PR TECHNIQUE: Getting the most out of webcasting

Companies are increasingly using webcasts to reach target groups, but they must be tailored to the audience's needs and capabilities.

Companies are increasingly using webcasts to reach target groups, but they must be tailored to the audience's needs and capabilities.

Victoria's Secret's first shot at a webcast proved to be more frustrating than titillating. More than 1.5 million visitors tried to get a glimpse of lingerie-clad models during the online fashion show back in February 1999. But Victoria's Secret seriously underestimated the number of people who would be interested in seeing scantily clad women, and its IT infrastructure couldn't handle the traffic. Over the past four years, companies have become more savvy about successfully hosting a webcast. No longer the domain for tech-savvy technology companies with tech-savvy audiences, businesses from all markets recognize webcasts as a great way to reach larger audiences without the time and expense of travel. Yet it's still not a means of communicating with which everyone is familiar, or comfortable. And while non-tech companies have IT teams and webcast vendors to turn them into technological marvels, the same can't be said for those at the receiving end. "You may think using a webcast is easy, but Mabel the banker in Montana may not think so," says Mike Spataro, an EVP and head of Weber Shandwick's web services group. "You really need to test your audience. You have to know how easy or hard it is for them to get to the website. What you think is easy may not work for your audience. While there are [webcast specialist] vendors out there to help you, it's still rocket science to the vast majority of the country." Sherrie Borden, PR director for US Pharmacopeia, used a webcast for the first time in December to present to the media the certification of the company's dietary supplement verification program. "A webcast was perfect for this subject, because it was very detailed and visual, and we could have the media follow our PowerPoint presentation," she says. "For a non-tech company that isn't as familiar with this kind of technology, it takes an incredible degree of organization, and keeping your IT people and the webcast company in the loop." US Pharmacopeia's use of webcasts is just another example of how these communications tools have become mainstream. Greg Radner, VP of marketing for webcast vendor CCBN, says that more than 90% of public companies use webcasts at least quarterly. But their use is not just limited to quarterly earnings reports. For instance, Office Depot uses webcasts to promote itself not only as a place to buy supplies, but also as a partner for small businesses. "They're using webcasts for seminars, such as 'Women in Business,'" says Radner. "They are using this to be seen as thought leaders." But companies have to be cognizant of their audience's needs and capabilities. "Don't use Flash," warned Radner. "There are certain graphics that shouldn't be used because they will just make it more difficult for your audience. And you have to stream in multiple formats and speeds. Companies don't always understand all of the aspects of a webcast. It's not easy." MasterCard has become so dedicated to using webcasts for internal communications that the company installed fiberoptics throughout new buildings. And while most companies don't have the means to do that, it clearly demonstrates that MasterCard understands the value of webcasts. "We use them every month to communicate with employees," says MasterCard VP of global communications Linda Locke. "We are very focused on sharing information, and making sure they have the information to do their jobs, see the big picture, and understand their role in the company's goals." Locke says webcasts can imbue a message with emotions - be it warmth or sadness - something much more difficult to get across in an e-mail. "Companies should look to harness emotion around messages," asserts Locke. "Happiness, fear, sadness, or enthusiasm. Companies should tap into sharing emotions because it makes your message more believable. If your webcast is too slick, you and your message can lose credibility." Webcasts reaching out to journalists are also on the increase. But that's also an audience, much like investors or employees, that has its own needs when it comes to making a webcast worth their while. "Reporters today have more work than ever before," says Dave Groobert, GM of Environics Communications' Washington office. "They have tighter and tighter deadlines, and less ability to travel. So a webcast is ideal because it brings the entire press conference to the reporter's desk. "But you've got to have news," Groobert added. "You can't lose sight of the fact that even if you put together a wonderful webcast, you're going to lose your audience if you don't have any news. And you must give them options for getting to the webcast. Not everyone has broadband." Any company using the web to communicate must make the experience as easy as possible for the intended audience, without sacrificing quality, advises Spataro. Too many companies get hung up on the technology, and the "cool" factor of communicating live on the web, that they often forget about the needs of the audience on the other end. Which is why surveys and measurement are vital. Mike Magnani, president and CEO of webcast firm nVision, emphasizes the importance of knowing what the audience thinks in order to fine-tune future webcasts. "You should use measurement tools to see where people are looking during the webcast," says Magnani. "You can really delve into which information was the most relevant to specific members of your audience." He also encourages companies to use surveys, and poll the audience immediately after the webcast to best determine what works, and what doesn't. Using such surveys, and measurement of the audience's actions during the webcast, can greatly improve content and delivery in the future, explains Magnani. "Webcasting is still a new and emerging technology for many people," says Spataro. "People still have problems adopting this properly. And companies should never forget that PR is still a face-to-face, handshaking business. Technology can never replace that, but webcasts can complement that. Sometimes when face-to-face just is not possible, this can help." ----- Technique tips Do sample the audience beforehand, making sure they can easily receive the webcast Do make sure the presentation and talking points are clear and succinct, so the audience can easily follow along Do set up a structured, timed agenda that respects the audience's time Don't use heavy graphics that can slow down the webcast Don't let speakers talk over each other Don't forget to promote the webcast

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