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Sponsored Webinars as Marketing Tools for Photonics and Laser Technology

In recent years, various publishers and societies in the area of photonics have started to offer webinars – a term created from “web seminar”. Some typical characteristics:

  • They are slideshow presentations, accompanied by live audio from a suitable speaker.
  • The speaker is often a well-known expert in the field, whom the publisher has invited. It may also be a person provided by the advertiser.
  • A webcast is usually performed at an announced time. Some number of previously registered participants (hundreds or more) watch it through the Internet with live video. After the presentation, the presenter may ask questions from the attendees (possibly using a text chat and/or an electronic whiteboard to show text and graphical elements of answers).
  • Those who have missed the live presentation (and sometimes the whole public) can also come later and watch the recorded session.
  • Most webcasts are largely one-way communications similar to a lecture, normally not primarily discussions involving many participants. That nature also fits to the similar term “webcast” – a web broadcast, i.e., something which is broadcast via the Internet. Some degree of discussion and feedback is definitely welcome, but essentially, it is predetermined what information is conveyed.

Before such an event starts, the publisher tries to find as many people as possible who register for the event and then hopefully come in time to watch it, or at least will watch the recorded presentation later on.

Of course, one could in principle only record such as session and then offer it for viewing on a webpage, just as many videos are offered. However, there could there not be any feedback, e.g. questions from the audience which the presenter can answer.

In the area of photonics and laser technology, I am aware of the following institutions offering webinars (in alphabetical order):

In most cases, the publishers want the attendees to register because the resulting data may be useful for them:

  • They may use the obtained e-mail addresses for invitations to further webinars.
  • Statistical data can be useful for assessing e.g. how popular certain topics are.
  • They can offer the data to their sponsors.
  • A publisher might use the data for additional purposes, such as selling addresses to other third parties.

Privacy Concerns

By the way, the collection of data from the participants and its use for various purposes can be legally problematic. According to modern privacy regulations (e.g. GDPR), one needs to obtain the informed content from the participants – but still, some publishers do not care even to ask the registrants, nor do they reveal how exactly they want to use the data. It is also problematic to admit only registrants who agreed to a utilization of the data which is not required for the actual purpose (presentation of the webinar). I think that currently some of those activities are legally quite questionable.

The Economical Model

For the publisher, there is some (typically moderate) cost for offering a webinar:

  • They must identify topics of interest and suitable presenters, creating the basis for a possibly widespread interest in the community.
  • The presenter will usually, but not always, obtain some remuneration for the work – essentially for preparing the presentation and performing it, and possibly some related tasks like later answering more questions of attendees. The obtained honorarium – if there is one at all – is usually not a full compensation for the effort, but the presenter can also have some welcome publicity effect.

The attendees normally cannot be charged because any attempts in that direction would severely cut down the attendance. So, the money required for paying the presenter and (more importantly) for covering the cost and required profit of the publisher (mainly the cost of setting up such a platform) needs to come from somewhere else: from one or several sponsors. According to my information, over 10,000 USD is required for a webinar reaching several hundred participants. That is of a similar order as one or two large print ads in a popular trade journal.

Advertisers may think about making their own webcasts or webinars, which is technically not so difficult; various software packages are available for such purposes. They may also be able to find competent speakers for such events. (I also occasionally do that for Laser Focus World; for example, I talked about photodiodes.) However, an essential function of the publisher is to get a large audience. Note that finding hundreds of interested participants for a specialized topic is not that easy. It is not impossible, however, as there are other methods, e.g. using social media advertising. You will find a hotter tip, however, at the end of this article.

Of course, one may also produce webinars based on an entirely different economical model, where the participants have to pay for valuable content. I am not aware, however, of such webinars in the area of photonics, and that would also be outside the topic of this article.

Another model is that a scientific or technical society (e.g. the IEEE Photonics Society) offers webinars only to their members; they can then be seen as incentives for registering as a society member because they are publicly advertised but then require membership if one wants to see them.

Benefits for the Sponsors

The sponsors can, of course, get various benefits. First of all, there is some publicity, with their names and company logos appearing around the webinar announcements.

Products offered by the sponsor(s) may be mentioned somewhere in the presentation. There are even webinars where the title already indicates that some products will be advertised. That, however, can, of course, make it difficult to find a large audience. After all, how many of us are keen to spend an hour or so just watching a long advertisement? Therefore, publishers and sponsors often hesitate to create too strong a link between the webinar presentation and some products. I think they are well advised to be careful; it may often serve their interests better, e.g. to primarily spread useful information on a topic and maybe to have not more than a few hints that one could buy something related from the sponsors. Although people may be quite satisfied with getting information which helps them in purchasing decisions, they need to be convinced that they are getting something useful, rather than being driven by other interests.

Further, sponsors may find it useful to get the collected addresses of attendees, who appear to have some interest in a certain topic. The data might be amended with additional information collected elsewhere. However, the use of such data is increasingly limited by privacy regulations (see above). One might try to make the registration dependent on the consent to receive a company newsletter, for example, but people may not like that, and may anyway cancel that consent at the next opportunity. Furthermore, such artificial linkage may even be legally problematic

Are Sponsored Webinars Effective and Efficient?

As for other advertising tools, one can say that webinars can be an excellent thing to do for a company, provided that it is made with a good plan for a suitable purpose and with a capable presenter, while in other cases it may not be worth the expenses. The core task is to identify a topic which allows one to present something useful for a wide audience. The intended economical effect – usually, following purchases of one's products – should be linked to the topic with a reasonable probability, but without compromising the usefulness for the target audience. I think that some webinars are well done in that respect and may well serve the purpose.

To give you an idea how that can work, consider a webcast which explains a certain interesting application of technology, for which many should have some interest. So, the message would not be “purchase laser product XY”, but rather “learn how to use lasers for YZ”. It may just be mentioned that such lasers are available from the sponsor. Even better, the sponsor may also offer help for realizing practical solutions.

With some level of creativity, more working models like that can be developed.

Boosting the Number of Participants

Obviously, the number of participants is a particularly important factor for a successful webinar. Publishers organizing such events are usually active in other areas, which give them a relatively good position to advertise a webinar on various channels, such as e-mail newsletters and their website. However, it is not necessarily a good idea to rely on their resources only. As mentioned above, social media could in principle be used for further support, but that may not work very well in specialized areas like photonics.

There, it is better to announce a webinar on a well established website, which is known to be used by numerous experts in the field. You can guess which one I will explicitly suggest for that purpose – ours! Honestly, do you know a better suited website for announcing things like photonics webinars? One could use a nice graphical banner appearing in the right column; the display probability may be made dependent on the topics of the articles. For specific topics, however, it would be even better to place an announcement in an encyclopedia article on the topic – similar to a targeted white paper promotion. Given a reasonably long lead time, one might in that way double the attendance (and the value) without driving up the cost dramatically.

By the way, you may also be interested in my more general article on photonics marketing.

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