Not sure about the difference between webcasting and live streaming? The difference between webinars, web conferencing, and video conferencing? The difference between hybrid meetings and hybrid events? This article explains these common terms in the online broadcasting industry to clear up the confusion.
The first section just covers the basics. The second dives deeper into some of the history and nuances of webcasting, streaming, and web conferencing.
Webcasting and Streaming
From a technical standpoint, webcasting and streaming are the same. Both refer to delivering a constant feed (or stream) of video or audio over the internet as the audience watches or listens. This is in contrast to a file that the audience downloads or views using a storage device like a DVD. Webcasts and streams can be live or pre-recorded and often have both in-person and remote audiences.
Where webcasting and streaming differ most is in their content (see The Details section below for additional differences). Webcasting is often used in professional settings like public meetings, conferences, and webinars. Streaming is often used in entertainment industries like TV, sports, gaming, social media, and music- and video-on-demand services like Spotify and Netflix.
Live Streaming and On-Demand Streaming
People often use the word “streaming” alone to refer to either live streaming or on-demand streaming. While the full names are self-explanatory, the common shorthand can create some confusion. Just remember that streaming refers to the method of delivery discussed above, not to the timing of the content.
Video Conferencing and Web Conferencing
Video conferencing is straightforward. It refers to real-time video and audio calls between two or more participants. Think FaceTime or Zoom. Video conferences can have an audience, but if the audience members do not have video and audio capabilities in the meeting, you would not consider them part of the video conference.
Web conferencing is not straightforward. It is a broad term for online meetings that varies in definition from source to source. My preferred definition is one that fits the name: if you consider something to be a conference and the participants are communicating on the web, then it’s a web conference. Since the other terms on this page should cover most situations, it is often easier to avoid the term web conferencing if possible. See The Details section below for a deeper discussion.
A webinar (web + seminar) is a subset of webcasts where one or more hosts present to an online audience, often with interactive capabilities for the audience like Q&A or polling. Hosts may use video conferencing software or webcasting companies to run webinars depending on needs such as customization and interaction.
Hybrid Meetings and Hybrid Events
A hybrid meeting is any meeting where some participants are in person and some are virtual. These meetings may be closed door or have an audience, and an audience may be in person, remote, or both. The simplest form of hybrid is a meeting between co-workers in a conference room where one or more participants joins remotely.
Some people refer to hybrid meetings with an audience as hybrid events, though the term hybrid meeting is still acceptable. These events vary in size and complexity depending on the number of presenters, audience members, and interactive features. They can even include multiple in-person locations. Our hybrid meeting infographic gives an idea of what a single-location hybrid event looks like.
A Bit of History
The terms webcasting and streaming in the online media context were both coined around the same time in the mid-1990s. Merriam-Webster actually lists the first known use of both “live stream” and “webcast” as 1995. Webcasting became the preferred term for about the next decade and a half. Not until the big video-on-demand services like Netflix came along did streaming become a widely used term for broadcasting media online.
Webcasting and Streaming Today
Since Netflix and Hulu came along and made streaming a popular term, most entertainment industries have adopted it. Webcasting still remains the dominant term in many professional settings. However, it is not uncommon to hear the term streaming in these settings since people encounter it so often in their free time.
One way to remember the appropriate term is to think about the audience. If the audience is there strictly for entertainment, you would usually call it streaming. If the audience is there for educational purposes, you would usually call it webcasting. That education might be work related, school related, or simply for personal knowledge. This is not a strict rule, however. Some glaring exceptions are businesses that stream work-related content on social media platforms and all of the work- and education-related content you can watch (stream) on YouTube.
These terms will continue to evolve. The best you can do is pay attention to how people use them. You can usually guess right most of the time. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (and Ted Lasso) on a slightly different subject: it’s not easy to explain, but you know it when you see it.
More Differences Between Webcasting and Streaming
As I hinted at earlier, content is not the only difference between webcasting and streaming. Each of the differences below has exceptions, but you can rely on them as general rules.
Webcasts are more customizable.
Since webcasts are typically professional events like public meetings, hearings, conferences, and seminars, they require planning and often specialized equipment. An individual or business can run a webinar with just a computer and a good internet connection. Anything beyond the capabilities of video conferencing tools, however, requires professionals with specialized hardware and software to handle the more complex stuff: audio for the room and broadcast, camera placement and operation, video production, broadcast hosting, interactive feature integration, and more.
Streaming, on the other hand, can be done with a wide range of technology. It can be as simple as using your smartphone camera to stream on Facebook Live whenever and wherever you want. On the other end of the spectrum are live sports streams, TV streaming services like YouTube TV, and video-on-demand services like Netflix. This kind of streaming requires robust data and web player hosting capabilities on a custom-designed webpage or app.
While that production process does use specialized hardware and software, it is specialized for the viewing technology (TV and movie screens) rather than the delivery technology (such as streaming). This kind of production includes large teams operating expensive equipment to create 4K, NFL- or feature-film-quality content. That production is far different from (and beyond) the typical needs of a business hosting a conference or meeting that most viewers will watch from a smartphone or computer screen.
Webcasts have more interactive features.
Since webcasts are informative and educational, they often benefit from interaction between the presenters and remote audience. Webcasting companies design their software platforms with these needs in mind, providing capabilities such as Q&A, polling, quizzes, and verification. Even video conferencing services offer some rudimentary interactive features for webinars.
Streaming, on the other hand, usually involves little to no interaction. This technology is typically confined to the same capabilities as social media posts, such as commenting or liking. Some streams have live comment threads or emoji animations at the moment people react to the content, but that is usually about it.
Webcasts are more customizable.
Webcasting companies offer many customization options. This is particularly true of webcasting companies that have their own in-house software platform (as opposed to licensing one from another company). Webcasting customization includes things like dedicated registration pages, client branding, custom modifications to interactive features, and more.
Streaming is typically confined to the format and content options of the host service. This may include color options, a client logo, and a description section, but most other customization options are rare. Live sports, TV, and video-on-demand services often build streaming web pages or apps themselves and face fewer customization limitations. Yet, the design and features of the web page or app are often fairly universal across all content. Webcasting, on the other hand, often includes customization specific to the content.
A Deeper Dive into Web Conferencing
Of all the ambiguous terms here, web conferencing holds the ambiguity title. Web conferencing is at minimum video conferencing, but definitions often encompass more. Most definitions include non-video conferencing that takes place online, such as audio calls and sometimes chat sessions. Google “web conferencing” and you will see that many definitions (such as the one on Wikipedia) include webcasts as a subset of web conferences. These sources do not usually discuss live versus on demand, however. So, it is not clear whether an on-demand webcast of a web conference is still considered a web conference.
It is also important to note that when someone mentions web conferencing tools or software, they are usually referring to video conferencing software intended primarily for computer use (such as Zoom or Skype, but not FaceTime) and possibly webinar software. This excludes streaming and webcasting technologies beyond webinar software.
I know that was a lot of information. I hope you came out at least a little less confused than you went in. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.