YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It wasn’t that long ago that accountants at HBK CPAs & Consultants were meeting clients face-to-face to provide them with the financial advice and information they needed to run their businesses. For larger seminars, clients would fill conference rooms, says James Rosa, principal of the tax advisory group.
“We’d have hors d’oeuvres afterward and have a chance to meet people face-to-face. We did that at all of our offices,” he says.
But that was then and this is now. Business operations nationwide have been upended by the coronavirus and information is more important than ever, especially when it changes so quickly.
“There’s a thirst and need for that information,” he says.
Enter the webinars.
They’ve long been a staple for the professional service sector; but with an estimated 58% of the American workforce working remotely and some 90% of the country under stay-at-home orders that bar travel for all but essential trips, webinars are now often the only way to disseminate information to clients.
“Keeping up-to-date and current on developments is one of the most important responsibilities we have,” Rosa says. “Our clients are looking to us – and we want them to look to us – to tell them what works, what doesn’t, how it affects you, what’s required and what’s possible.”
With business owners needing to direct their attention in so many directions at once through the virus outbreak, webinars can provide a time and place for them to get information, says Julie Needs, executive director of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center in Salem.
“If you send a flyer or some email they have to read, it isn’t the same as a webinar that captures their attention … and gives them a specific time they have to be on,” she says. “There’s an opportunity to ask additional questions, where if you read something and don’t understand it, you can’t ask about it without sending an email or phone call that’s not answered right away.”
Since the outbreak reached the area, the SOD Center has been hosting webinars developed by professionals from across the country and compiling links that it emails out.
“In my own practice – I’ve been on webinars every day for probably the last three weeks – the information is coming in so fast and changing so quickly,” Needs says. “If you have someone working remotely, it’s a great way to help keep them on top of things.”
Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, video conferencing systems such as Zoom and GoToMeeting have seen a massive influx in users. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan reported April 1 that the app had 200 million daily users in March; its previous record high was 10 million.
Through the apps, hosts can present information and talk to viewers. Zoom can host up to 100 people on a basic plan, while GoToMeeting has a webinar plan that hosts up to 1,000. A Google search of “webinar platforms” turns up dozens of options, many with the same suite of features.
“They’re a dime a dozen as far as publishing platforms. If you ask people, I’m sure they all probably use a different one,” says Andrew Resnick, director of communications and public affairs for America Makes. “But it’s all about having the platform and promoting it so people know about it in advance and can get it on their calendar.”
With the coronavirus outbreak, the time between scheduling webinars and hosting them has shrunk. At HBK, Rosa says, clients typically had around six weeks notice for webinars. Since the outbreak, that heads-up is down to about a day. Still, HBK’s webinars are drawing 1,000-plus viewers from across its four-state footprint.
“It says to me, clearly, that there’s a need and interest in how this affects [clients] and their business,” he says. “There’s nothing better than sitting down and meeting face-to-face to talk about what’s going on. But these are different times. We have video conferencing and we can connect that way.”
The connection can also spread beyond the webinar itself. Most platforms require users to log in before the host can view joining the webinar and that information. If there are any unanswered questions afterward, it can be easy to reach out.
“Our [most recent webinar] had 1,000 people and well over a hundred questions. Obviously, we can’t get to all those during the webinar,” Resnick says. “Are you just going to present the webinar and walk away or are you going to use it as a chance to engage people in the future to carry on the conversation? That’s what you’re going to start seeing as people realize that what they’re doing is the ground level.”
The video can also be repurposed later, says Jeff Herrmann, CEO of the Youngstown Publishing Co., and converted to posts on social media or your own website.
“Not only are they great live events that can be simulcast on Facebook or YouTube, they are also great sources of shorter vignettes,” he says. “Maintaining the attention span of webinar viewers is tough. Often, there is something very compelling said at minute 24 but it’s missed and buried deep into the presentation.”
The Business Journal has been hosting webinars for a few years, but recently increased its frequency to provide business leaders with updates on resources to help through the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a dive into the details of the 900-page Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
For those hosting their own webinars, one of the most important factors in capturing viewers’ attention is the presentation itself, the SOD Center’s Needs says.
“You don’t want your presenter to be someone with no energy. I’ve been on some where there are times I’m wondering if it’s almost over,” she says. “You can’t be monotone and read the information. You need someone who uses inflection and encourages questions. The best ones have a facilitator for questions and two, maybe three presenters. And there should be enough time when you’re done with your presentation to answer those questions.”
Preparation is also critical, HBK’s Rosa says. When the accounting firm hosted seminars before, presenters had just as much time to get ready as the attendees did. Now, sometimes it’s a 24-hour turnaround.
“What I’m most gratified by is that we have a lot of people stepping up and taking responsibility for leading aspects on issues from these changes,” he says. “The only way you can best prepare yourself is to put in the work and be diligent.”
But, Rosa adds, it’s OK to admit that you don’t have the answers, especially when everything is changing on a daily basis – if not faster.
“There are always questions that we don’t have answers to yet. We have to be candid about that. We can’t guess,” he says. “If there’s not an answer to a specific question or issue, you just have to say it’s not certain.”