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.

You-Are-There Visuals
During 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.

"In 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."

Quick ROI 
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 frontier.


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