Most business folks have heard the word "Webinar," though few have figured out how to make money from it. But at Copia Creative Inc., a public relations agency in West Los Angeles, Webinars have emerged as a major revenue stream.

Copia boasts one of the most successful Web seminar speakers as a client: Cesar Millan, host of the "Dog Whisperer" TV show on the National Geographic Channel. This year Copia will produce four Webinars for Millan, two this month and two more in December. For $34.95, dog owners can submit questions or even video of their dog for analysis by Millan, then experience the feedback in the comfort of their homes.

Millan's pay-per-feed model represents an exception to the rule in the Webinar business. Most of Copia's clients are large companies that use Webinars as a communications tool, not to generate a profit.

Either way it means money for Copia.

"For large corporations, it's a tool for internal marketing. The question is, how do you share information with offices in Europe or Asia without incurring travel costs?" said Michelle Adelson, president of Copia Creative. "We want to create the idea of a conference, a training seminar or an 'all hands meeting' for the entire company."

For Adelson, streaming video of an executive's speech doesn't constitute a Webinar. A true Web seminar features interactivity, just like a live classroom. Interactivity allows companies to instantly measure if the sales reps like or dislike a new product, for example, or to test new employees on how well they retain information at the end of a seminar.

A Copia production brings together all the elements: video, both live and pre-recorded; slides and graphics; music and voice; a polling tool that allows for instant feedback to the content; and a mechanism to submit questions to the presenter.

"A good way to look at it is to compare it to a live event. It can be anything from a small group in an office to renting a hall with live entertainment," said Adelson.

Brand experience

Copia Creative has 15 full-time employees dedicated to Webinar production, but for a major project the freelance payroll can swell to more than 50 people. Although the staff number hasn't grown in the last year, Adelson said Copia has grown in terms of technical resources and broadcast-quality production values.

The company's clients include semiconductor giant Applied Materials Inc. and mobile telephone site

"As a creative agency, we've taken this technology and learned its ins and outs," said Adelson.

The transformation of the agency into a Webinar production house took only about three months during late 2004 and early 2005, according to Adelson. "We started asking: How can you extend a business's brand experience to its target audience, and what's the best medium to do that?" she recalled.

Webinars showed potential both as a creative medium and as a growth area for the agency. In particular, Copia met with technology providers to work out the logistics of Web production. "The same way we do strategic consulting for clients, we did that internally. We put together a road map, starting with research," Adelson said.

The initial cost of Webinar technology looms as an obstacle to luring companies into the field. In a Webinar about Webinars held last October, Suzie Cross of Revell Books said her company decided to upgrade its streaming technology and spent $10,000 on a single Webinar a huge investment for a small Christian publisher.

Many large companies invest much larger amounts in technology, or they can arrange with Copia to rent the programs for a fee. Adelson said the price of a single Copia-produced Webinar ranges from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the sophistication of the project.

Webinars also work for product demos or new product launches. Smaller businesses use it for B2B communications with their distribution network, or for sales meetings or rep training, she said.

'Bleeding edge'

Before launching Copia in 2002 with partner Matthew Puopolo, Adelson worked for Warner Bros. in online marketing. The company didn't produce Webinars, but Adelson tried to experiment with new online experiences using video. By starting Copia, she turned that experimental approach into a company.

"We're really on the bleeding edge of this technology, and it has not yet trickled down into the more mainstream areas," said Sharon Lisenbach, director of e-learning at North American Publishing Co., a major producer of Webinars. "Some of the obstacles are a lack of technical expertise."

As the Webinar niche grows, Copia faces competition both from in-house Webinar departments at large companies and from high-tech competitors. In March, Cisco acquired Webex, an online meeting software and service company, for $3.2 billion. At the time, Webex had 2,200 employees.

Even with big players in the market, Adelson foresees ample growth for Webinars and her agency. "As the technology grows and more people are comfortable with computers and high-speed connections, Webinars will become more common," said Adelson. "Whether consumers or businesses, once they invest in the technology, then they can continue to do more and more Webinars. To eliminate travel costs makes sense and businesses are definitely following that trend."

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