Imagine being able to hold meetings with people around the world at a moment's notice without having to leave your office. A web conferencing solution provides a central online meeting place for people to get together regardless of location. With a few clicks of your mouse, you can present slides, run software training, or even hold brainstorming sessions using a whiteboard.
Businesses can use a web conferencing solution for a variety of purposes:
- Marketing events — product announcements, lead generation webinars
- Sales presentations — demonstrations, new product releases
- Training and human resources — employee orientation, customer training
- Financial and investor relations — shareholder meetings, briefs
- Internal meetings — collaboration sessions, all-company meetings
- Corporate, customer, and partner training — remote sales training, partner certifications
For any of these events, web conferencing solutions help slash the hefty travel and time costs associated with face-to-face meetings. Microsoft icon Bill Gates once remarked that web conferencing saved his company over $40 million in travel costs in one year. Most companies don't operate on quite the same scale, but if there's any business travel in your budget, web conferencing can certainly help reduce your travel costs.
Web conferencing also lets you hold meetings involving far-flung participants with little advance planning, unlike face-to-face meetings that require air travel, and can improve collaboration by encouraging improved communications among colleagues and partners.
Probably the greatest downside to a web conferencing solution is the obvious lack of face-to-face interaction and the relationship building it brings. Collaborative features like interactive polls and Q&A sessions can help bridge the gap, but more robust web conferencing solutions provide multi-person live video which can help bring facial expressions and body language into the virtual workplace.
This BuyerZone Web Conferencing Buyer's Guide will take a look at the functionality of a web conferencing solution, the services provided, typical costs, and how to purchase and install web conferencing, so you can get your company up and running in a flash.
Web meetings basics
To hold basic web meetings, you need three key items: a computer with an Internet connection, a web conferencing solution, and either a phone line or computer speakers to hear the presenter. That's it. To use services that include live video, participants will also need a web cam.
To set up a meeting, you simply use the web conferencing software to reserve a slot on a specific date and time. The software then lets you send invitations to attendees. Web meetings can range in size from 2 to 500 or more people. Generally, you'll purchase a software package or subscription that can accommodate your typical meeting size — you can always "buy up" on a per-event basis if you have the occasional larger meeting.
In the invitation, attendees receive a link to access the meeting, which usually takes only a few minutes with a high-speed connection. Some services may require you to download a plug-in or other software, which can be a hassle, so verify this before you buy.
Depending on the service you use, the invitation may also include a phone number for the audio portion (unless internet audio is being used) and/or a unique conference ID for the attendee claim their spot.
Other types of online web conferencing
As you add more features or a larger number of attendees, online web conferencing morphs into other types of conferencing. Here's a quick rundown of the different flavors available — but keep in mind that different providers use these terms in different ways, and the boundaries can be blurry.
A webinar is similar a web conference but is more of a one-way presentation than an equal conversation; they are used for structured events like training sessions and often include interactive tools like polls and question and answer sessions.
Webcasts include video to allow you to see the speaker, but the video is usually one-way. Web-based video conferencing provides face-to-face components to meetings to participants who have webcams configured.
Web based conferencing features
Many web based conferencing solutions are rich in applications that can make your meeting a dynamic, interactive experience. Here is an overview of commonly available features of web based conferencing:
For the presenter:
Screen sharing — "Desktop sharing" shows anything that appears on the presenter's computer, from a single chart or diagram to a complex application. "Application sharing" allows the presenter to select only one application so the audience cannot see other programs running on the presenter's computer. More advanced web conferencing applications enable users to define an isolated region of the screen so the presenter has full control over what the audience can view. All of these forms of screen sharing allow the session leader to pass control of the shared computer to other participants in the session. This feature is great shared moderator duties, collaborative projects, or student-controlled exercises.
Slide presentations — Instead of depending on screen sharing to show presentations, some solutions allow session organizers to upload PowerPoint or other presentations then advance through the slides in session. Not only does this consume less bandwidth, but it gives presenters confidence that the right slides are in place for each user.
White boarding — Easy-to-use annotation tools enable users to highlight specific elements on a slide, draw diagrams, and write notes live on screen to support brainstorming sessions. More advanced systems allow multiple users to annotate simultaneously to support a more collaborative environment.
Web touring — Display Web pages as you click your way through them. This can be significantly easier than verbal instructions such as "click on the third link from the top in the left hand side" to guide a person through a site.
File transfer — Send files to everyone at the conference at one time. Additionally, some web conferencing solutions allow participants to download the finalized version of a document that they were collaborating on and modifying during a session.
For the audience:
Live chat — Attendees talk amongst themselves and/or with the moderator through live person-to-person chat or group discussion. Most solutions offer both a "public" and "private" chat option, and the choice between the two options will depend on how collaborative the leader wants the session to be.
Q&A — Most commonly, a chat interface collects questions from attendees throughout the event for a Q&A session at the end of the meeting, allowing participants to play a more active role in the conference. More interactive events can do this informally, without a dedicated feature.
Polling — Gives the moderator instant feedback by providing attendees a set of questions with multiple-choice answers. You can view the results during the meeting and discuss the results, or analyze the data afterwards. Some tools also give the option of doing instant surveys or tests.
Help request — Attendees can quietly alert you that they don't understand something or need help with an application without disrupting the flow of your meeting.
Content Management — Part of holding a great online meeting is being able to easily access a library of stored content (commonly used PPTs, for example). Many web conferencing solutions allow users to have content associated with their company site or with a particular employee's meeting room to streamline meetings, especially spontaneous, un-scheduled ones.
There are other administrative, reporting, and infrastructure functions that some web conferencing service providers offer to enhance your meeting:
Web-based audio (also known as internet audio or "VoIP"): Broadcasts the audio portion of your conference via streaming audio, instead of a separate conference call. This way, participants with speakers can avoid audio conference calling charges and keep their phone lines free. Usually, this takes place in "listen-only" mode with participants able to hear but not to speak, although some solutions allow the speaker to mute and un-mute select participants, perhaps for Q&A purposes. Some solutions also allow the speakers to present via internet audio; however, they need a USB microphone.
Video conferencing capabilities: By adding a webcam at the presenter's location, attendees can view the presenter during the event. While there is some variation in video quality depending on participants' bandwidth, this video feed can help them associate a face with the voice guiding them through the conference. More advanced applications also incorporate multiple video feeds, so that demos, meetings and training sessions can be enhanced by seeing the faces of several to many participants.
Monitoring: Most web conferencing service providers have a participant window for you to view a roster of attendees as well as their web and audio status. You can also monitor who is entering your conference and bounce people you don't want at the meeting — a competitor or someone that didn't pay for access to a fee-based course, for example. Some tools also allow the session leader and/or speaker to use this participant window to quickly assess which audience members are paying attention-and which aren't. Finally, many applications allow the session leader to control the audio of participants (e.g., muting and unmuting) directly from this window.
Backup systems: Redundancy, or "conference continuation", allows the hosted web conferencing solution to seamlessly move to a second server should the first server fail unexpectedly. If the moderator loses the connection to the conference, the attendees are alerted to stand by while the connection is fixed. All meeting materials are stored so critical data is not lost.
While this addresses the potential downtime associated with problems with the web conferencing service provider, this does not cover the potential downtime due to computer, network or Internet connectivity problems experienced by the participants. While most providers guarantee nearly 100% uptime for their programs, they have little control over attendees' connections or hardware. To address this, some applications do incorporate automatic reconnect for users with poor bandwidth.
Security: Almost all web conferencing service solutions include encryption to protect your information. For some, Secure Socket Layers (SSL) — high-level security technology that protects and secures confidential data — is a critical security measure for any web conference. Some companies charge extra for it while others include advanced security measures in their standard software and pricing. For others, security is less critical — there's no need to pay extra to protect public meetings or simple sales calls.
Recording: Archiving allows you to replay part or all of a meeting. As the presenter or host of the meeting, you can use archives internally to review your work and find potential improvements for future conferences. More importantly, you can make archives of the event available to anyone you choose for future training events, sales calls, or marketing activities.
If archives are important to you, find what editing and exporting options are available from the web conferencing services you're evaluating. Some providers include editing features you can access through their web sites while others only permit you to download the entire presentation. You'll also want the archive available in a standard format that anyone can view later.
Reporting: Get conference activity such as full text chat transcripts or data from survey and quiz results. You can also find out when participants logged in and out and receive customized reports of how each attendee answered a particular question.
Integration options: Some applications allow you to integrate your email, CRM, or other software tools with the web conferencing system, allowing you to easily pass data between the two systems. They may also offer hooks that allow your developers to create custom integration with any applications you choose.
Emails and registration pages: Most web conferencing systems will help you create registration pages where potential attendees can sign up for your event. Additionally, many will allow you to create and customize invitation and confirmation emails to registrants, attendees, or both.
Hosted web conferencing software
Want to add web conferencing software as a communication tool for your company? Unless you plan on hosting a large number of meetings, you might want to start with an hosted service. Also known as software as a service (SaaS) or application service provider (ASP) model, hosted providers run the web conferencing system on their own servers. In most cases, there are no set up charges and you won't be locked into a contract right away, so a hosted service is a great way to evaluate a solution.
The process works the same as it does with in-house software, except you set up and run your event through a web browser. Note that some hosted conferencing systems may only work with Internet Explorer or PC operating systems, so be sure to check the software and hardware requirements if you prefer a different setup.
Hosted web conferencing services can save you from major expenses for servers and staff to maintain them. And if you only occasionally need to run a conference, a simple pay-as-you-go plan is cheap and doesn't lock you into any one vendor.
However, if you plan to run conferences regularly, look for a provider that offers unlimited usage plans. These providers typically provide different tiers of features and/or maximum attendee limits, and let you run as many meetings as you'd like.
Be sure to evaluate the provider's support services: if a problem comes up, you'll need to rely on their customer service instead of in-house IT staff. And, if you want complete control over particular features or extensive integration, you may want to consider installing your own software as hosted software can limit your customization options.
In-house web conferencing software
The more traditional method of delivery for web conferencing software is called in-house, installed, or on-premise software. By installing and hosting the web conferencing software on your company's servers, you get complete control of the system. You also get the ability to run as many conferences for as many participants as you like — up to what your infrastructure can support.
Costs start at $2,000-$5,000 — so you will pay more up front than you would for hosted services. But in the long run heavy users could save money because there are no per-minute, per-seat, or monthly charges. With in-house web conferencing software, you also have to invest in an IT staff capable of maintaining the product, acquiring updates, and quickly managing any problems. You may also need a dedicated server to run the application and considerable network bandwidth, depending on the number of attendees.
Most web conferencing software providers have trial programs on their web sites to allow you to test the system before making any decisions. This gives you the opportunity to try the tools and interactive elements before you commit to paying for the service — but keep in mind that some providers only offer "lite" demo versions that don't include the full feature set. You can also interact with the provider's live customer service reps directly to ask questions.
Choosing a solution
The web conferencing arena consists of providers that develop the product and host the conferences on their own servers, as well as resellers who offer technology and services from one or more providers. In general, a developer may offer better support since they developed the technology, but they may be more expensive. In contrast, resellers might offer web conferencing solutions at a more attractive price since they don't have overhead costs, but they might not have answers to all of your questions or the resources to provide adequate training.
Whether you choose to work with a provider or reseller, your decision might come down to which vendor offers you the products and services that best suit your business. In addition, the company you work with should be financially stable — you don't want to select a vendor whose future is in question because they may not be around the next time you need them.
What do you really need?
Understand your needs before locking into any sort of commitment with a web conferencing vendor. If there's a web conferencing feature you rely on the most — say PowerPoint presentations — find out which vendor offers the best functionality for that feature. These features may look the same on paper but can be quite different in actual use. This is why it's so important to take advantage of the free trial offers that many vendors offer.
Beyond specific functionality, it's also important that the vendor understand your particular "use case" — that is, the specific business problem you are trying to solve. If you're doing virtual events, for example, your feature needs may be different than someone who is just looking to host internal meetings.
When narrowing your options, make sure to get all proposals in writing, including all pricing and capacity details. Also check that there aren't any hidden fees. If you plan to use the product only sparingly, confirm that the contract shows all previously discussed price quotes for web and audio minutes.
Support options are essential
It's also important to recognize what support you'll need for web conferencing. If you select an hosted service, ask if they can accommodate the number of people you intend to invite. If you intend to install a licensed software solution, find out what resources you will need in house — such as specific IT staff — should problems come up. Find out what each company offers in terms of customer service. Do they provide live help 24/7, or do you have to leave a message and wait for someone to get back to you during their business hours?
Reliability of the service is crucial — you shouldn't have any fears of web conferencing reliability whether you hold a 3 a.m. conference overseas or a 7:30 a.m. meeting on Sunday morning. If you choose a hosted service, look for a service level agreement (SLA) that guarantees you won't experience downtime and backs up that promise with refunds or penalties.
Most systems strive for "four 9s" uptime — the servers hosting your web conference will be up and running 99.99% of the time, equating to less than half an hour per year of downtime. Keep in mind that your own network conditions aren't covered — the provider can't be responsible if your bandwidth doesn't allow you to connect.
Web conference pricing
Web conference prices have dropped considerably since its introduction. While the technology was very expensive when it first came out and was only suitable for larger companies, there are now providers and resellers that serve the little guys. They can provide basic solutions featuring audio, text chat, and application sharing for a fraction of what a full service with all of the bells and whistles can offer. See what other BuyerZone users paid for their web conferencing.
With hosted services, the least expensive option — pay as you go — is also the most common for those that will only use the technology occasionally. With pay as you go models, there are no set up costs and you're not committed to a contract; you simply pay for what you use. You pay $0.08-$0.40 per minute per participant for the web portion and another $0.08-$0.25 per minute per participant for the audio. Some providers may offer volume discounts depending on how many seats you use, or a blended rate of the web and audio fees.
You can also choose a more flexible plan that allows ongoing usage at a monthly cost of $50-$200 per seat. These plans have varying restrictions: some include overage charges for additional seats and minutes, others provide unlimited usage but cap the number of attendees who can join your events. There may also be a set up charge of up to $500.
Subscription models allow you to reserve rooms with a set number of seats for unlimited conferencing for the month. The costs can vary greatly — from $50 per month for basic web conferencing with minimal applications to $3,000 per month, which can get you a fully functional, branded corporate site. Keep in mind that most vendors will provide volume discounts if you increase the number of seats.
Large organizations relying on web conferencing as a regular part of business may choose to purchase licensed software to host the technical aspect of their web conferences in-house. Licensed web conferencing software pricing starts at around $1,000 and can reach the tens of thousands of dollars for enterprise-scale systems. You should also factor in the costs of annual maintenance and service fees as well as a dedicated server and the IT staff to support such an investment.
Web conference add-on pricing
Web cameras are an inexpensive addition to your web conferencing experience. A quality camera that lets you provide a live head shot of the moderator can be had for as little as $25. Equipping additional participants with webcams can also allow you to take advantage of solutions that offer "multi-point video" (multiple video feeds that display more than one meeting participant).
You can arrange for vendor-assisted web conferences where the vendor takes over most of the administrative duties of the conference. This may include confirming reservations, assisting with interactive features, and speaking with the moderator through a private line to discuss details before and during the conference. This frees up the moderator to concentrate on the actual content of the presentation. They can also provide additional training services. A vendor-assisted web conference costs $1,000-$5,000, depending on the size and intensity of the project. You can also often select to have an expert meeting or event "assistant" from the vendor to join the event to help with technical issues or monitor the chat.
There are also fees if you want the vendor to record and archive the content for future reference — about $50-$250 per meeting. Other fees to consider may include customizing your interface with a specific design or company logo.
Online conferencing tips
Arrive early. Web conference presenters should log in about 30-45 minutes before the start of online conferencing and make sure everything works properly (interface properly installed, sound is in place, etc.) to avoid hassles at the last minute.
Explore features. Most moderators only use a fraction of the online conferencing options available to them. To get the most out of the rich functionality that an online conferencing solution provides, you may want to use your dry runs and free demo periods to explore the different applications you can use to create a better experience for you and your audience.
System test. Encourage all attendees and participants to test their systems prior to joining the session. Most default email confirmations provided by vendors include a standard test-system link.
Using visual aids. With presentations, use detailed charts and graphs and keep text to a minimum. Remember slides should be a visual aid and you should be able to walk attendees through the presentation so there's no need to give them a lot to read on screen.
Partner up. You can share the responsibilities of running the online conferencing with one or more co-workers. For example, while you talk through the meeting and conduct group edits with your attendees, one of your co-workers takes questions and runs the live chat. This is typically called an "assistant" and many solutions enable you to designate participants as assistants in advance of the event. They will automatically have certain privileges, such as being able to "control" the floor.
This is a recording. The FCC requires you to notify all participants before the start of online conferencing that you plan to record the session. This is done either through an audio prompt that the attendee hears over the phone when they enter the conference, or an automated text message in the chat function.