Five tips for staying out of the gray zone with webinars

By Lee McDonald
Guest Columnist

As business publications expand their revenue models, webinars have emerged as an important offering. Publications value them for their premium pricing and cache as multimedia offerings. Advertisers and sponsors are drawn to them because they can position themselves as thought leaders.

Webinars also bring editorial staff into direct contact with advertisers and sponsors. Pre-contract negotiations often involve editors spitballing webinar content and perspective. Once the sponsor is committed, editors usually help shape the discussion, sometimes recruiting additional panelists. During the event, editorial staff typically serves as moderators and sometimes as secondary panelists.

Closer working relationships with sponsors or advertisers can draw editorial staff into ethical gray areas, which business journalists can avoid by keeping a few thoughts in mind.

1. Webinars are not infomercials. They are vehicles for business information, providing service to viewers. The ultimate goal of a webinar is to create satisfied viewers who appreciate the information shared because it was presented in a thoughtful, objective manner. Viewers may then hold the sponsor and publication in greater esteem, making them more receptive to considering their business offering or service. Sponsors often wish to mention their products and services — keep those mentions brief.

2. Sponsorship of a webinar should never affect other editorial coverage. Keep interactions with sponsors focused on the webinar, not on whether someone from their organization will be quoted in other coverage, or whether their contributed editorial is more likely to be accepted.

3. Editors participating in a webinar stand in the shoes of the viewer, not the sponsor. Remain objective, even politely skeptical. Don’t endorse sponsors’ products and services. Don’t parrot their marketing language.

4. Don’t over-promise or mislead. Some publishers state a guaranteed turnout. Unless that number is ridiculously low, good luck with that. Drivers of signup rates vary, but the most important variable is the engagement of is the topic. Turnout levels continue to suffer, as does participation length. Don’t provide false information during the webinar as to the number of people registered or participating — sponsors and viewers often have opportunities to verify that information, or at least demand that you back up your statements with facts.

5. Don’t manufacture interaction. If you are running a webinar and there are few or no questions, simply be prepared with additional questions to continue the discussion.

Advancing video and mobile technologies are allowing publishers to create webinars that visually engaging and accessible. Taking ethical shortcuts undermines the viewer experience, making potential attendees less likely to accept your next webinar invitation.

Lee McDonald oversees editorial operations with a financial services organization. That organization formerly won gold awards from the ASBPE for its magazine and website.

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