The first impression in business is usually associated with a firm handshake while looking the other person straight in the eye. But what do you do if your first encounter with a customer or prospective customer is during an online webinar? In that environment, as good as your graphics might be, the first impression is made via audio, from the second you say your first “hello.”
That’s what OpenLogix, a Wixom, MI-based IBM Premiere Business Partner that is focused on delivering IT architecture software and services to businesses around the world, discovered when it began offering a series of monthly training webinars earlier this year. The company’s “Worklight Wednesdays” — an hour of live, interactive training to a host of customers and business prospects — are aimed at both existing customers, who can learn about new features from OpenLogix’s software updates such as new mobile platforms, and potential new clients. However, as good as the content was for these online sessions, their effectiveness was impeded by dicey sound.
“For our first couple of webinars the audio experience for participants was very tinny and crackly,” says Harry Ho, enterprise mobile solutions developer and the webinar presenter at OpenLogix. “It really disrupted the overall experience for everyone on the call and was very distracting.” The company also gathered feedback from participants via interactive surveys, which were equally disheartening. “The feedback said that the audio quality was poor, or that the overall volume was too low — this was counterproductive to the overall effort we were making.”
Krista Valentine, sales & marketing at OpenLogix, adds, “It was really embarrassing on our end, and the audio was painful. I was constantly having to tell the presenter that it sounded horrible, and there was nothing we could do about it. Something had to change.”
Importance of Audio
In an overwhelmingly visually oriented business landscape, audio tends to get short shrift — until, that is, when it’s noticeably bad. OpenLogix’s webinar team set about improving the situation by trial and error, testing out different components in the system. The two that were the most critical were the webinar platform itself, and the audio interface between the presenter and the platform: the headset.
In the case of the webinar presentation platform, they tested several before deciding on Citrix’s GoToWebinar. “We did a lot of testing before we used each one in an actual webinar, running them on mock webinars with some of our colleagues as participants,” Valentine says. “You can’t just go live with one and hope for the best.”
The selection of the right headset was more serendipitous. After trying several and not finding one that could offer both highly intelligible speech reproduction and consistent volume levels, Ho mentioned the problem to a Sennheiser product manager, whose booth just happened to be next to theirs at an IBM Connect tradeshow. The Sennheiser rep sent over a DW Series DECT headset that in addition to good speech reproduction also offered noise-cancelling capability. That proved to be game changer. “One of the big problems had been extraneous noise around the office,” he says. “Noise cancelling was able to take care of a lot of that.”
The Citrix system also offered ways to reduce unwanted sound in the webinar program. For example, it allows the moderator to remotely mute and unmute the input from any individual participant. This reduces inadvertent but very real issues such as participants who put their phones on hold during a program, resulting in music-on-hold or other place-keeping audio entering the mix. It also works for heavy breathers, not the creepy kind, but participants who simply tend towards noisy respiration or who hold the phone too closely to their mouths, says Valentine.
There are other actions that webinar presenters and those hosting any type of online presentation can take to improve audio quality. These include holding them in quiet areas of their workspace, away from the normal noise level of a typical office, which can range between 60 and 70 decibels, regarded as the threshold of annoyance. And sensitive microphones without noise-cancelling capability can actually amplify those kinds of background sounds. Presenters can also use basic acoustical treatments, such as absorbent tiles and panels, to minimize reflections, which can also degrade intelligibility. Microphone makers are also adapting studio-grade large-condenser microphones for online applications with the addition of USB connections, such as Blue Microphones’ Spark. Citrix offers a comprehensive guide to optimizing webinar audio from its website, with plenty of useful tips.
“The thing is that any audio that’s not the program, really, is a tremendous distraction,” says Ho. “It really takes away from the experience and diminishes the message we’re trying to convey. They are taking a significant portion out of their day to attend, and if the experience is anything less than great, it really diminishes the possibility of our engaging with them again.”
Valentine says paying closer attention to audio quality has made a palpable difference in client response. “If we had continued with the earlier headset we were using, we probably would not have been able to gain more and more attendees,” she observes. “Now, we have not only gained more attendees on our webinars, but also lots of new clients, new contacts and new leads.”