Whether you need to launch a new product, run a meeting with participants in multiple locations, or provide training to off-site employees, hosting a Web conference may be the best solution.
As companies have grown and spread around across the country and around the world, they've seen an increasing need to connect staff in various locations for interactive meetings or training sessions -- and to communicate outside the company with far-flung stakeholders, customers and vendors.
Web conferencing can bring people together in the same efficient way that a conference call does. However, hosting Web conferences makes a broad range of communication options available beyond just speech. These can include multimedia, such as slides, video and interactive features, such as immediate response to online polls, screen sharing and live question-and-answer sessions. Knowing how to host a Web conference can help a company operate more efficiently and save money.
A Web conference is a virtual meeting at which people in different places exchange information in real time over the Internet or a company intranet. This may take form of a boardroom meeting transported online.
It also may be an interactive seminar or presentation distributed online and called a Webinar, or Web seminar. The material presented in either of these two ways can be recorded and provided later to a wider audience in the form of a Webcast.
While a company can buy the equipment and software and train staff to run Web conferences in-house, a less expensive option may be to use the services of a Web conference hosting company. These companies can provide everything from off-site servers to meeting planning.
In this article, we'll take a closer look at how you can host a Web conference -- from the technology needed to the steps in putting an actual conference together. We'll also consider the hosted conference solutions that can make this easier. And you'll also learn more about security standards, options for solo entrepreneurs and some of the newest technology available. Let's look first at why you should consider hosting a Web conference.
Why You Should Host a Web Conference
You may be asking yourself, "Why should I host a Web conference?" There are plenty of reasons for hosting Web conferences, starting with improved real-time communication, increased efficiency and reduced costs.
Web conferencing is still young. Only 30 percent of companies surveyed by Wainhouse Research have any type of teleworking initiatives, with Web conferencing the most common. But companies are realizing its potential.
For example, Desire2Learn Inc., a developer of Web-based learning systems in Ontario, turned to Web conferencing to reduce the cost of pre-qualifying sales leads among U.S. schools and colleges. Flying a salesperson to the West Coast could take two days and cost $800 -- for a one-hour meeting that could end without a sale [source: Small Business Computing].
Instead of flying out, sales reps now host a Web conference first with a prospective customer. The sales rep can show a PowerPoint slide presentation, give an interactive demonstration of the software and give customers remote access to a computer to try the product themselves.
Let's look at several other examples to show how Web conferencing can work effectively:
- For security, collaboration and visuals -- Tenix, an Australian technology company and defense contractor, uses Web conferencing for online project team meetings between its Melbourne head office and engineers in the field. The team can meet securely to discuss sensitive documents. They also can view and revise complex technical drawings and plans [source: Premiere Global].
- To include absentee shareholders -- Richardson Electronics, a manufacturer of radio frequency and microwave devices, combines its annual meeting of shareholders with a live, interactive Web conference for those who can't attend in person. Online participants provide their names, plus a meeting identification and key code to enter the meeting [source: Richardson Electronics].
- To get input from an entire region simultaneously -- The planning commission for southwestern Pennsylvania held a regional town meeting Web conference to discuss and get feedback from all parts of the region on a long-range plan for the area. Web participants heard proposals, viewed maps and plans, and offered their feedback online [source: Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission].
- To provide training -- Vicon Publishing Inc., a publisher of trade publications for research laboratories, offers several one-hour Web conferences per month covering everything from lab safety to animal facility design. Attendees dial in on a conference phone line and log onto a private Web site. Each presentation with slides is followed by an interactive question-and-answer period [source: Vicon Publishing].
A Web conference also can be useful in giving consumers and shareholders information they need during a new product launch, during a product recall, or at a time when news about the company needs to be explained or clarified.
For all of its potential benefits, hosting a Web conference doesn't have to be difficult. Go to the next page to learn more about the technology required.
Technology Required to Host a Web Conference
Let's take a closer look at the technology required to host a video Web conference. For basics, the Web conferencing provider needs a computer with an Internet link, a Webcam or digital video camera for live video, Voice over IP (VoIP) for real-time audio, software to coordinate the meeting, and enough space on a server and bandwidth to accommodate the conference.
Video Web conferencing technology can become complicated with add-ons that make conferencing more user friendly and interactive. For example, a video Web conferencing host may want prepared slide or streaming video presentations -- and that requires the software to create the presentations, like Microsoft PowerPoint and Adobe Flash. The host may need text chat and instant messaging programs to handle a live question-and-answer session with participants. Or the host may want participants to be able to participate by using their own Web browsers rather than special software.
Web conferencing programs bring Web page and Internet communication tools together to create an interactive meeting environment, where participants can share documents online and take an active role in a real-time decision-making process. The tools brought together in a Web conferencing program include:
- HTML, XML and ASP markup
- Java scripts
- Flash animation
- Instant messaging
- Streaming audio and video
These software programs sometimes mesh with a company's existing office communication applications, such as e-mail, calendar and messaging. This allows the Web conference host to automatically pull information such as participant names and e-mail addresses from existing sources, like an e-mail contact list, for conference invitations.
Depending on the program, Web conference presenters can also:
- Demonstrate or share software applications with participants
- Make up to 10 participants visible at a time, each in their own framed area of the screen
- Record the Web presentation as a podcast for later online viewing
- Interact with participants for chat, question-and-answer sessions or response to polling questions
- Use a whiteboard interactively with participants to diagram and share ideas
- Use audio controls to mute or unmute participants and control their volume levels
- Send e-mail invitations and reminders to Web conference, record registration and actual participation and follow up with post-conference surveys
- Gauge audience participation with mood indicators
A variety of vendors offer Web conferencing software, such as Microsoft Live Meeting, Adobe Acrobat Connect, WebEx Event Center and others. But rather than simply selling Web conferencing software for companies to use themselves, Web conference vendors usually bundle the software with hosting services, provided by a pre-set monthly fee.
On the next page, we'll look at how these bundled services can make Web conference hosting easier.
Using a Web Conference Host
You could handle all the details of a Web conference yourself -- from invitations and pre-planning to the event and post-conference follow up. But using a Web conference host can make the whole process easier.
Companies that serve as Web conference hosts specialize in the software and services to make an event run smoothly. Beyond the know-how and the technology, Web conferencing hosts also can take on some of the work to make your task easier.
On the most basic level, Web conference hosts offer the space you need. You can't have a Web conference without the server space and bandwidth to accommodate it. Rather than running a Web conference on your company's server, a Web conference host lets you and your participants log into their server using a link and access code.
Many Web conference hosts also eliminate the time and expertise needed to install and maintain Web conference software in house. Both you and the participants can take advantage of features such as chat, file sharing, whiteboard, simple polls and results sharing, and streaming video without any special software. However, you may need to download software for interactive features like complex polls and remote control of a participant's desktop.
And Web conference hosting companies provide trained support staff, such as event managers to handle registration and set-up details, and live-tech support to answer questions before the conference or deal with any technical problems during the conference.
The Web conference hosting companies vary in how they price bundled software and services. The most common ways are:
- Flat monthly subscription: A monthly fee covers services for as many Web conferences as you need to make during that time
- Pay per use license: One-time or yearly fee, plus a per-minute charge for each conference
- Shared seat license: One-time fee, plus a charge per participant (seat)
- Named user license: Yearly fee, plus a charge per conference initiator (named user) per year
Larger companies can buy multiple licenses based on the individual license rate.
If you plan to use a Web conference hosting company, you have dozens of options. Beyond cost and type of license, here are some other factors you may want to consider in making your choice:
- System requirements -- most conference software is designed for the Windows operating system.
- Specific functions you need in software: Do you plan to use the whiteboard? Chat? Interactive surveys? Meeting recording?
- Specific services you need, like an events manager to help you
- Ease of use, both for any needed software installation and for functions you'll be using during a Web conference
- Security, in terms of meeting accessibility and the vendor's system-level encryption and certified security
- Vendor's depth of product and expertise in Web conferencing
- Customer service, based on other companies' experience
No conference will be a success without appropriate planning. In fact, you probably will find yourself spending more time on planning than at the conference itself. Look on the next page for more about planning a successful Web conference.
Planning a Web Conference
No Web conference will run smoothly without adequate planning. Planning a Web conference doesn't have to be complicated. Think of your Web conference planning as like that for any live presentation -- but with some technological considerations thrown in.
Probably the first step is recognizing that you can't wait until the last minute to plan a Web conference. You'll need to start early. For instance, you'll need to line up a hosting company, if you don't already use one for your Web conferences or handle them in house.
While every Web conference varies, here are some steps to help you in planning yours.
- Define what you plan to accomplish and limit yourself to what can be covered in the Web conference time allotted.
- Contact the hosting company, if you're using one, to arrange a date and time for the Web conference, to cover basic details (like system requirements for the computer you will be using), and to get links and access codes to send to participants. Consider scheduling an extra half hour in case the conference runs long.
- Decide who should attend, and use the conferencing software to invite them. Include the link and access code they'll need to participate.
- Create a one-page, timed agenda. Based on that, gather content for the meeting, including spreadsheets, presentations and documents. Create or assign someone to prepare the material for use by the conferencing software. Pretest these materials.
- Recognize that simply watching someone talk isn't going to keep participants' interest. Keep it lively! Use the technology available to vary activity with video or slides, interactive polling, application sharing or whiteboard.
- Create at least one slide that will appear when participants log in so that they know they're at the right Web conference. This could include the agenda or resources cited during the conference.
- Determine participants' expectations, let them know how they should prepare, and send them any needed materials in advance. Include a reminder of the link and access code.
- Prepare an online survey that you can have participants complete (or that you can e-mail to them) after the conference to get feedback.
- Practice enough so that you know how to use the moderator tools to respond to questions or let participants show their material to the group.
- If possible, run a dress rehearsal of the Web conference -- or at least any presentations -- a week in advance and make changes as needed.
- Have someone else in your company act as on-site tech support during the Web conference so that you can focus on hosting it.
- Arrive at least half an hour early to open the conferencing software before the meeting starts. Make sure connections and content are working properly.
- Record the conference for those who can't attend.
- After the conference, send a thank-you e-mail to participants asking them to complete the survey. Tally and use results of the survey to improve future Web conferences.
Security is a vital consideration in planning a Web conference. You want to make sure only invitees attend -- and you want to know that system security is tight. Next, we'll look more closely at security issues related to Web conferences.
Web Conferencing Standards for Privacy and Security
As the use of Web conferencing has grown, both companies that participate in it and the companies that provide Web conferencing software and hosting services have recognized the need for Web conferencing standards for privacy and security.
Web conferencing privacy protects personnel records, as well as the private information and participation of individuals involved in a conference. Web conferencing security protects information that a company or government agency doesn't want to share because it could affect the company's plans or profits, or national security. Web conferencing standards would help to protect both of these needs.
As with any activity that uses the Internet, Web conferencing comes with the risk that hackers and company rivals may listen in on a conference or take information from it. During a Web conference, data is stored temporarily on a shared Internet server -- belonging either to the company itself or to the company providing hosting services. That's the time when the data becomes most vulnerable to theft.
As protection, most Web conference hosting companies take a three-part approach to data security during a Web conference:
- Encryption with Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology to make the data unreadable to anyone other than the intended recipients.
- Non-persistent data flow. Encrypted data is kept switching constantly between the host's computer and the participants' computers instead of being stored on one computer.
- Intrusion control, which scans the network for unauthorized users and shuts down a transfer port to deny them access.
While each hosting company has its own security architecture, they all conform to informal industry standards. Internet standards -- like those for Web conference security -- often are based on specifications developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Manufacturers, Web hosting companies and others then voluntarily agree to standards and follow them.
Recognizing the need, the IETF set up the Centralized Conference Working Group (XCON) in 2003 to recommend standards for Web conferencing. XCON is developing a standardized suite of protocols for multi-media conferences where strong security and authorization requirements are needed. While XCON is still working on parts of this, companies are using some completed recommendations in their security architecture. That's why you may see XCON mentioned in hosting companies' descriptions of their security systems.
As the host of a Web conference, you can take action to make sure the conference has adequate security. Here are some things you can do:
- If you're using hosted services, check how the company ensures conference security and make sure that meets your needs. The companies usually provide detailed information on their Web sites and can answer your questions. Look for compliance with IETF or XCON standards and certification by a third party.
- Send invitations over secure e-mail and only to a carefully culled list. If the conference involves sensitive information, you may not want to publicize it outside this group.
- Screen new entrants during the conference. Watch for uninvited participants and terminate their access. Web conferencing software often has this capability.
- Decide which information should be made available to which participants -- and at what point during the conference. Everyone may not need access to sensitive information, and it may only need to be "on the table" for a short time.
Finally, don't stop thinking about security when the conference ends. For example, make sure a hosting company deletes confidential data from their server immediately after the conference. Limit access to the recorded conference and, if you're providing a podcast of the conference, edit carefully to remove sensitive information.
Next, let's consider the Web conferencing options available for solo entrepreneurs.
Solo Entrepreneurs' Web Conferencing Options
If your focus is sales or you work with clients around the country, you may be one of many solo entrepreneurs who are considering their Web conferencing options. Not having to make the trip from San Francisco to Pittsburgh to meet with a client could save you considerable time and money. But are Web conferencing options inexpensive enough to be worth considering?
The answer can be "Yes." While solo entrepreneurs and small businesses may not be able to afford some of the extensive offerings from Web hosting companies, less expensive small business Web conferencing software and services are available.
You don't need much to host a simple Web conference with only a few participants. If you have a computer with an Internet link, a Webcam, a phone or Voice over IP (VoIP) for real-time audio, and software to coordinate the meeting, you're set.
Let's take a closer look at several Web-hosted solutions that market to individuals or small businesses.
Adobe Acrobat Connect can provide you with an online personal meeting room for under $40 per month or $400 per year. The service includes unlimited online meetings any time with up to 15 participants. Features include screen sharing, whiteboard, chat, audio and video, as well as multiple levels of security. Unlike some services, this works with Mac OS X.
GotoMeeting.com, from Citrix Systems, allows you to organize and host unlimited online meetings with up to 15 participants for $50 per month or $460 per year. The cost includes meeting start-up from e-mail and instant messaging programs, screen sharing, screen drawing tools, chat, attendance reporting, application sharing and desktop meeting recording and playback, and advanced secure-communication architecture.
IBM offers a low-cost solution with Lotus Sametime Unyte Plus. It includes screen sharing, pointer and annotation, one-click session scheduling, remote assistance and SSL (Secure Socket Layer) encryption. Pricing ranges, depending the number of participants, from $30 per year for host and one viewer to $100 per year for host plus four viewer and $450 per year for host and up to 24 viewers.
New technology is providing new directions and more options for Web conferencing. Next, let's see what is ahead.
New and Developing Web Conferencing Technology
Web conferencing has changed how companies do business, and with new and developing Web conferencing technology, even more change may lie ahead. Two of these additions to Web conferencing technology are VoIP audio and HD conferencing.
VoIP, or Voice over Internet protocol, is a developing Web conferencing technology. VoIP converts analog audio signals into digital data that can be transmitted over the Internet. Web conferences relied initially on phone lines to connect participants and host so they could interact in real time. Now, however, some companies are using VoIP so that audio communication is simply between computers and without phones.
Other than VoIP software, all you need for computer-to-computer audio are a microphone, speakers, a sound card and a fast Internet connection.
HD conferencing is a new Web conferencing technology that may not be for everyone. The HD refers to "high definition," as in HDTV. HD provides a picture of sharper resolution because of an increased number of progressive scan lines across the screen. Usually, HD refers to 720 progressive scan lines or better across the screen at 60 seconds.
Applied to Web conferencing, HD provides clearer, sharper images for the conference. But at this point, the technology has its limitations. For one thing, you need a Webcam with HD capabilities, limited at this point to a handful including the Logitech Quickcam. Added to that, HD requires much more bandwidth than standard video conferencing, limiting its use across the Internet.
But Web conferencing companies are exploring the technology. WiredRed Software's e/pop video and Web conferencing software, for example, can incorporate an HD Webcam. As HD technology advances, it may find more of a home in Web conferencing.
For more information about Web conferencing and related topics, check out the links on the next page.