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How to Produce Interactive Webinars on a Webcast Platform

Traditionally, producing fully interactive webinars has required pricey dedicated services that offer Q & A, polling, participant management, external links, and other features unavailable on mainstream streaming platforms. This article looks at how to leverage new features in IBM Cloud Video to deliver a webinar-like experience.

I used to differentiate a webcast from a webinar based on the platform that was being used on the back end. Now I use the term “webinar” to denote a session that is more interactive, and “webcast” to describe a one-way broadcast, regardless of the platform being used.

Historically, webinars used Adobe Flash and webcasts used streaming servers and the HTML5 standard. While the underlying technology might not mean much to clients, the bigger client-side difference was that webcasts had a broadcast delay but the video looked way better.

Webcast producers would use hardware or software video switchers to switch between video and computer inputs or to composite a picture-by-picture or a picture-in-picture feed. The best part of this workflow was that recording the broadcast was very easy, whereas—as I will discuss later—recording was much more difficult with Flash-based webinar platforms.

Features that were often lacking with webcasts include integrated chat, Q&A, poll questions, individual user registration and passwords, minute-by-minute viewership tracking, and the ability to allow any participant to share their screen or their webcam. These interactivity features were the main draw of webinar platforms like Adobe Connect, WebEx, GoToWebinar, and others.

Flash Challenges

Using the Adobe Flash platform for webinars left a lot to be desired. For example, On Adobe Connect, video camera feeds were limited to a 480-line horizontal resolution and 20 frames per second (480/20p). Officially, Flash webinars supported only webcam capture, and because 480/20p is not a broadcast standard, traditional video capture cards couldn’t be used unless the video signal was first processed through an intermediary software that could conform a broadcast video signal into something that worked with Adobe Flash. This also meant emulating a universal video codec (UVC) webcam feed. Moreover, it was painful seeing the resulting video signal from a professional 4K UHD video camera after a 480/20p downconvert.

In addition to a small video pod within a larger broadcast window, webinar producers could also share computer presentations and fill the blank space with logos or images, chat or Q&A boxes, poll questions, text boxes, and several other pods. Unfortunately, the webinar format doesn’t lend itself well to on-demand viewing after a live webinar, and downloading a copy of the webinar for archiving or viewing on traditional video hosting platforms doesn’t work well on all platforms, even when the feature is advertised.

Given these limitations, when working with Adobe Connect or other Flash-based webinar platforms, I took to screen-recording the broadcast from a second computer that was logged in as a viewer. But these recordings would faithfully record all the dropouts experienced on the users’ end of the live broadcast, and the 20p recordings had sync issues, which forced me to re-edit the webinar by going back to the camera footage (recorded in-camera) and re-assembling the slides. This was not an efficient workflow.

These and other Flash limitations weren’t unique to Adobe Connect’s implementation. All attendees viewing Flash-based webinars have to maintain the latest version of Flash. Although Flash used to be ubiquitous, in 2018 we cannot assume that viewers tuning into our webinars will have Flash installed and enabled in their browser of choice. In fact, webinar producers need to assume that a percentage of their viewers have already uninstalled or blocked Adobe Flash within their browsers, both for security reasons and because it is no longer required in their day-to-day activities.

The work-around to this tech support challenge is to have viewers install an application specifically for viewing webinars. Unfortunately, this adds one more viewing option with additional tech support steps for webinar producers to follow before they can help viewers troubleshoot their issues.

As we all know (or should know), Adobe will stop updating and distributing the Flash Player at the end of 2020. Producing webinars is a regular part of my business, and I officially stopped offering webinars on Flash-based platforms last November because they were just falling apart, and they presented too many unresolvable issues.

Adobe did try to move Connect from Flash to HTML5 earlier in 2017. After several delays, my account was upgraded, and we did produce a successful webinar on that platform with few user issues. But then Adobe rolled back the update. As of this writing, Adobe Connect is still using Flash, and Adobe has made no announcement as to when it expects the HTML5 update to be stable enough to relaunch. It will be worth taking a second look at the traditional webinar platforms in the future when their HTML5 solutions are more stable.

For now, however, I am exclusively producing webinars on what I consider a webcast platform: IBM Cloud Video.

I decided to stop doing webinars using webinar-specific solutions after testing 15 alternative platforms and concluding that none of the Flash-based or newer WebRTC solutions would satisfy both my requirements as a producer and the expectations of my various webinar clients for viewer experience and reporting. I determined that I was better off producing these webinars using IBM Cloud Video.

Benefits of Webcast Platforms

Producing webinars on a webcast platform means you can deliver your video in HD or even 4K at standard broadcast frame rates. One webcast challenge is latency, because there is a broadcast delay that ranges between 15 and 45 seconds. This broadcast delay is a benefit, as it helps reduce dropouts when either the broadcast or the individual viewers have hiccups in their internet connections or playback.

Webcast video is streamed to viewers in groups of picture packets that create a buffer for viewers. By contrast, webinars that deliver a no-latency viewing experience are more prone to dropouts.

In the transition from no-latency webinar platforms to a broadcast-delay webcast platform, we educated the presenters that they couldn’t expect their viewers to reply using the chat as quickly as they could before. My clients were initially concerned about the latency issue, but it turned out to be an easy trade-off to swallow in exchange for a much smoother viewer experience.

Not using a Flash-based webinar platform has virtually eliminated our support requirements because webcasts work across virtually all browsers and mobile devices without the user having to download anything additional. We went from having to maintain three or four support people on the phones, plus email and chat support, to only requiring a single support person to handle everything for our larger webinars.

Using a webcast platform for webinars, the few support issues we do encounter are solved by a computer reboot or by switching web browsers. It’s not that one web browser works better than others; rather, we found that browser-setting decisions previously made by individual participants were blocking the feeds of 1–2% of viewers. Rather than have them switch their browsers to factory settings, launching or installing a different browser proved an easier fix. In supporting thousands of webinar viewers across all walks of life, I found it interesting that many of them could not identify the browser that they were currently using, which made troubleshooting very difficult. A webcast/webinar solution that dramatically reduces the number of viewers who reach out for support is a huge win.

Here are some of the features that I use for my clients who want more of a webinar experience than a strict one-way webcast broadcast. Not all of these features are available on all webcast platforms. I am subscribed to the IBM Cloud Video Streaming Manager plan. Like me, if you go this route, you may need to customize this package further to suit your requirements.

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