Today’s guest post is written by Tom Bishop

Ever been to the theater?

There’s a feeling of anticipation as you enter the dimly-lit theater and find your seats. Your eyes adjust, and you notice that half the seats are empty. The orchestra tunes up, and on stage, you see the curtains part just a hair as somebody peeks out.

Behind those curtains the air is thick with anxiety. Chorus members stretch nervously. The lead man hurriedly recites lines. The diva is tossing lunch. The producer, peeking through the curtains, is wondering one thing:

Where is everybody?

He sees the same thing you did. It’s only five minutes to showtime and the house is less than half-full. If you’ve ever produced a webinar, you know exactly how this beleaguered producer feels. 

It happens every time. You have more than 1,000 people registered for your webinar, and as you near the zero minute, only 300 or so have logged in. It’s a disaster. What should you do?

The show must go on!

With webinars, you are the producer and the performer. Seasoned performers learn to imagine performing for just one person, so it doesn’t matter if the house is nearly deserted or packed. But as producer, you have to worry about the crowd. What is the right ratio of registrants to attendees? Is that something you should worry about?

You’re going to hate the answer: It depends.

If you hold similar webinars often enough, you shouldn’t expect high attendance, but everyone in your audience has a chance to see it. If you hold webinars rarely, and your topics are always new, you’ll have higher attendance rates.

Why people don’t attend your webinar

  • People forget. This is the biggest reason people miss your webinars. It’s not hard to register for one, but it does take some doing to remember and attend, so the ratio tells almost as much about the organizational skills of the attendees as their interest level.
  • Timeliness of concept. “Typewriter Advancements You Should Know About” is probably not going to get much interest in 2012, unless it’s meant to be ironic.
  • Time of quarter.Early in the sales quarter is better. Even the company’s important internal meetings are bagged when the quarter is ending.
  • Holidays. When everyone is away for a holiday or school vacation, it will affect your attendance.
  • Day of week/time of day. This is important if your target audience spends Mondays in meetings, middays working, and Friday afternoons golfing.
  • Advance notice. An announcement more than two weeks out may be too soon. Announce the event within two weeks and send reminders the week, the day, and the morning before.
  • Industry news. Say you’ve announced a webinar on using a software tool, and then it is discontinued, like a webinar on “Using Google Wave” a week before Google killed it.
  • Unrelated events. A natural disaster somewhere in the world or a sports event will keep people preoccupied.
  • Weather. If the northeastern U.S. is inundated by a snowstorm on the day of your webinar, it’s a safe bet attendance will be down.
  • Economic and political. A stock market shakeup or breaking election scandal will keep people glued to the news feed rather than your webinar.

For these reasons, it is nearly impossible to find benchmarks for attendance. If anybody can reliably tell you “Tuesday at 1PM is always best” it may be true for them and their business, but not yours.

The real questions you should ask:

  • Which attendees are really interested?
  • Which attendees lost interest, and why?
  • Which non-attendees were just busy?
  • Which non-attendees changed their minds?

To find the answers, survey your attendees and non-attendees with unique sets of questions. Why didn’t they attend? Was the webinar what they expected? Did they get enough reminders? Was the webinar too long? Did it answer their questions?

The goal of a webinar is to help people discover your company through a medium they prefer. The people who register and attend have self-selected to learn something from you. So as the performer, you forget about attendance and deliver as if they are the only people who matter.

Break a leg!

 Tom Bishop is the director of marketing and communications for KnowledgeVision, an online presentation application. You can follow him on Twitter at @myleftone.