TECH + EXPERTISE = INTERACTIVE ACCESS TO INFO
What if you could have access to some of the preeminent experts, doctors, thinkers and personalities in the SCI world all from the comfort of your home? That may sound like a future-first technology commercial from the 20th century, but it’s now a reality thanks NSCIA’s burgeoning webinar program. If you’re not familiar with webinars, or find yourself wondering if “webinar” is a real word, think “web” + “seminar.” The idea of utilizing the Internet to conduct seminars and interactive meetings has been around since the 1990s, but only in recent years has the technology become good enough and cost-effective enough for widespread use by organizations like NSCIA. Since 2012, NSCIA has been using the technology to better share its bounty of resources and connect with its widespread member base.
“The webinars serve as an excellent platform for NSCIA because our organization is so unique, and we have thousands of people spread out across the country,” says Marlene Harmon-Perkins, United Spinal’s vice president of corporate and donor relations. “It allows us to bring people into one conference room to learn about a particular subject matter, and people can do that in the comfort of their home, their office or at their library, their rehab center or the local Starbucks — wherever.”
A Team with a Dream
Back in 2011, soon after merging with NSCIA, United Spinal President Paul Tobin tasked Harmon-Perkins with designing a program to realize the potential webinars offered NSCIA’s members.
Harmon-Perkins had conducted one webinar before but was relatively new to the medium. She assembled a team that brought a combination of technology and social services savvy, and they set to work developing a program that would be easy to use for members and for NSCIA staff, with topics that would have wide appeal.
“We wanted to not only focus on topics specific to people with disabilities but also look at topics on a national scope and tie them into the relevance of what’s going on at a particular time,” she says.
The team settled on a platform called GoToMeeting and kicked off the program in January 2012 with a webinar on threats to Medicaid and what members could do to fight them. As excited as the webinar team was to start the program, they were slightly nervous too. “We had no idea what was going to happen,” Harmon-Perkins recalls.
143 members registered and 66 attended, getting the program off to a solid start. With timely themes, like a Valentine’s Day webinar on sexuality and SCI, and a tax-themed presentation before tax day, the audience gradually grew.
“Last year was truly trial and error,” says Harmon-Perkins. “We were all learning, taking baby steps. So last year we were growing — people were becoming familiar with us and this webinar process.”
‘I Could Do this All the Time’
As a people-person who thrives on face-to-face interactions, Ann Eubank, United Spinal’s vice president for community initiatives, wasn’t sure what to expect as she prepared to host one of the early webinars. The turnout and enthusiasm for that webinar made her a convert.
“I could do these all the time,” she remembers realizing. “People seem to be very interested.”
For her next webinar, Eubank ramped up the interactivity by adopting a talk-show style format that allowed her to ask her guest questions directly from the audience. An audience of 226 submitted more than 100 questions, and the webinar received high marks from participants.
“It was actually very exciting because I was interviewing [a guest], managing the Powerpoint and managing the questions that were coming in from participants all at the same time,” she says. “It was cool.”
That kind of direct interaction is exactly what Tobin had hoped for when he set the program in motion.
“We can do this with an infinite number of topics, we can make it available in a number of formats, we can do the transcripts or the video, and it means that it’s sort of an equalizer, since almost all of our members have some online access,” says Tobin.
To date, NSCIA has offered more than 30 webinars, covering employment, sexuality, taxes, advocacy, health and much more. With free, easy registration, the webinars are averaging about 250 registrants and 125 attendees each time. A webinar explaining the Affordable Care Act soon after its passage in January drew well over 400 participants — the largest crowd yet. Many more members have taken advantage of the online archives (www.spinalcord.org/webinar-archive) to download PDFs of the presentations or to watch the actual videos.
Webinars are here to stay, and the NSCIA team is looking forward to improving their quality and expanding their reach. Tobin says he’d like to get more feedback from participants to continue honing the program. He is excited about the potential for incorporating video and reaching beyond the NSCIA membership. Harmon-Perkins is equally excited about figuring out ways to make deeper connections with more members and new ways to use the webinar format.
This September, NSCIA has scheduled a webinar specifically for hospital members, aimed at showcasing the technology’s potential and encouraging them to host webinar “screening parties” where current and former patients could attend.
Archived webinars, such as the above one on exercise, are available as videos, transcripts and PDFs. Visit www.spinalcord.org/webinar-archive to download past webinars or to see a calendar of upcoming webinars.