Webinars: Substantive proselytizing for your program

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The medium is the message? (Photo by Vincent Diamante/Flickr)

First off: I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek with the word “proselytizing” above. In the highly secularized tech industry, it’s not uncommon to see someone with the job title “product evangelist.” This should strike those of us in Christian higher ed as funny. So I’m merely playing with that a bit there in the title (and the photo). Marketing as proselytizing. So this is on how we can – with webinars – proselytize with integrity.

Before transitioning into the Information Systems (IS) department last spring at EMU, I spent nearly all my four years of grad school working part-time for EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). Most of that time was spent as their web and social media resource, but one of my last projects there was helping design and facilitate the program’s first online restorative justice course last spring. So I spent most of my time there with a “marketing & communications” hat on but also started to get into the territory of “education” near the end.

After my move to IS, the CJP – its Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice in particular – has been one of my top customers, taking advantage of my proclivity to blur any number of lines; in this case the lines between “marketing” and “education.” Since last fall, the institute has hosted a series of free and paid webinars that have made heavy use of professional and social networks within the community of restorative justice practitioners. We have structured these webinars carefully, attempting to form and frame them as facilitated discussions, rather than the “sage on the stage”/talking head+PowerPoint slide presentations that I’ve grown accustomed to. In doing so we’ve not only drawn on those networks for potential webinar attendees, but with each webinar practitioners from that network have been brought in to discuss their piece of the burgeoning field of restorative justice. This isn’t necessarily new and novel, as I’ve seen it done in other webinars, but we’ve tried to pull all this off “the CJP way.”

In addition to the form being more genuine, we’ve also worked to make the content substantive and not just consisting in quasi-content masking the sales pitch. Yes, we do the sales pitch, but it takes place in the last 5 minutes of a 90 minute web event. So how successful has this marketing effort been? After our December webinar on RJ and trauma, with guest Elaine Zook Barge of CJP’s STAR program, she saw two new participants at a STAR training in February as a direct result of the webinar, and these folks are in talks to bring STAR to the area in which they practice.

Considerations:

  • Know your network – As I mentioned above, we have leveraged the extensive restorative justice network that Howard Zehr has in order to spread the word about these webinars. Not everyone has such street cred, but in any case discernment should be made about who you’re trying to reach and how you’re going to reach them either before or during planning for other bits of a webinar. If a strategic marketing plan is already in place, this will be helpful. As an online event, social media can be very helpful here. Hopefully you’ve already built an online presence through not only a website but also social media. If so, then you already have a channel to start marketing. If not, there’s probably groundwork that needs to be laid before you can start running webinars.
  • Know the pipeline – Think about how you want these events to channel people into your programs. As we’ve done with RJ and trauma, think about cross-program/inter-disciplinary opportunities.
  • Paid vs. free – We’ve done both. Again, partly on the quality of our webinars and the reputation of Howard, we’ve been able to charge a small fee ($10) and not have that negatively impact attendance. In fact, it’s improved attendance. Free webinars can draw a lot of registrations, but when it comes time for the event, people with busy schedules find it easy to skip things they haven’t paid for, especially if they’re already working on their computers on something else.
  • Paying the piper – Webinar software isn’t free. We settled on WebEx Event Center, mostly because we were already using their smaller-scale version – WebEx Meetings - for virtual class sessions in our graduate programs. As a subscription-based service, you pay for the max number of participants you want to handle. We started at 500, but after never getting more than 100 people in any particular webinar we dropped our subscription to 100, saving us a good bit of money. Covering these costs was part of the reason we went to charging for webinars.
  • Recording - A frequent request we get from these webinars is: Can we watch this again later? Or, I’m busy at this time, is it being recorded? Think about whether or not you’ll record and if you are, think about who will have access to these recordings (especially if the webinar was a paid event).

So that’s a bit about what we’ve learned over the past six months of running webinars. If there are any other programs at EMU that are interested in pursuing this strategy, I’m ready to talk!