Today I am integrating a collection of opinions and suggestions that I have sprinkled through various blog posts over the years. The topic is the way that webinar or webcast products handle typed questions (or audience chat) in their products.... ...


Question Management In Webinars and more...

Question Management In Webinars

Today I am integrating a collection of opinions and suggestions that I have sprinkled through various blog posts over the years. The topic is the way that webinar or webcast products handle typed questions (or audience chat) in their products.

The most recent design trend I have seen is for vendors to emulate the look and feel of mobile device instant messaging in their web conferencing products.


This does a disservice to participants, hosts, and administrators. The design is functional for a two-person conversation, but add more participants and you quickly lose track of conversational threads while wasting lots of screen space.

One of the Chat implementations I currently like is in Webinato. Each message line is treated as a controllable entity, with a checkbox next to it that allows for functions that presenters and hosts can carry out.

Webinato Chat Window

It is important to have control over individual submissions in this way. If we start with this basic concept of checkbox actions for each message, I can think of the following pieces of potential functionality that might be accessed by clicking a box and getting an action menu.


  1. Delete my selected submission (attendees cannot delete entries from other participants)
  2. Place a “Me Too” marker on a selected message (anybody’s) – The original message shows the cumulative number of “Me Too’s” associated with it
  3. Click “Thread” to submit a message as a follow-on in the same thread as the selected original message. The software assigns a Thread Number to messages: “T01, T02…”
  4. Change Chat display order:
    • By time
    • By person, then time
    • By thread, then time
    • By number of Me Too votes, then time

Maybe something along these lines (I just mocked this up as a rough concept picture in PowerPoint.):

Attendee chat mockup



  1. Delete a selected submission (may delete anybody’s)
  2. Place a “Me Too” marker on a message
  3. Click “Thread” to submit a message as a follow-on in the same thread as the original message
  4. Display to everyone (only useful in privatized/moderated Chat windows)
  5. Respond privately to original submitter
  6. Mark for handling:
    • Red
    • Yellow
    • Green
    • Blue
    • Remove color
  7. Change Chat display order:
    • By time
    • By person, then time
    • By thread, then time
    • By number of Me Too votes, then time
    • By color, then time

The use of colors is something that Webinato currently supports, and I like the flexibility. We on the presentation team can decide if we want colors to stand for priority or for who should take the question, needs follow up later, or some other administrative aid. We are not constrained by a text label that the vendor thought we should use. Presenters/hosts can change colors on the fly, so I can change a green “ask this question” to blue to indicate that we have answered it in session, as an example. Attendees do not see assigned colors… They are for use only by the presentation team.

Of course, standard group selection controls should work on sets of messages. So I can SHIFT-select a range of messages for a block delete (great for early “Can you hear me?” or “Type your name” interaction exercises) or I can CTRL-select arbitrary messages that should all get the same handling. I also need to be able to copy messages for pasting into another window or document.

Maybe presenter/host controls would operate something like this:

Presenter chat mockup

Being able to change sort order on the fly inside a session gives a level of convenience that is currently missing from most products. I can easily accept that you might not want to enable it for attendees, just to make the display easier and to reduce their learning curve. But for hosts, it gives a great way to easily see sub-threaded conversations by attendees, or see successive thoughts from one person, or see common problems to address in conversation, or see everything you have marked for action.



The chat log or question log should be available in spreadsheet format to allow arbitrary sorting by an analyst for their purposes. Every message is included in the spreadsheet, even if it was deleted during the session.

Chat Report Mockup

By including all the information in the mockups above, along with identifying information, stakeholders can sort to see what topics stimulated conversation, who needs attention, or how chat messages were dealt with.



It would be silly to say that my quick mockups are the perfect final design and implementation for all web conferencing products. I don’t believe that for a second. Providing the extra controls also adds complexity of use, and that’s a real concern. Think of my examples as an exhibit of concepts that might be incorporated in more subtle ways into consumer-ready products.

Every web conferencing product needs to design appropriately for their environment and their look and feel. The specific commands available to users will be different among vendors as well. But I hope the main point comes through… We can and should offer more control and more analytics for typed chat and questions. It benefits everyone. Let’s not fall prey to the simplistic paradigm of two-person texting as the industry design benchmark.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Additional functionality that would be useful to you as an attendee or as a host? Disagreements with things I have suggested? Let’s get some commentary going.



omNovia Releases New FLOW Webinar Platform

We have another new webinar technology to discuss! FLOW is a new offering from omNovia Technologies. (This company seems to really have something against initial uppercase conventions in branding.)

I have used their previous web conferencing product for many years. It started out as omNovia and went through a name change to Webinato. I still recommend Webinato for some client needs, but it is hampered by a reliance on Adobe Flash technology. Many companies have prohibited the use of Flash on employee computers, and even when it is available (as in the Google Chrome web browser), it now requires confirmation clicks in order to use. Adobe will completely discontinue distribution and support for Flash at the end of 2020, so web conferencing vendors have been switching to HTML5 and WebRTC to support web collaboration. FLOW marks this same HTML5 transition for omNovia.

But FLOW is not just a rewrite of the underlying communications protocol, keeping everything else the same. The company decided to create a substantially new product that will operate in parallel with the final years of the Flash-based Webinato product. FLOW is positioned as having features tailored specifically for use in marketing and lead generation webinars. The company says that FLOW is not intended for use in peer-level web meetings and ad hoc conferences.

I have had a chance to do some testing with a pre-release version, but I have not yet employed it in a live client webinar. So I can’t comment on robustness or performance with large numbers of participants. The online FAQ page says that online events should be able to handle audience sizes of more than a thousand.

The most obvious functional differentiator separating FLOW from other webinar products is the use of a “Storyboard.” You set up an online event by creating a sequence of planned content pieces that will be activated in order (you can also access them out of order at your discretion). These can include live screen share, displaying uploaded PowerPoint slides, activating a survey, conducting Q&A, showing presenter bios, or broadcasting an uploaded audio or video clip.

FLOW storyboard 0319

There are some interesting options available. If you have multiple presenters associated with the webinar, you can have the software automatically turn on a given presenter’s microphone and/or webcam at the start of each content segment. This makes life a little easier for presenters or a moderator trying to make sure that mikes get muted and unmuted correctly throughout the session. You can also have the software display a countdown timer for presenters in each content section, in an attempt to keep people on schedule with their material.

Slides get uploaded to static images, with excellent clarity. As with more and more webinar technologies these days, the vendor has decided to stop trying to chase Microsoft’s frequent functionality updates, and instead asks you to rely on screen sharing if you want to show transition effects or animations on the slides. One nice thing about defining a Storyboard content block with uploaded slides is that you can designate a specific range of slide numbers to be associated with one content block (and potentially one presenter), and then upload the same slide deck with a different range of slides as a separate content block. This makes it clear to multiple presenters who is responsible for which section of the presentation, and also lets you assign timers to each section.

Another cute option for uploaded slides is that you can click a checkbox to automatically make the slides available for attendee download as a PDF file. Of course you can’t make any edits to the PDF, but in many cases where you just want a quick ‘n easy way to distribute your slides, this handles the entire process in a single click.

In order to properly play audio/video clips and match broadcast audio and video streams, FLOW assumes that all attendees will use computer audio. There is no built-in provision for a telephone bridge to provide a dial-in listening option. I was very surprised (and pleased!) to see near instantaneous transmission of signal from my presenter computer to my attendee computer. I had thought that a 15-30 second broadcasting buffer lag was built into HTML5 as part of the protocol. If FLOW is able to maintain that zero-lag transmission speed, it eliminates a major concern I have had in training presenters how to deal with a supposedly live presentation where they can’t really get two-way feedback from attendees in real time.

It will be interesting to see how the new platform catches on, with its more focused concentration on a certain type of structured webinar. I can definitely see the advantages for multi-presenter scenarios, and the lack of broadcast delay looks like a potential advantage over many competitors. We’ll have to keep an eye on this one.


Why Are You Giving A Webinar?

I recently wrote a blog post about “Strategy-Free Webinar Tactics” where I cautioned against concentrating on implementation details without first thinking about the objectives behind them. I mentioned things such as slide design, use of polls, and appearing on camera while presenting.

It occurs to me that I overlooked an even more important application of the same advice at a much higher level. When you first start thinking about hosting a webinar, webcast, or web conference do you ask yourself what your goal is? You should!

You can’t possibly create effective marketing, content, and follow up (much less measure the success of your efforts) if you don’t have a clear and unambiguous statement of intent to guide you and your team. Intent is different for each and every webinar, and needs to be explicit.

Let’s take an example. Assume you work in marketing. Many (if not most) marketers gauge the success of their webinars by looking at the number of registrants and attendees. Some go a little further and add lead qualification scores. A few take their analysis all the way to an examination of how many attendees eventually complete a sale. But are those the right measures of success? It depends on what that particular webinar was supposed to accomplish.

Looking at the number of registrants is a reasonable measurement tactic if your intent is to increase the number of contacts in your house list or marketing contacts database. But even then, shouldn’t you be examining how many NEW contacts you collected?

If the intent of the webinar is to foster retention of existing customers, that would call for a different choice of topic, structure of content, and type of follow up than in the previous case. And the measurement of success might now be actual attendance rates, perhaps matched against customer value or renewal rates. A customer who registers but doesn’t attend (or at least view the recording) has received no extra influence or persuasion from you.

Is the intent of the webinar to get prospects into the sales pipeline? Or is it to actually drive attendees to complete a purchase? These goals have different calls to action at the end of the presentation and need different channels for following up, as well as different tactical measurements to calculate the webinar’s success in achieving those goals.

Let’s shift to a training example. Organizations offer training all the time. Few ever stop to ask what the purpose is. You can’t justify the time, cost, and effort put into development and delivery of a class if you don’t know the strategic reason for offering it. Are you trying to generate goodwill? Stimulate additional usage of your company’s services or products? Provide a perception of value for an annual membership or maintenance fee? Reduce demands upon your support department? Knowing WHY you offer the training helps you determine HOW to plan, prepare, deliver, and measure it.

This exercise trickles down to everyday peer-level meetings. You may be holding a web conference with a customer, with team members, or with employees. Just as with a public webinar, your very first task before ever scheduling the session is to make sure you are clear on the reason behind the meeting. How will you decide afterwards whether you successfully achieved your objective?

Watch out for falling into the trap of answering the wrong question. It is easy to ask yourself “Why am I holding this webinar?” and answer it with: “To allow customers from all over the world to attend without traveling to our location.” That tells you why you chose a webinar over an in-person session, which is simply a tactical decision that was made in order to further a higher-level business goal. Move up the conceptual chain and refocus on what that business goal was.


Negative User Views Of Web Conferencing

I saw a tweet today from @LeMadChef mentioning a podcast “opining about WebEx (and the horror of enterprise presentations).” Intrigued, I paid a visit to the Reconcilable Differences podcast on Relay.FM. Episode #98 was published today, February 21.

After listening to cohosts John Siracusa and Merlin Mann, I still can’t figure out the overall theme or premise of the podcast. Maybe it’s just “stuff we feel like talking about this week.” Part of the stuff in this episode is an unplanned rant about web conferencing.

It starts as a sidetrack at 1:44 with a brief mention of Zoom conferencing. From there, they branch off to discuss their experiences with Webex and GoToMeeting. What’s interesting to me is that these are not presentation experts nor conferencing specialists. They are just a couple of guys who use such tools as part of the work process. They don’t want to delve into operational details… They want the products to quietly let them accomplish their business tasks. And clearly they are not satisfied with how well they think web conferencing achieves that goal.

Merlin and John both generalize in their commentary. Readers of this blog will probably spot complaints where more product training and familiarity would allow the men to work around or eliminate some of their frustrations. But it’s the subjective impressions that are important here. Some of the complaints show where more work is needed in product design, or training and online help resources, or assistance with setup and moderation of a meeting.

Let’s take a look at a few specifics. I am necessarily summarizing and paraphrasing as I present these comments.

“I created a fancy slide presentation in Keynote on my Mac with transitions and animations to help make my points. My webinar host then told me at the last minute that my file had to be shown in PowerPoint on his Windows computer. I lost all my effects… in fact, we may have had to convert the entire presentation to a PDF in order to display it.”

>> This complaint is fortunately getting less common. I could not tell how long ago the anecdote took place. It remains true that web conferencing products that require an upload and conversion of slide content are notoriously PowerPoint-centric. A few still even require presenters to be on Windows computers. But that is now rare. More and more frequently, vendors are giving up on trying to chase PowerPoint’s constantly changing feature set, and are relying instead upon screen sharing to display whatever is on the presenter’s computer. In that case, it doesn’t matter whether you use PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, or something else. But if the host insists on running the share screen from her or his computer, you can still run into the problem of having the originating software unavailable or incompatible. Hosts have a responsibility to clearly communicate the technical requirements up front before any design work starts.

“I couldn’t see my slide notes while presenting.”

>> This problem goes hand in hand with the shift we are seeing towards using screen sharing instead of slide upload/conversion. Products such as Adobe Connect or Webinato can upload PowerPoint slides and their associated notes. Presenters can see the notes while moving through the slides. But in a screen share scenario, the only practical way to see notes is to use a dual-monitor setup where the presenter view is on one screen, while the audience view is on a separate screen that is shared with attendees. If the webinar host or moderator runs the slide show on behalf of the presenters, they can never see the presenter view. The best solution is to print out notes pages and have them physically in hand. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look very good if the presenter appears on camera. Hosts and presenters should work out their preferred strategy during a tech run / rehearsal ahead of time.

“The technology is forcing presentation materials into a dumbed-down lowest common denominator approach. Put your text on the slides so you can read them without notes, and don’t use any interesting effects in case they are incompatible. It forces presenters into creating boring visual materials.”

>> I vehemently disagree with the literal reading of this statement. But I totally get how people could feel that way… Especially if invited to present on an unfamiliar system without sufficient familiarization and preparation. I have even fallen prey to advising guest presenters to simplify their presentations to avoid potential technical problems later. Take embedded video clips or audio clips on slides for instance. Those can create technical minefields. It’s often easiest to remove them rather than spending time testing and separating the multimedia assets for best playback.

“Web conferencing products keep covering up the visuals with controls, logos, presenter video, etc. If I show a slide, I need to see the ENTIRE slide, and so does my audience!”

>> Correct. Vendors, take note. Admittedly (and they come back to it later), a good part of the problem is lack of standardized, intuitive control icons and a lack of training. So there may be ways to hide, move, or resize elements that the presenter or attendees are unfamiliar with. Ever since ON24 introduced their Webcast Elite windowed GUI, I can’t believe any vendor takes a different approach. It’s completely intuitive to every attendee using a Windows or Mac windowed operating system. You open, resize, and move conferencing element windows just as you do with everything else on your computer. What could be more natural?

“I run into problems where I can’t share the proper screen in a dual-monitor setup. So the audience sees my presenter notes screen instead of the full screen view.”

>> This has to be a training issue. But I do recall having frustrations in the early days of using Zoom with just such an issue. Vendors, this HAS to be simple, intuitive, and bulletproof. Hosts/moderators… If your guest presenter is running their own share screen session, make sure you cover this operation in your familiarization session.

“Muting and unmuting attendees needs to be much more obvious and controllable. Hosts need to easily open and close lines so people can speak when appropriate and be muted otherwise. It’s often hard to tell whether you are currently muted or not.”

>> This is obvious, but they are right… Many products still need better UI refinement to overcome the inattentiveness of attendees and to make it easier to transition between one-way and two-way communications in a session. If your participants have a choice of phone or computer audio the integration of controls can be even trickier!

There are a few other digressions into physical room-based presentation problems that I won’t bother recapping here. The entire segment takes place in the first 20 minutes of the podcast before their first commercial break. It’s a nice window into how average users may be perceiving our industry.


Upvoting Webinar Questions

A few (very few!) web conferencing products include the ability for participants to upvote text submissions from other participants. But I haven’t yet seen a product that has implemented it in the way I would like.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, the concept is simple… The web collaboration software lets attendees see things that other people have written and click a button akin to the Facebook “Like” indicator.

There are many potential uses: “Me too” indications of concerns that resonate with a large percentage of the audience. Polling on which topic or question people would like the host to address next. An easy way for people to respond with a “ditto” to someone else’s answer without filling up the chat log with redundant submissions. And so on.

I usually run into two key problems with the implementations I have seen… Privacy and practicality.

In collaborative web meetings or web conferences where everyone is participating on a peer basis and knows the other people in attendance, privacy is not a concern. But consider a public webinar with “moderated” or private question management:

The presenters/hosts see questions that are submitted, but participants do not see what other people have typed. Participants in these kinds of sessions usually do not see the names of other attendees (since they have not agreed to be publicly identified and because the hosts might not want to give an indication of the size of the audience they have managed to attract).

I want the ability as a presenter or host to select any submitted question and relay it out to the full audience for voting. When I do so, the software needs to strip the name of the original submitter to maintain their privacy.

From a practicality standpoint, I want the ability to clear current votes, clear the voting queue of all questions, delete individual questions from the voting queue, and resubmit questions into the queue for voting again.

The reason I need those choices is so that I can keep voting current and relevant. If the audience has upvoted a question to address, once I deal with it I want to remove that question from consideration to get a better idea of what I should deal with next. Similarly, once I have asked for responses and votes on a question I pose to everyone, I want to clear all those responses from the queue before asking for a response to a newly posed question.

Would any vendors like to make me happy by upgrading their upvoting functionality? Would you like to have such a feature available for your web meetings? If so, let your vendor know!