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How a webinar disaster made me a better marketer
September 29, 2022

Dan Russell

Editor of the Goldpan Report

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I was a nanosecond away from throwing my laptop at the wall.

I was picturing it like a movie. A silver Macbook flying through the air in slow motion, exploding upon impact with the wall in a mechanical firework display made of keyboard letters, microchips, and a shattered screen that—just before flickering to black—reveals an alert window displaying the words:

Webinar File Not Found.

A client of my marketing agency had an online webinar training that was supposed to be going live in less than forty-five minutes. We’d spent weeks working on the email sequences, ads, and webinar structure. We’d gone through three iterations of the presentation, fourteen drafts of emails, and around five thousand dollars in ads to build a list of attendees who would join us for the broadcast. Knowing all that was invested, I was doing some last-minute quality checks to make sure the event would go off without a hitch. 

Everything up to that point worked perfectly—the emails, the ads, the registration process, and the sales page that we were going to be sending people after the webinar. All of it worked great. So you can imagine my surprise when, upon opening the webinar itself, I saw the alert window pop up letting me know it was all about to be for nothing.

Unless I pulled a rabbit out of a hat, in less than an hour, a few thousand people would log into the webinar room and see a blank screen. My client would lose money—a big no-no in my world. This was my responsibility. It was the promise I made to my client that the webinar would perform flawlessly. 

As I sat there trying to figure out how this could have happened, I realized I needed to get into problem-solving mode. I started weighing my options. 

Reschedule the webinar? No, it’s too late for that. Too much brand damage and only a fraction of the attendees would return.

Have my client do it live? No, the platform already sent out the webinar links. 

Think!!!

Make another video? 

…hmm… 

Could I produce a sixty-minute video with forty minutes until the broadcast? 

I did know my way around a video editor. Plus, I still had the webinar slideshow and the 60-minute recording of my client’s narration. The problem was time. It usually takes around five to ten minutes of production time to create one minute of video. That meant I needed 5 hours to create a new 60-minute video: time I didn’t have. 

Another problem was that this webinar was a VSL—a Video Sales Letter. In a VSL, the slides act as a kind of closed captioning system. The narrator speaks the words on the slides while the slides move forward to match the cadence of the narrator’s voice. It’s a satisfying experience that leads to higher webinar completion rates, but it also means that a typical sixty-minute VSL presentation contains about three hundred slides. 

So, I had to figure out how to produce a sixty-minute video that synchronized three hundred slides with a recorded narration of my client’s voice—all in less than forty minutes.

I pulled open the presentation that contained the slides. I also opened the audio file that contained my client’s narration. I paused for a moment to gather myself. 

Deep breath.

I looked at the clock.

Thirty-nine minutes until go-live.

First, I opened my screen recording software and hit “Record.” Next, I opened the audio file of my client’s narration and queued it up to play at 3X speed—at that rate, I’d get through the narration in 20 minutes.

I started recording my screen and quickly switched to the presentation, hitting the “Present” button so the slides took over my screen. As the narration began, I hit the “next slide” button on my keyboard. I did this every time my client’s voice got to the last word on the slide. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to an audio file at 3x speed, but it’s barely comprehensible. Unless you’re really paying attention, it just sounds like garbled alien noises. Fortunately, I was paying attention. Very, very close attention. A lot of money and quite a bit of my reputation rested on my ability to move to the next slide at the right time. 

Twenty LONG minutes later, I let out a sigh of relief. I reached the final slide. I had a video recording for the webinar. But it was still only twenty minutes long and played at 3x speed. To fix this, I opened my video editor and slowed down the video to 33% speed—now my twenty-minute video is an hour long. I pasted the regular-speed audio narration on top of it and then hit the button to process the video.

Progress: 1%

I looked at the clock. Eighteen minutes until the webinar goes live.

You’ve probably had the experience of staring at a progress bar wishing, hoping, praying that it would go just a little bit faster. Like… you would sell a kidney to hit 100% in the next five minutes. That was me. I was in a staring contest with my computer screen—as if my gaze would somehow harness an unknown power in the universe that would speed up my laptop.

Progress: 14%

Time to broadcast: 11 minutes

I couldn’t take it. I walked out of the room to go to the bathroom. I got on my phone and surfed through Reddit. Anything to distract myself from the very possible reality that I was going to get an angry call from my client in just over eleven minutes.

I returned to my computer. 

Progress: 48%

Time to broadcast: 8 minutes

AH! I suddenly remembered to quit all of the other programs on my computer. I closed out my internet browser and every other application that wasn’t my video processor. Maybe that would speed things up.

Progress: 55%

Time to broadcast: 7 minutes

My heart was pounding in my chest. This would either be a great story to tell someday or the biggest flop of my career to date. I tried not to think of the latter. I looked back to my computer screen.

Progress: 72%

Time to broadcast: 6 minutes

A big jump! Quitting the other applications made a big difference. I might actually pull this off!

Progress: 88%

Time to broadcast: 4 minutes

It was going to come down to seconds here. The final step was to upload the video to the webinar platform, so I mentally estimated how much time it’d take. I fortunately had fast internet, so I guessed around ninety seconds.

Progress: 95%

Time to broadcast: 3 minutes

Almost there! It felt like I was skydiving. The amount of adrenaline in my blood could have fueled a Boeing jet. 

All of a sudden, my screen flashed a quick notification:

Progress: 100%

YES!

I opened my browser, fingers flying, and quickly logged into the webinar platform to upload the video. I had less than two minutes until the broadcast started. The upload started and I’m faced with, yet again, a progress bar. 

Except this one is moving faster and seems to be flying to the right. With a glimmer of hope, I opened the webinar link on my phone to see what all the attendees were seeing themselves. 

As the upload bar hit 100% a few seconds later, I hit Save on the webinar settings page and looked back at my phone.

Thirty seconds until the broadcast starts.

I was holding my breath. 

Please, please, please

Ten seconds to go, and the webinar screen refreshes. A little thumbnail tells me the broadcast is about to start.

For the love of all that is good, PLEASE let this work.

The screen refreshes again. 

A blank screen… 

And then…

The slides appear! My client’s voice starts playing!

The webinar was live!

It worked! It actually worked!!

My heart skipped a beat. 

I double-checked the chat to make sure nobody was having issues. I saw people saying hello and posting the city they were logging in from. Just what I wanted to see.

I finally let the air out of my lungs. 

I felt like I had actually dodged a bullet. My hands were shaking. I had narrowly escaped a terrible situation for my client—and for myself. 

Knowing I was going to do some serious digging into why this fiasco occurred, I closed the laptop and tried to put the situation out of my mind. Pouring a drink, I both congratulated and scolded myself for letting something like that happen. How unprofessional, I thought to myself. How easy a mistake to see coming. 

The next morning, I woke up to see that the webinar performed well. Sales had come in, my client made a windfall of cash, and nobody (except me) knew that the whole production had been seconds away from disaster. 

I sat down to find out what happened. I opened my client’s Google Drive folder and downloaded the original webinar file. Once it was downloaded, I double-clicked on the file to open it up—and BAM—that’s when the error window popped up: Error 2048: Cannot Open File. The file itself was corrupted. 

It was clear that this was a fluke error. My team had done their jobs—they produced the video and uploaded it to the webinar software, but they didn’t try opening the folder to test out the file before loading it in. 

Time for a new step in our procedures, I thought.

It took me about three minutes to rewrite my agency’s webinar procedures to make sure nothing like that ever happened again, and another minute to write an urgent message to the team to notify them of the change. From that day forward, we never had another issue with corrupt webinar files.

It’s been a decade since that fiasco, but I think of it often. In the years that followed, I often asked myself whether that experience made me a “good” marketer because I figured it out, or whether it made me a “bad” marketer because I allowed the situation to reach DEFCON 1 before fixing it.

The truth is that it neither made me a good marketer nor a bad one. Back then, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about that night, but deep down I was convinced that my technical skills made me a good marketer. I thought those qualities were what made marketers great.

I was wrong. I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture.

What if the webinar didn’t sell? 

What if the thousands of registrants never showed up? 

What if all the attendees left ten minutes into the broadcast?

I wouldn’t have known what to do. I was too “new” to marketing and hadn’t had enough experience solving those kinds of problems. I was what I now call a MINO—a Marketer In Name Only. MINOs specialize in specific technical areas, such as webinar production or running ad campaigns. But the questions I listed above are all strategic problems, and strategic problems require strategic skills. In the face of a strategic problem, technical skills become irrelevant.

After so much time, that experience remains an important one for me. Not because of the success of the webinar, but because it stands as an important lesson for me on the difference between strategic and tactical skills. Without being able to reflect on that webinar disaster, I wouldn’t have been able to see how fruitless my technical skills would have been in the face of a strategic issue.

As you lead your own business or department, it’s important to know the difference between team members who have technical skills (MINOs) and team members who have strategic skills. As I illustrated in a recent post, when you place a MINO in a strategic position, even unintentionally, you’re putting your business at risk of losing money, moving in the wrong direction with your messaging, focusing on the wrong acquisition channels, and ultimately making marketing a lot harder and a lot less fun that it should be.

Think about your own business structure—including both your internal team as well as consultants or agencies. Who is in a strategic role, whether explicit or implicit, and what strategic decisions are being made without your knowledge? How can you reposition yourself or other more strategic members of your team so the important decisions are made by the right people?

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Dan Russell

Editor—Goldpan Report