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April 13, 2009

Web Conferencing an Even Stronger Value Prop in this Down Economy

By Patrick Barnard, Senior Web Editor, TMCnet


In this down economy, companies everywhere are slashing their travel budgets and adopting on-demand Web conferencing services to facilitate live meetings.
 
Interestingly, many of these companies are finding that they get better employee productivity and improved collaboration once they start making regular use of these Web conferencing systems (which in turn makes them wonder why they weren’t using Web conferencing more in the first place). Not to mention the fact that they can reduce their travel costs by as much as 90 percent.
 
Web conferencing is similar to audio conferencing, only it is done over the Internet using a computer and standard Web browser. The people in the conference still talk to each other over a telephone or speakerphone (in some cases, meeting participants will don headsets and communicate directly via the conferencing platform using VoIP) but the main distinction is they can also use their computers to share documents.
 
For example, a meeting presenter, moderator or participant can upload a PowerPoint presentation or other file into the Web conferencing system and share it with other participants, regardless of how many people are on the call or where they are located.

More specifically, the presenter can control which pages of the document are displayed for the other meeting participants, and can also use a cursor, or mouse pointer (or some other type of “markup” tool), to point to specific slide elements, in order to engage the audience. With the images synchronized with the audio, a live, interactive meeting can be carried out over a network in real time.

What’s more, meeting participants can “raise their hands,” by clicking on a button on the Web conference console, and ask questions, creating a freely-interactive meeting environment. Many of today’s Web conferencing platforms also support live Web chat, which allows meeting participants to freely enter questions and even communicate privately.

Some Web conferencing systems require meeting participants to download software in order to access and use the system – but most vendors now offer completely Web-based conferencing platforms, which means all a user has to do is enter a URL in their browser and log in.

Most platforms support live or streaming video, where full motion webcam, digital video camera or multi-media files are pushed to the audience. This is not to be confused with videoconferencing, which is live, two-way (synchronous) video communications between all meeting participants.

Today’s Web conferencing platforms are ideal for supporting virtual Web tours. This is where a meeting presenter takes participants through a virtual tour of a Website. In this type of meeting, URLs, data from forms, cookies, scripts and session data can be pushed to other participants, enabling them to take an interactive tour of a site just as if they were trying it out themselves.

Mainly for compliance purposes, many of today’s systems also now offer meeting recording. The Conference Group’s (News - Alert) Web conferencing platform, for example, lets companies record their presentations and archive them for future use. These recordings can be turned into podcasts, which means they can be played back on mobile devices.

Most systems today also offer polls and surveys, which allows a presenter to push questions with multiple choice answers out to the audience during the presentation. Most also include a whiteboard with annotation, allowing the presenter and/or attendees to highlight or mark items on the slide presentation or simply make notes on a blank whiteboard.

Today’s systems also include screen sharing/desktop sharing/application sharing, where participants can view anything the presenter currently has shown on their screen.
 
Most of today’s Web conferencing services are offered via the software-as-a-service model, which makes them analogous to a utility. Most services are offered on a per-minute basis, but many vendors also offer subscription models enabling companies to pay for unlimited use by the month or by the year. Very often these subscription models are based on the number of “seats,” or number of meeting participants. Some vendors also offer a server side solution which allows the customer to host their own Web conferencing service on their own servers.
 
For many companies the advantage of going with a hosted or SaaS (News - Alert)-based Web conferencing service is that it doesn’t require any up-front capital investment. That is to say, they don’t need to invest in any new equipment or infrastructure, nor do they need to purchase software licenses. This also saves companies money because they don’t need to use any in-house IT support people to monitor and maintain the system.

Most companies are discovering that the cost of a Web conferencing service is only a small fraction of all the travel-related costs they incur when they have employees conduct face-to-face meetings. So even though there is some up-front investment for the service itself, the cost savings in terms from reduced travel alone means there is a rapid return on investment for practically all Web conferencing systems.
 
Many vendors are now offering their Web conferencing services on a trial basis – which means your company can try out a few different services at no charge and see which one works best. This has also worked out well for most vendors: One major provider of Web conferencing service recently reported a 20 percent increase in business after they rolled out an introductory free trial.

The Conference Group’s ReadyShow on-demand Web conferencing service offers a range of features and capabilities which can be combined in different ways to create a more tailored solution for your business. This Web-based application does not require any additional software to be downloaded and the platform is upgraded automatically each time new feature or functionality is added.

ReadyShow supports Microsoft (News - Alert) PowerPoint, Excel and Word documents, and allows for multiple presenters/control passing, which means there can be multiple presenters during a meeting. The system also supports application/desktop sharing; hand raising, polling, annotation, file transfer, Web chat, recording and other advanced features. It also sports a “slide optimization” feature that improves slide transitions for slower connections. ReadyShow’s recording feature records both the audio portion and the Web portion of a meeting.

For more information about The Conference Group’s increasingly popular Web conferencing service, visit www.conferencegroup.com.

Patrick Barnard is a contributing writer for TMCnet. To read more of Patrick’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Patrick Barnard




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