Live chat is a feature in almost all the webinar tools I've been reviewing. Chat is a familiar interface and it gives attendees on your webinar an easy way to interact with you as well as with each other.
But just because something is common doesn't mean it's good or reasonable.
In fact, I think in most cases, you should not use your webinar software's default setting for live chat. In this video, I'll explain why.
Private vs. Open Chat
First, let's distinguish between different kinds of chat:
- Open chat is when everyone on the webinar can see everyone else's messages.
- Private chat is when only admins or hosts on the webinar can see all messages. Attendees can only see their own messages and replies from the admins.
- Q&A is also worth mentioning: this is when there's a dedicated feature for asking questions for the webinar host to answer. This can be used as the sole form of communication for attendees or alongside a chat feature.
I'm very much in favor of a good Q&A feature in webinar software. And private chat is always useful as a way for the host to get feedback from attendees (e.g. at the beginning of a webinar, to make sure everyone is seeing and hearing you properly).
Private chat is the chat option that needs closer scrutiny, though.
A chat feature creates what online entrepreneurs love to call "engagement". When there's a chat feature in a webinar, people will use it. They'll use it to ask questions, to make comments and quips regarding the webinar content and to have random discussions and arguments among each other, which may or may not be related to the webinar content.
On the one hand, that means it turns webinar attendees from passive consumers into active participants. But on the other hand, there's no clear dividing line between "engagement" and "distraction".
A chat interface is highly distracting. Every time a new message comes in, there's movement in the interface, which catches the eye. Add notification sounds, @-replies and emoji into the mix and a chat interface will quickly become more compelling to our base instincts than even the best of webinar presentations.
This is why context is key for open chat.
Open Chat in Context
Assume that open chat is distracting. Potentially highly distracting. And then ask yourself: how much harm or good does this distraction do, for my current webinar scenario?
Depending on the answer, you should turn the chat feature off or make it private-only.
Here are 2 examples to clearly show contrasting scenarios:
Scenario 1: The Ask-Me-Anything Hangout
You're doing a casual live hangout with your fans and followers, where they can ask you anything and you pick out some questions to answer. Maybe you have one or two co-hosts, with whom you exchange jokes and pleasantries. The point of this kind of webinar is to build a sense of community and just have a good time with your little online tribe.
In this scenario, you want to keep open chat on. Live chat will be a major component, you'll be reading out some of the messages, getting replies, attendees will be joking along with you and so on.
Scenario 2: The Sales Webinar
You've been invited to present your value-packed sales webinar to someone else's audience in your niche. You'll be spending an hour or more delivering a highly polished presentation designed to provide insight and aha-moments for everyone watching. Then, you'll be pitching your high priced product to the audience.
In this scenario, open chat will do far more harm than good. You need people's attention to be on you and your presentation, not on random arguments in chat. And you need to protect your chat from spammers and trolls, which you can't do on your own, while presenting.
Why This Matters
With an ideal webinar tool, you could always tailor the messaging and chat options to perfectly match your requirements. For example, turn on live chat in the beginning, then turn it off for the main presentation and use a Q&A feature to manage the most important questions to address towards the end.
But most webinar tools simply don't come with such an array of options.
Most webinar tools have open chat and not much else. And even when you can turn chat off, an inactive chat area might still be shown to attendees, implying that they're missing out on something.
2-way communication and engagement are important aspects of a live webinar. So, when you choose the right webinar tool for you, you should be mindful of what kind of communication suits you, for your typical webinar scenario and look for tools that have the features you need.
Because more often than not, the default setting in webinar tools is open chat. And that's rarely the ideal solution.