What's Changed with Webinars During Ten Years in Business?

Dave Clark | May 16, 2024 | CWC Blog

Tin Can

It's a little hard for me to believe, but this year—2024—is my tenth year in business as a webinar producer. When I realized this, I started thinking about how things have changed in the webinar world over those ten years. In a lot of ways, webinars are the same as they've always been. A diverse array of companies and organizations still use them as an inexpensive and effective way to generate new business leads, provide thought leadership, and reach far-flung employees and stakeholders. But in a few major ways, what we call a "webinar" has been profoundly transformed. On the occasion of my ten-year business anniversary, here's a quick rundown of five important ways that webinars have changed since I founded Clark Webinar Consulting in 2014.

1. The rise of live video

The most obvious change in webinars over the last decade is the emergence of live video as a standard feature in just about every webinar. When I first started out, it was actually rare for presenters and speakers to appear on camera. It's not that the technology didn't exist. Webcams were already standard on most new laptops and the webinar platform vendors had introduced presenter video as part of their product offerings years ago. The problem was that presenters just didn't want to appear on camera.

And then COVID-19 happened and everything changed. Almost overnight, the entire world became comfortable with and capable of streaming live video of themselves to friends and family. At the same time, employees everywhere started working from home and video calls and online meetings became as common as phone calls and e-mail. It was inevitable that live video would also finally be accepted as a normal part of virtually every webinar event. The thinking was, it exists, we know how to use it now, so why not use it? I've argued that the emergence of webcam video has actually hurt webinar production quality and resulted in webinar events looking less professional. But video is now here to stay and webinar presenters owe it to themselves, and their audiences, to learn how to use it correctly and effectively.

2. The once-unknown platform called Zoom

Here's another fundamental change to webinars that resulted directly from the pandemic. As everyone became comfortable using their laptop webcams on a daily basis, more often than not they were doing so using Zoom. If ever there was a company that was in the right place at the right time, it was Zoom. I'm not sure exactly how they did it, but they almost instantly became a new household word—even a new verb—and gained an incredibly large market share among video conference and online meeting users, which at the time was practically every human on Earth.

Although Zoom primarily was, and still is, a platform for small, informal online meetings, its nascent worldwide userbase naturally started using it for webinars too. Fortunately, there's a "webinar" version of Zoom that made this practical. I sometimes like to boast that I was recommending Zoom as a very user-friendly webinar platform long before most people had ever heard of it, but today it's without doubt the most widely used platform for webinars and virtual events. Almost every prospective new client who contacts me either already wants to use Zoom for their webinar or readily agrees to using it when I suggest it first. Back in the day, I used to support webinars on multiple different webinar platforms, but today it no longer makes sense to divert my focus away from the one platform that almost everyone wants to use. I suppose some people are still using Webex, GoToWebinar, and the multitude of other platforms that still exist (when was the last time you heard of someone using Adobe Connect?). But Zoom is now the undisputed king of the hill.

3. The demise of telephone audio

Although I can't pinpoint exactly when it happened, at some point over the last ten years, the very last webinar presenter on Earth finally made the transition from telephone audio to computer audio. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but I haven't heard anyone using phone audio for years now. At the advent of webinars decades ago, the telephone was how you broadcast your voice to your audience. But even when webinar vendors incorporated internet-enabled VoIP audio functionality into their platforms and internet upload speeds became fast enough to make the use of computer audio practical, telephone audio still hung tough as a viable alternative, especially for presenters with slower internet connections.

I'm a little embarrassed to look back at my webinar best practice trainings from ten years ago and see that I was strongly encouraging presenters to use landline telephones to ensure the best possible audio quality during their webinars. But it was a different time. Landlines are all but gone now. Internet connections have become very fast and stable. And, finally, due to the prevalence of live video during almost ever webinar, using a telephone has become technologically obsolete. Although some webinar platforms still offer a dial-in number for presenters as an emergency back-up—and from experience I can say that this option is definitely useful in a pinch—every webinar presenter now uses computer audio almost exclusively.

4. Panel discussions and other new formats

Ten years ago, the most common webinar format was the traditional presentation-style program consisting of one or more presenters narrating through a series of PowerPoint slides. Certainly, this webinar format is still popular today, and still very effective. But over the years, webinar organizers have become more willing to experiment with other formats. Today, I would bet that close to half of all webinars are panel-style discussions with few or no slides at all.

And, once again, it's clear that video is a common thread that brought about a lot of these changes. Without video, you can't really have a panel conversation or a roundtable discussion during a webinar because there's nothing for the audience to look at. Now, with the ability to broadcast live video of the participants, you can much more convincingly host a program that resembles something more akin to a TV show or a news broadcast. Although the "talking heads" format might have lost a bit of its appeal over the last couple of years due to overuse, the appearance of new and creative programming formats definitely qualifies as a major sea change in the way webinars are put together.

5. Browser-based webinar platforms

This last example of how webinars have changed over the last ten years is perhaps not as dramatic or interesting as some of the others. But the widespread development of browser-based webinar platforms represents a significant change in how audiences attend webinars and virtual events. Rather than webinar platforms that make you download their software to attend a webinar, the newer generation of browser-based platforms let you join directly from your web browser. This was an important development because it eliminated the problems associated with webinar attendees who, for whatever reason, couldn't download applications to their computers.

While browser-based platforms are certainly more convenient than software-based platforms, they aren't necessarily better. A purpose-made software program downloaded to your computer will usually work better and offer more functionality than an application that runs inside your browser. For this reason, software-based platforms like Zoom aren't going away, although most of these more traditional platforms do offer slightly less useful browser-based versions of their applications that can be used by attendees who can't join via a software download.

That concludes my look at what I think are the five most important changes to webinars over the last ten years. I'll report back in another ten years to let you know what else has changed!

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.