Hosting my first webinar: lessons learned

Thank you so much for the wonderful chance to really feel a part of what is happening in Haiti! These workers are real, sincere, ordinary people with the right training who work on behalf of our pittance donated to help the people in distress. Thank you so much for having enabled us to listen as the team told of their work in such an ongoing needy situation of our confreres in Haiti. Sincerely, a Donor, Oakville, Ontario

I hosted a donor accountability webinar last year. Like the curate’s egg, some parts of it were excellent, others, not so much.

Here it is:

(Click here if the embedded video is not working.)

With the current surges of donor generosity for emergencies, webinars are good for reporting back in real time, authentically, and often, to loyal and new donors. As an accountability and engagement tool, the webinar is a splendid and underused way to build donor loyalty.


What I’d do the same again:

1. Useustream for its free, easy-to-use software for channels and live video streaming. My webinar was spontaneous, and I didn’t have a budget. The Ustream software is easy to use; you can set up your own channel and begin broadcasting within one hour. Remember to record and save before and after you go live. You can then archive it on your website and email it to donors who couldn’t attend. Considerations: the overall look is pretty austere and amateur, and you can’t control the advertising (ads for Plan Canada were rotating during our MSF livestream. You’re welcome, Plan).

2. Play host: throughout the broadcast repeatedly introduce the speakers for those viewers just joining; reinforce the concept and objectives of the broadcast; and keep house – remind viewers about the chat portal, how to ask questions etc.

3. Have a colleague beside me moderating the questions on the chat portal, and another tweeting the content and link in real time to generate more viewers. I also built in redundancy: as well as from right beside me in Port-au-Prince, colleagues were also feeding me the viewer questions from the office in Toronto, which is why you see me on my BlackBerry.

4. Pick great speakers. I did, didn’t I? As well as saving the world, Ivan clearly has a future in radio. And Dr. JD, a medical doctor, brought the essence of the mission. Ivan is a long-time aid worker; Dr. JD was on his first mission. Together they brought balance and perspective of the MSF universe. It was also a great way to initiate them into the fund development process: both said they got great personal value out of doing the webinar as it connected them to their own families and colleagues back in Canada.

5. Send an evaluation: we used SurveyMonkey. The rankings and comments will shape our next effort. The post-webinar survey found that 93.9% of those who responded had a positive experience and would attend future MSF accountability webinars.

6. Advertise the webinar broadly by email. No one complained or unsubscribed, and many thanked us especially for the reminder email sent fifteen minutes before show time. The invitations were e-vites, sent to the just over 80,000 donors and enews subscribers we had active email addresses for. About 150 donors were online viewing the live presentation at any given time, and to date there’ve been almost 400 views of the archived recording.

What I’ll do differently/improve upon next time:

1. At the beginning of the broadcast, I’d frame and summarize the catastrophe, MSF’s intervention, and how much money we raised rather than jumping right into the questions. Give something to stimulate the questions. This was mentioned a number of times in the survey.

2. Give donor-viewers a phone number to call if they have tech problems. Somewhat a luxury, but would go far to maximize the viewer’s experience.

3. Test test test ahead of time, at same time of day to make sure you’re seen and heard. The quality of my webinar was lousy and almost didn’t happen. As it turned out, there were 140 NGOs sharing the same internet pipe out of Haiti, the heaviest stress on the bandwidth being at noon, the time of my webinar. Silly me arranged to do my testing in the evenings after work, and of course then picture and audio were clear. Twenty minutes before the broadcast we asked colleagues to shut down iTunes and Skype etc. and that freed up enough bandwidth for our webinar to proceed. Live broadcasting is a white-knuckled good time.

4. Kept it shorter and tighter. Some commented in SurveyMonkey that the interviews meandered and were undisciplined. In my defense, I was trying to be true to the flow of questions as they came in, in real time.

5. It’s been suggested that I could have animated it a bit more with video footage and/or stills of the area we were.

6. Not have been so, so nonchalant about technical stuff. I was lucky that my 2005 entry-level Dell Inspiron, with its not-particularly-fast processor did such heavy lifting for 50 minutes before expiring in front of 200 live viewers.

7. I said at the beginning that some parts of the webinar were not excellent. Here’s the main one: I do not believe I achieved the stated promise of the webinar: Do you want to know exactly how your gifts helped MSF respond to the earthquake in Haiti?I lost sight of this during the broadcast, luxuriated too much in the process of answer questions as they came in, without forcing the objective of giving tangible examples of what impact donor dollars had had. Heck, I’m a donor, too, and will ask my own hard-hitting accountability questions next time.

And so, my first-ever webinar. Looking back, I’m both proud and appalled at myself for my blunt naivety. There were so many unknowns: would donors participate? Would I find willing and engaging speakers? Could I be trusted to make all the technology bits work? And, most importantly, would we achieve our objective: would we all be convincing that MSF is a great organization to support for donors who wanted to make a gift for medical relief after the earthquake of January 12, 2010? And, of course, the great unanswered question: who was I to host? I am rather ordinary after all.

But once I was in the field, I knew that none of these mattered.

All these unknowns and risks were irrelevant. To host a webinar from the frontlines of our work, the epicentre where the earthquake happened and people had died and still suffered, a webinar from where I was and at that time, was immutable. What I also knew – and had complete confidence in – was the quality of our operations, and that my colleagues and guests would have compelling stories to tell. I figured that in this context, donors would also be forgiving if the end production wasn’t slick. And so I put full faith that the content would unfold in the way it was meant to, not unlike our donors who give and trust that all will be well with their investment.

Now I want you to think now about what your own webinar could look like. And maybe your webinar isn’t even a webinar: challenge yourself to think creatively and imagine the most guileless and authentic way you can connect your donors to your organization’s frontlines.

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