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How Conferencing Works

Web Conferences and Web Seminars
Web conferences let participants join in from anywhere.
Web conferences let participants join in from anywhere.
Wesley Hitt/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Web conferences and Web seminars allow groups of people to collaborate online using special software or Web interfaces. The unique power of Web conferences and seminars is the ability to share desktops, documents and applications with all the attendees. The audio portion of Web conferences and seminars is either handled through a conference call or over the Internet through VoIP and special headsets.

Web conferences and seminars are organized a lot like MeetMe conference calls:

  • An organizer sends out e-mail or text message invitations to join the Web conference on a certain day and certain time.
  • The invitation includes a link to the conference and a password or access code to enter. If the invitation is accepted, a reminder is programmed into the attendee's calendar application.
  • Once all the attendees log on to the conference or seminar, a single presenter controls the meeting. As presenter, you can share your desktop and other documents and applications. You can also hand control over to the other attendees and let them present.

The difference between a Web conference and a Web seminar is the group size and the amount of interactivity in the meeting or presentation. Web conferences are for groups of 10 or fewer people where attendees all have the opportunity to speak and present in turn. Web seminars are for dozens or even thousands of attendees where only a few presenters or panelists have the power to speak and share documents.

Here are some of the common features of Web conference programs:

  • Using common applications like Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Adobe Flash Player, presenters can create dynamic graphic presentations enhanced by audio or even streaming video.
  • Has the ability to create e-mail invitations with easy-to-use templates. The software also has the ability to schedule event reminders and follow-up e-mails.
  • Desktop sharing allows the presenter to display everything that's on his computer to attendees in real time. They see exactly what he sees. The presenter can also hand control of his desktop to any of the other attendees. Or, by changing presenters, any of the other attendees can now share his desktop with the rest of the group.
  • Document sharing and application sharing work exactly the same way. Although it's more common in small Web conference settings, a presenter can hand control of an open document to one of the attendees, who can then edit or change the document remotely. It's also possible to share applications without even loading the software on each of the attendees' computers.
  • File transfer allows you to post documents for download either before, during or after an online presentation.
  • Audio control allows the presenter to mute or un-mute panelists and attendees as needed. For larger Web seminars, it's typical to mute all attendees.
  • Whiteboards are shared virtual workspaces where presenters can cut and paste documents, graphs and images. By sharing control of the whiteboard, presenters can draw, annotate and edit just like they were scrawling on a real-world whiteboard.
  • For greater interactivity, presenters can give attendees chat capability or the option of instant messaging questions to the presenters.
  • Most Web seminar software also includes tools to analyze the success of a presentation. Presenters can take advantage of real-time polls and attendee mood meters. Some programs include the ability to monitor users' desktop behavior to see if they become distracted from the presentation and begin working on other documents. And if so, the program can tell presenters when their attendees' attention drifted and how long it lasted.
  • Web seminars can also be recorded for later use in presentations or training sessions or downloaded for on-demand playback on the desktop.
  • Some Web seminar software includes built-in video capability to stream directly from a Webcam or digital video camera. There are also more expensive Web seminar services that help create professional-quality streaming or on-demand video presentations for large audiences. We'll explain more about how these Webcast services work in the next section.

Web conferences and seminars work because they are hosted on a server. Images from the presenter's computer are constantly uploaded to the server and continuously "served" to the attendees in a process much like streaming video. Attendees are able to share desktops, documents and applications because those files are temporarily "living" on the server where anyone with the right link and password can access them.

Web conferences and seminars have dozens of applications in the business and private sector: new product presentations, distance learning at colleges and universities, remote employee training, collaboration on editorial copy, legal documents, architectural drawings and more.

Web conferences and seminars are easy to set up and can increase collaboration for small groups and increase interactivity and general interest in larger groups. A potential disadvantage is that certain Web conferencing programs only work for Windows-based PCs.

Now let's talk about video conferencing and Webcasts.