I’ve been blogging a lot about webinars and for good reason: they are an effective way to get the message out to an interested audience at a very user-friendly cost. But what happens if no one shows up?

As so often happens, the conversation started about something completely different. Fred (not his real name) was telling me all about his company’s marketing program and mentioned that he had held a webinar a few weeks ago and was very disappointed at the results — apparently, no one signed up. That led to a discussion about what might have gone wrong, which yielded the following to-do list for a successful webinar:

1. The set-up: Why are you holding this webinar? What’s the message? Who’s the audience?
Do you have a new product release to tout? Then it’s a combination product marketing/technical update webinar. Existing product, new market? A company introduction with an industry luminary to attract new prospects. Every marketing event should have goals; defining these will determine the content and the mechanisms used to market the event.

2. The marketing: How do you reach your intended audience?
Market the webinar as you would any other customer-facing event. Send an email blast to existing customers and prospects; put links into newsletters and on the home page of your website; tweet about it; make sure that your partners know about it and can, if they are willing, put information about it into their outbound materials; mention it to everyone you know.

3. The prep work: Who is signing up? Are they the people you want? What do they expect from the event?
Most registration forms are fairly straightforward, asking for basic contact information. But this is an opportunity to gather so much more data: industry vertical, the most critical issue (from a short list) this attendee faces on this topic, free-form comments/questions for the webinar; opt-in for future webinars or mailings; how they found out about the webinar, etc. If the webinar is a one-shot blast of marketing material, the simple form may suffice. But if you’re interested in forming a longer-term relationship with the attendees, gather more information on them and their issues. Then reflect those issues back to the audience during the webinar — this establishes a connection early on in the relationship. But keep it simple — too many things to fill in may turn off people who are only mildly interested.

And if no one is signing up, re-evaluate. Is it the content of the webinar, the date of the event, the email list used? What can you change to try again?

4. Internal organization: Who’s doing what? When?
It’s likely that this is where Fred fell apart. Everyone assumed someone else was doing the email blast, inviting key accounts via personal calls, letting the reseller community know and monitoring how sign-ups were going. But this is an event like any other: create a to-do list for all up-front and day-of tasks. Assign these tasks and make sure there are deadlines and follow up to ensure that everything is done. For the first few events, it may help to create a NASA-style timeline for the day of, counting down until the “LIVE” button starts the audio to the attendees. Don’t forget the follow-up; as I’ve written before, too many companies fall flat here.

5. LIVE: Now what?
Putting on a webinar can be nerve-wracking. Set aside time for technical practice sessions and at least one content-delivery practice. Make sure the technical team knows how to give and take the controls, record the event, launch polls, answer questions in the chat window, etc. Speakers should know how to advance slides, how quickly/slowly/loudly/softly to speak, how the transitions from one speaker to another will be handled and anything that could be considered and emergency procedure (say their computer freezes or their connection drops — you do have a plan for this, right?).

6. LIVE: Is anybody out there?
If everything has worked up to the day of the event, there should be an audience. But if there isn’t, hold the webinar anyway. Put the recording on your website and create a way to capture who takes a look; let them submit questions that you’ll answer by email. Perhaps there was something missing in the content or PR for the original event that can be ascertained from the replay viewers.

7. Done: Now what?
Follow-up. At the very least, thank attendees. But there is so much more: consider posting the questions and answers from the webinar with the replay. Point attendees to the next webinar, if this is a series. Link to related materials, from within your company and to external industry resources.