Web conferencing is a new communications medium, and it's not quite like any other. It may share characteristics with other media, such as teleconferencing and live multimedia presentations, but ultimately it requires specific techniques for maximum effectiveness. Here are 13 ideas for creating more successful online events:

1. Keep It Simple
It's easy to become enamored with all the features that today's Web conferencing systems offer. Avoid the temptation to try all the bells and whistles if you're just starting out or if you're trying a new system. Master the basics: slide control, polling and messaging. Once you and your audience are comfortable with these elements, you can gradually introduce more sophisticated features, such as streaming audio, whiteboarding and application sharing.

2. Keep It Short
Live events of 60 to 90 minutes are most effective. If your program requires more time, consider breaking it into segments delivered over days or weeks. Build the presentation around three or four key messages to leave with your audience. Ninety minutes is enough time to interact with the audience – asking them questions for polls and answering their questions.

3. Get Off to a Fast Start
Spend no more than two minutes introducing the event and covering the features of the Web conferencing system. Then let the main presenter begin. This will give the event a fast-paced feel that will keep participants tuned in.

4. Ask Good Questions
Don't use a live event to ask pointless demographic questions such as "From where are you attending?" That kind of information can be determined in pre-event registration. Use the time in front of the audience to ask questions that collect critical feedback and measure the effectiveness of your message.

5. Use a Specialist
For live events of more than 20 participants, use one or more specialists in addition to the presenter to answer audience questions. The barriers to participation are low in an online event, so expect to receive more questions via the instant-messaging feature common to most Web conferences than in a typical face-to-face presentation. Using a specialist means that everyone who asks a question will get a personal response while the presenter stays focused on delivering his key points.

6. "Pre-Flight" Everyone
Pre-flight checks are usually Web pages provided by the event service provider that check the participant's computer to ensure it is capable of participating in the program. All participants should complete one.

7. Start with the Phone
To ease people into the technology, first use Web conferencing in conjunction with a familiar medium, such as teleconferencing. Let the teleconference deliver the audio, and let the Web conference offer participants a way to see visual material and ask questions without interrupting the program. Use the interactive features of the teleconference bridge, such as live Q & A sessions, to simulate a radio "talk show" format. As the participants become comfortable, you can migrate some of them to Internet-based audio to reduce the teleconference expense.

8. Keep Slides Simple
Web conferencing works best when slides are formatted with simple designs and a few consistent colors. Don't use full-screen photos in slides. These images will take too long to display for participants. When made "Web ready" for the event, flat colors and simple graphics will display quickly on the screen.

9. Plan Ahead for Software Demos
If a computer application is going to be demonstrated to the audience, select a Web conferencing system that supports application broadcasting. This allows the application to be shown directly from a computer. Practice with this a lot before the event to get comfortable with how it works and how it looks from the perspective of the presenters and the audience. Most systems require a plug-in to be downloaded and installed to capture and display what's on the computer screen.

10. Rent an Emcee
For important events, hiring a professional online moderator, who can conduct interactive polls and talk with a presenter while waiting for results to come from the audience, eliminates awkward dead air. A moderator also can smooth the Q & A process by asking prepared questions and gleaning the best ones from the online audience. Perhaps most importantly, these professionals know how to keep an online event moving when glitches occur and this allows the speakers to focus on their message, rather than worry about which button to click.

11. Test, Test and Retest
Once the event is staged and ready to go, make sure to test the links that will be sent to your registered participants. If the correct link isn't sent, the audience won't be able to find the event!
Also, double-check the phone number for the teleconference for participants and presenters. Problems like these are completely preventable with a minimal amount of due diligence.

12. Use Both Views for the Presentation
On program day, set up two computers, one with the presenter's view and another logged on as an audience member, to give a sense of what the participants are experiencing. Slides that are slow to advance for you may display quickly for the audience. This also will let you check the formatting and appearance of the visuals from the participants' perspective.

13. Don't Go Looking for Trouble
Glitches can happen during any type of presentation, in person or over the Web. In Web-based events, glitches are often an issue only if they are acknowledged by the presenter. For example, if the presenter clicks a button to advance to the next slide and it is slow to change, he gains nothing by telling the audience, "Gosh this sure is taking a long time to come up." Perhaps there is a slower-than-average Internet connection. Just make a mental note to advance slides a little sooner, and no one will be the wiser.

Dale Coyner is operations manager at Communicast.com, a Web events production company. He can be reached at dcoyner@communicast.com.

Article reprinted with permission from Meeting Planners' Guide to Using the Web, a supplement to Meeting News and Successful Meetings, September 2001.

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