Meetings are easy to arrange when the participants work in the same office
or even the same city, but the picture changes dramatically when attendees are
divided by distance. Face-to-face meetings require plane tickets and a host
of logistical challenges. Teleconferences require advance faxing or e-mailing
of presentation materials as well as special efforts to keep everyone on the
same page. They also lack the hands-on collaboration capabilities that are frequently
vital to a productive session.
Now the Internet has given rise to an attractive alternative:
meetings convened in a virtual conference room that is accessed via Web browser
on users' PCs. Complete with visuals that can be annotated on-screen, text-based
chat and/or live audio for dynamic discussion, and in some cases, even the ability
to work on documents as a group and poll participants electronically, Web conferencing
is truly the next best thing to being there.
First, let's take a look at how Web conferencing works. Then we'll
hear from one company that regularly holds meetings online.
Easy to Schedule, Easy to Attend
With a best-of-breed service, setting up a Web conference is a simply a matter
of going to the service's Web site and filling out a form. Just indicate when
you want to meet, who will attend, and a few other particulars. The service
will automatically issue e-mail invitations to all individuals on the list,
reducing administrative chores for the organizer. There is usually no special
software to download, either for the presenter or the participant. Once you
know the ropes, you can schedule a Web conference in just a few minutes.
the conference itself, all participants can see the desired Word document, spreadsheet,
PowerPoint, CAD drawing, online software demo or other visual on their screens
at the same time. (The best services preserve the slide builds and other animated
capabilities of offline PowerPoint presentations for full impact.) If the service
is state-of-the-art, the meeting presenter can point to, highlight or underline
key ideas or features – just as in a live presentation – and different people
can take control as desired. Services that offer collaboration capabilities
allow changes to be made to a document online while everyone watches. Some systems
also support broadcast video for large keynote or public addresses.
Live and/or Virtual Audio
At its most basic, Web conferencing can be combined with telephone conferencing
for live audio communication. Most services also offer chat capabilities for
text-based interaction, and the most sophisticated systems offer the ability
to speak over the Internet through users' computer speakers and a plug-in like
Real Networks' RealPlayer. This VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) option allows
participation by those with access to only one telephone line, and it also saves
the cost of long-distance conference calls.
Online Survey Tools
Some Web conferencing services offer polling capabilities that allow presenters
to ask questions of participants at any time before, during or at the end of
the meeting and then instantly publish the results. This makes it possible to
receive immediate feedback without requiring attendees to voice their opinions
out loud – a valuable means of building consensus in colleague-to-colleague
meetings and of gauging customer reaction to a product or service when the Web
conference is held between a company and its clients or partners.
Post-Conference Reporting and Archiving
Top-of-the-line services allow presentations, documents, annotations, chat and
other elements to be archived for later playback, enabling participants or even
those who could not attend to go back and review the proceedings. Some systems
also can generate reports indicating who attended, how long they participated,
when they departed, and so on – all capabilities far above and beyond those
available with teleconferencing.
One Company's Experience
NetScout Systems, a publicly traded developer of network monitoring solutions
for e-business, began conducting online meetings using Astound's Conference
Center service in late 1999. Pat Kennedy, NetScout's Senior Webmaster, first
turned to the service for a quarterly employee meeting that allowed the company
president to communicate directly with employees stationed in sales offices
around the country without requiring them to travel to corporate headquarters
in Westford, Massachusetts. Since then, the firm has used the service for other
quarterly meetings, smaller meetings between salespeople and the company's reseller
partners, and even sales and partner training for new product rollouts, usually
utilizing PowerPoint presentations.
our experience, Web conferencing is far superior to a traditional conference
call because of the added visual elements,"
Kennedy says. "We've
found that people stay much more attentive and retain more than on a normal
conference call because of that visual reinforcement, and we've also extensively
used Astound's quick-poll capabilities. That ability to have immediate and
anonymous feedback is important for us because it allows us to get a quick
read on how clients view our technology or how our own employees feel about
a particular issue."
Different services have different pricing models, but a Web meeting can cost
as little as $20 per person for an event – and it costs the same whether you
meet for one hour or three. While the cost advantages over paying for long-distance
travel are obvious, Web conferencing is also competitively priced when compared
with telephone conferences – especially when using the talk-over-the-Internet
option that eliminates the need for a conference call. Add to that the soft
costs of not wasting time flying or even driving across town, and the return
on investment can be practically immediate.
That's just one more reason to hold your next meeting on the Web.
We already shop, trade and even bank in cyberspace; Web meetings are the next