Your Webinar Promotions Are Breaking The Law
Nobody ever enforces this, but you could be liable for penalties of up to $43,280 PER INDIVIDUAL EMAIL IN VIOLATION! Do I have your attention? I think I do.
Before we dig into the details, I have to give you the usual caveats:
I am not a lawyer. I probably have no idea what I'm talking about. You shouldn't take ANY legal advice from me. What I write is my own non-professional interpretation of United States laws. As such, the discussion relates ONLY to firms and transactions that can be prosecuted under United States federal statutes.
Okay, let's go. Your assignment is to read the following web page:
Most of the items and requirements for sending commercial email are fairly common sense and I think we are all aware of them by now… Don't be misleading, be truthful and clear about who is sending the message, include the ability for recipients to opt-out or unsubscribe. Fine.
But let's focus on item #4:
Tell recipients where you’re located. Your message must include your valid physical postal address. This can be your current street address, a post office box you’ve registered with the U.S. Postal Service, or a private mailbox you’ve registered with a commercial mail receiving agency established under Postal Service regulations.
Whoa. I only became aware of this clause because the BigMarker webinar platform made me include that information in their email templates. I couldn't schedule an email without filling in physical address data. What a pain. Then I looked up the statute. They're right!
But on further reading, it turns out there is a twist. You need to go through the Q&A sections further down the page.
Invitations and promotional emails are almost certainly covered by this clause. They are considered commercial communications designed to "advertise or promote a commercial product or service, including content on a website operated for a commercial purpose." It doesn't matter that you are sending such invitations to existing clients or people who have opted in for emails from you. Each promotional email letting people know about a new webinar must still comply. This is where you could potentially be held liable for not including your physical address. Are you shocked? I was!
But how about confirmation, reminder, and follow up emails sent to registrants of a webinar? BigMarker still requires me to add physical address information on those, but I think they are wrong. These emails fall into a category known as "transactional or relationship." They "facilitate or confirm a commercial transaction that the recipient already has agreed to."
In transactional or relationship emails, physical address information is not required. They just need to be truthful and not misleading.
Why does BigMarker care what you do in your emails? It's your problem, your exposure. Wait a minute…
"More than one person may be held responsible for violations. For example, both the company whose product is promoted in the message and the company that originated the message by be legally responsible."
Are you a webinar software vendor? Do you send the emails that your customers schedule in your system? Do you allow webinar invitations to be sent through your automated mailing processes? Hmmm… Maybe your product management and engineering teams should have a chat with your legal department about this.
Webex Events And The Case Of The Mystery Chat
[Author's note: "Webex Events" is a product name. It is the version of the Cisco Webex web conferencing product that is designed for structured, presentation-oriented web events. This distinguishes it from Webex Meetings, which is designed to support peer-level collaborative web sessions. I mention that so you don't think I'm crazy when I use Webex Events as a singular rather than a plural. It leads to insane sentence constructions such as: "Webex Events is the thing you need in order to run a bunch of Webex events."]
With my terminology disclaimer out of the way, let's do a bit of brainstorming. See if you can help me think of a logical and sensible use case for the following design feature in Webex Events. So far, I have drawn a blank.
Webex Events allows typed chat messages, just like most other web conferencing products. As in most such products, participants can select who should see their chat messages. You can select an individual's name, so that they are the only person seeing your private communiqué. You can send a private chat message to the host. Or to the active presenter. Or to all panelists. So far so good.
A host or panelist can send a chat message to all participants. Great for general announcements and important updates. Also good.
Attendees (audience members without speaker/presenter privileges) can send a chat message to "All attendees." Everybody else in the audience can see what they type. Okay, that's a nice way to foster group discussions and community building.
But guess who can't see those chat messages? The host, presenter, and other panelists. They are not part of the "All attendees" group level. They have no idea what is going on in the audience. The attendees are chatting away with each other. Maybe asking for help. Maybe griping. Maybe making valuable suggestions. The presenters are completely out of the loop.
Oh well… at least the host can grab a report of chat messages typed in during the session to review later. Nope. Webex carefully respects security and privacy considerations. The host or panelist saving a chat log while in the session gets a text file containing only those chat messages they had authority to see in the event. So the "All attendees" chats are not included.
But that's fine… Webex also has an "In-Event Activity" report that an administrator can run after a webinar concludes. It contains data records for questions and chat messages that were typed in by each participant. Except (you know what's coming) it doesn't contain any chats that were sent to "All attendees."
So back to our thought experiment. What is the use case for granting audience members the ability to hold public discussions that are invisible to any of the presentation, hosting, or administrative team conducting the event? Other than as a means to foment rebellion against the evil overlords running the show, I am at a loss.
If you find yourself ready to type a comment suggesting that I just need to check the attendee privileges option that lets participants send chat messages to Everyone, uh uh… sorry. That option only exists in Webex Meetings, not in Webex Events.
I have confirmed this behavior with Webex technical support. I quote their response:
"The behavior is by design. The host cannot save messages delivered between attendees, but attendees can save that chat."
So there you have it. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to explain why this implementation is a good thing. And why there is no alternative configuration that allows attendees and panelists to engage in the same group discussion. And why the hosting company should not be able to see what was typed in public chat during their event.
It's okay. I have time. I'll wait.
Webinars Are A-Boomin'
"Hey Ken, are you okay? Is Webinar Success still in business?"
Hoo boy, am I in business. In 15 years as an independent services provider, I have never been in more business. Sleep is now an occasional luxury.
It's funny, because when the COVID-19 implications first started hitting businesses and employees, I thought, "Okay, there's inevitably going to be an increase in webinars now."
And… nothing. I saw zero boost at first. There was probably about a three week period where I wondered how I could be so wrong. And then the tidal wave hit.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see what happened. The first priority was to get all those employees set up to work from home. Lots of Zoom, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype, and other peer-to-peer meeting technologies to put in place. That's not my business area. Heck, I can't imagine it's anybody's business area. You're pretty much on your own for figuring out how to hold a simple little online meeting. There's no business model for providing services targeted at that space.
The next priority was getting near-term physical events moved to online venues. Big things like conventions, trade shows, annual customer conferences… Event managers at big companies needed help and they needed it FAST. That calls for serious custom-built virtual venue technologies supporting simultaneous presentation tracks, audience management, sponsorship branding and lots of account management with teams of vendor employees to handle customization and administration. Way out of my service area.
But once those got settled in, it left every other type of outreach to manage. Company-wide employee communications from the top brass, educational seminars, public communications, association meetings, sales and marketing communications. Anything where you are in primarily a presentation-oriented communications mode, but with audience interaction. Registration, recording, and reporting needed as part of the meeting infrastructure. That's what I've been specializing in for the past 15 years. Looks like I picked the right specialty.
I have a lot of thoughts on what's going on in this industry space. The unanticipated stress testing has highlighted areas that could once be considered minor inconveniences but now are revealed as serious design deficiencies.
I'm going to be adding blog posts as best I can, when I can. But there may be longer gaps between posts than usual. I beg your indulgence and encourage you to stick with me… There's a lot to learn from all this. We'll all get through the panic period and settle into a business mode where web seminars and web events remain more prominent than they ever were before. It's taken 20 years for webinars to become an overnight sensation. I'm looking forward to settling into "the new normal" (cliché alert) and having some time to reflect and analyze the key lessons for technology vendors and users alike. But first, I've got some customer webinars to manage!
I hope you stay healthy, safe, and sane. Hang tough. We can weather this.
All the very best,
Insurance Policies For Your Web Events
Murphy's Law states:
Anything that can go wrong, will.
If you are dealing with web conferencing and real-time internet communications, the law needs a small addition:
Anything that can go wrong, will… Along with a few things that can't.
Today one of my client webinars was saved because I insist on backups that are wasted time and effort in 99% of situations. If you are holding a web event going out to many people, I urge you to adopt as many of these insurance policies as you can persuade your presentation team to go along with.
1) Print out a hardcopy of the presentation slides (along with speaker notes, if present). If they lose power or their computer dies in the middle of the presentation, they can continue by referencing the paper copy. Do not accept "I'll just open it in another window."
2) If using screen share to present, make sure another presenter has a copy of the presentation or can bring up the necessary web page or app to demonstrate. They should be ready to take over if the primary presenter has a problem.
3) If using computer audio, have each presenter find the phone number and personal code for presenter dial-in and write it down on a piece of paper before the session starts. If they lose power or their computer dies, they can continue on phone.
4) If using a mobile phone for presenter audio (please don't), keep it plugged in during use.
5) If demonstrating a software product or a website as part of your presentation, have screen shots on slides to use as a backup if something goes wrong.
You can USUALLY get away without any of these backups. The chance of something going catastrophically wrong for a given presenter on a given webinar is very small. But the cumulative odds of SOMETHING going wrong SOMEDAY for SOMEONE is a near certainty. When it finally happens to you, you'll thank me for urging you to have a backup in place.
Your Screen Share Is Cheating
I just found out I have been lying to guest presenters for years. I am in shock.
When we have a presenter who wants to share their screen in a web conference, I tell them: "We see what you see. Whatever is on your screen shows up for everyone in the audience."
(We'll discount the obvious tricks that the platforms use to hide their own overlaid presenter controls.)
It turns out that my statement is not strictly true. Want to pause here for a moment and see if you can figure out what does not get transmitted to other participants in a screen share session?
I'm warning you… This is so tricky that I didn't realize it in more than 15 years of full time webinar work.
Your mouse cursor. Participants do not see your mouse cursor.
"Wait just one doggone minute, Mr. Smartypants! I know people see my cursor! I verify it with them as I move the pointer around the screen."
Nope. Ain't happening.
What they see is a locally-drawn version of a mouse cursor that matches the position of your mouse. In 99% of all cases, this is functionally identical to seeing your own cursor on your screen. But you can break the illusion and expose the trickery. Just change the size or color of the pointer on your computer. In Windows, you can get to the controls by typing Cursor Size in your Windows Start Menu. You can change your cursor to a big, bold arrow that makes it easy to see on a complex graphic. Or you can change the color. Or you can make it automatically invert from white to black based on what is behind it.
It doesn't matter what you do… On your web conference attendee screens, the cursor shows up as the default tiny white arrow.
I tested this behavior in GoToMeeting, Zoom, Adobe Connect, and Webex. Each of them did the same trick.
It's easy for me to reverse-engineer a probable explanation. Screen sharing is a difficult task for web conferencing software to perform. The presenter's computer has to repeatedly take note of all the pixels on the screen, upload them to the server, bounce them down to all the other participants, and redraw them to create the image. This happens over and over again on a sub-second basis.
(If you are an engineer, forgive me for not going into details about tracking frame to frame differences rather than full image, and compressing pixel groups and the like. Let's keep it high level and conceptually simple.)
As a presenter moves the mouse around the screen, pixels change with incredible speed. At each point in the movement, pixels are changed to the mouse color and changed back again to the underlying image (which itself may be changing) as the mouse moves on. It would place an incredible strain on the screen redrawing mechanism to keep up with that at the high speeds that mouse movement tends to occur.
So some clever web conferencing software engineer figured out that all the software really has to track is the position of the cursor at any moment. Instead of drawing and redrawing the pixels under the mouse as it moves, the conferencing software can transmit the rapidly changing coordinates and let the redisplay routine add the cursor image over whatever is going on with the rest of the screen image.
It's pretty clever. Most people will never notice a difference. But if you happen to fiddle with your cursor image, you need to know that the audience no longer sees what you see. And you are unlikely to pick that up in any of the standard training you get on using your web conferencing product.
Every once in a while, we see a glitch in the matrix that exposes the simulation. This is one of them.
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