-in laptop microphone. And webinars have suffered as a result.
Five years ago, a webinar presenter was probably content to offer their audience a traditional presentation-style webinar with audio and slides. There's nothing wrong with that. Even today, if you're an engaging speaker and you design your slides right, you can have an effective and successful webinar with just audio and slides. But things have changed. And this change has gained supersonic momentum very, very recently.
While live presenter video has been a standard feature of most webinar platforms for years now, I've never received so many requests to produce and support video webinars as I have over the last two months. The global coronavirus pandemic has put video conferencing front and center. You can hardly listen to a news report about the crisis without hearing a reference to Zoom. A live video feed of the speakers is great for a small, informal, low-stakes meeting. It's not necessarily so great for a large, formal, high-stakes webinar. But now that Zoom is a household name, there's a perception that video is and always was an important and necessary feature of every online event, whether it's a corporate marketing webinar for 500 customers or a "Zoom Happy Hour" for ten co-workers.
A live video feed uses up a lot of bandwidth. When you combine that problem with some of the other issues already addressed—unreliable Wi-Fi internet connections and low-quality audio input devices—your already-compromised audio has the potential to become even worse. And there's also a unique sociological aspect of using live video during a webinar that contributes to poor audio. Most webinar presenters don't want to wear a headset on camera. It's a vanity thing. When a presenter chooses not to use a USB headset microphone, they usually just default to the easiest alternative option: speaking directly into their lousy built-in laptop microphone. And webinars are suffering as a result.
Despite all of the obstacles that get in the way of achieving high-quality webinar audio today, it's not a completely lost cause. You can get a decent USB headset microphone on Amazon for around $20. It's easy to run an Ethernet cable from your computer to your router. You don't have to use live video during a webinar.
Above all else, audiences want good, clear audio. When someone tells you your webinar audio sounds bad, take them seriously. Even better, record your webinar and take a listen. If your audio is dropping, or fading in and out, or it sounds like you're broadcasting from inside a concrete tunnel, there's room for improvement. Apparently, webinars aren't going away any time soon. With a small amount of effort, the declining quality of webinar audio can reverse course and get a whole lot better for the future.
Clark Webinar Consulting provides hands-on expertise and support to help businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations conduct and deliver worry-free, professional webinars. Learn more about our full range of webinar services.