Webinars and live streams are an important part of any B2B marketing strategy. However, especially for those new to live audiences, it can be hard to know when it’s best to use a webinar, or to broadcast your ideas with a live stream. After all, both webinars and live streams enable you to deliver your message in real-time, and engage your audience. So, which is right for your next event?

In this post, we’re looking at the eight key differences between webinars and live streams, and their respective advantages, so you can make the right decision for your next campaign.

1. Size of Audience

The first major factor in the decision between a webinar and a live stream is the size of your audience. While either tool will work well for hundreds of viewers, live streams are a much better fit for audiences numbering in the thousands.

The most important reason why is because webinar platforms limit the number of participants at around 500 – 1,000. The max we’ve seen is 5,000, though it’s possible platforms we didn’t look at offer more. 

In contrast, a live stream can be attended by many thousands of people; there are no hard limits. If your event has viral potential, or if it’s a major conference or performance, a live stream is the way to go.

Also, even if a webinar platform supports thousands of viewers, some of the most popular audience engagement tools become difficult to manage at that scale. For instance, live chat or Q&A would be overwhelming if thousands of viewers expect a direct response. Since many of the benefits of webinars aren’t applicable to very large audiences, live streams generally make more sense.

Audience Registration and Lead Capture

No matter the size of your audience, webinars and live streams can handle audience registration and lead capture flows with ease.

Some live streaming platforms, like SproutVideo, allow you to gate your live streams with a viewer information form. You can then connect that form to a CRM or marketing platform with one of our native integrations. Or, if you already have a list of viewers, you can grant them access to your live stream.

Webinar platforms typically work in a similar fashion, providing signup forms, or ways to add an existing list of participants. In this particular case, whichever option you choose, you’ll have easy tools for generating leads or registering your viewers.

2. Technological Requirements

The setup for presenters can be very similar for webinars and live streams. Both can be run using just a laptop and a webcam. Or, you can use a more advanced setup with a professional camera and microphone. In this case, you’ll need a U-Tap (or similar video capture device) which allows your computer to recognize that camera as a webcam. 

However, for participants, the requirements can be quite different depending on the webinar software you select. In many cases, webinars require participants to download specific software, and keep it up to date. 

In comparison, live streams are delivered through an online player in a browser window. They don’t require any special software downloads at all. Depending on the size of your audience, and their comfort level with technology, live streams might be a lot simpler and easier to run.

Granted, there are a handful of webinar platforms that also just run in the browser. If you want to ensure an easy experience for viewers, select a platform that requires minimal steps to join an event.

3. Audience Communication Tools

A relatively big difference between live streaming and running a webinar pertains to the tools available out of the box for audience communication. This refers to everything from promoting your event, to calendar invites, and sending reminders or recordings.

Most webinar platforms include the basics for audience communication tools. The email options aren’t always pretty or brandable, but they’ll include all key event information, and plenty of tips for accessing the event. Event reminders and recordings can usually be scheduled automatically with little hassle.

On the other hand, very few live streaming companies offer audience communication tools. If you’re going with a live stream for your event, you’ll need an email service provider to handle all of your audience communications. 

Most businesses have an existing email service provider, like Mailchimp or HubSpot. Depending on your email platform, you can even use workflows or automations to deliver all the right messages at the right time. And, you’ll likely have more control over the branding and appearance of the emails.

4. Where You’re Sharing

With a live stream, there are endless options for how you might share your event. You can use a landing page hosted by your live streaming provider, embed it on your website, or simulcast your live stream to more than one location, including social media platforms.

While some webinar platforms support embedding, and enable you to push your webinar to social media, these aren’t very common features. They’re typically only supported by browser-based webinar platforms, and not by ones that require a software download.

More often than not, webinars are run within the application in a virtual meeting room. You can usually customize the interface with your branding, but the options remain limited in terms of layout and reach.

5. Audience Engagement

When it comes to interacting with your audience during your event, webinars and live streams overlap quite a bit. However, there are some key differences.

Both options work well with live chat features to take audience questions or comments during your event. Still, you’ll have more flexibility with a live stream. If you can embed your live stream player on your website, you can implement any other chat tool alongside it. 

In contrast, webinar platforms have chat features built-in, and the webinar video feed usually can’t be separated from the chat feature. That means you’re stuck with whatever chat functionality comes with your webinar platform. Despite the lack of flexibility, the chat features of webinar platforms are perfect for typical Q&A sessions or gathering audience feedback.

In most cases, live streams and webinars also support mid-playback callouts, such as in-player CTAs, and customizable post-play screens to drive engagement after the event concludes. 

However, webinars usually have a handful of extra audience engagement features, like raising hands, voting, reactions, polls, or surveys, which are not common amongst live stream providers. If you want lots of bells and whistles to help encourage participation from your viewers, webinar software will be the way to go.

6. Video Quality

For certain events, video quality can be paramount. Live streaming has the edge over webinars in this particular category. 

Live streams can be up to 1080p, while webinars are usually restricted to 720p. Even though both formats are technically HD, the 1080p version will look sharper, especially on larger screens. If your viewers are likely to watch on a TV or a large monitor, this is an important consideration.

This particular distinction is likely to erode over time. Some webinar platforms already support 1080p video on their largest plans. We expect it to become much more commonplace at lower price points in the near future.

Beyond HD formats, live streams offer a few more advantages for video quality. For instance, you can apply color grades, add transitions or special effects, and custom graphics in real time. These effects are handled through live video encoding software, like OBS and others.

Latency

While both live streams and webinars are considered to be real-time, the truth is they’re not quite the same.

Webinars are usually more or less exactly real-time. Like a video chat, as soon as you speak, your words reach your viewers with no noticeable lag at all.

In comparison, live streams have a small amount of latency that usually ranges from 10-30 seconds. The difference is down to the way live streams and webinars are processed and delivered online.

To allow for higher video quality, live streams undergo additional processing before the video is sent to viewers. Webinars, on the other hand, prioritize immediate delivery of the video over video quality.

Whether or not latency is important to your event typically comes down to the level of audience interactivity you are aiming for. More latency can make it difficult to respond directly to viewers. A good workaround is to compile questions or feedback during your event, and address it at the end.

7. Content

Of course, the most important part of an event is arguably the content. What are you talking about, and how are you delivering the message?

When you think of a webinar, you usually think of someone talking over a presentation. Many live streams take that format as well. Both can also mix in pre-recorded video clips, music, screencasts, and other media to liven things up.

For higher event production value, live streams offer more options and greater control. Live stream encoding software allows you to switch between sources with ease, making them ideal for multi-camera productions. As mentioned in the Video Quality section above, the transitions, optional color grades, and other effects can also provide extra polish to increase the impact of your event.

8. Nature of Event 

Of course, the technical differences between a live stream and a webinar aren’t the only reasons to go with one over the other. Depending on what you’re looking to get out of your event, there are other considerations to take into account.

For major public announcements, events that require minimal or no audience interaction, or very large audiences, live streams are almost always the way to go. The simplicity and scalability of live streams will make them the better choice in these instances.

Outside of those specific types of events, there is tremendous crossover between webinars and live streams in terms of their suitability. We’ve seen live streams used for courses and engaging smaller groups very successfully. On the flipside, we’ve also seen webinars used with really large audiences to great effect.

The Lines are Blurring

The reality is that the overlap between webinars and live streams is increasing, not decreasing. As webinar platforms become capable of delivering higher quality video to larger audiences, and live stream providers add more audience engagement and communication tools, the differences become more a matter of platform preference than anything else.

Still, there are some cases where a live stream will be the best fit, and others where only a webinar will do. We hope this overview will help you make the right choice for your next event.


Have you leveraged webinars or live streams for your business? What are your thoughts on the key differences between these two solutions? Share your comments below!

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