In today's global marketplace, companies have branches around the country and across the world, with clients and partners in Boston, Beijing and Bangalore. More than 11 percent of the U.S. workforce already telecommutes either full or part-time, and that number is continuing to grow. It is becoming very expensive and time consuming to fly employees around the world for face-to-face product pitches, training sessions and meetings. A viable solution to this problem is to use Web seminars.
Web seminars -- also called "Webinars" -- replicate large group presentations, training classes and meetings online without losing the immediacy and interactivity of the face-to-face experience. Web seminars are also referred to as Web conferences. Whether called a Web seminar, Webinar or Web conference, they are all online meetings where an organizer invites a list of attendees to listen or watch an online presentation by one or more presenters.
In this article, we'll introduce you to the basic concept and features of a Web seminar and explain how the technology behind Web seminars works. We'll conclude with some examples of how Web seminar technology is being used in real-world situations.
Setting up Web Seminars
Web seminars are easy to set up. Here's how an organizer sets up a Web seminar or conference:
- Using special Web-conferencing software that is integrated with existing e-mail, SMS (short-message systems) and calendar programs, the organizer sends an invitation by e-mail or SMS.
- The invitation contains a link and an access code for logging into the meeting or presentation. The calendar program reminds both attendees and organizer that it's time to join the group.
- Some invitations also include a toll-free phone number for the audio portion of the meeting or presentation that works like teleconferencing. Web-conferencing software includes VoIP audio to keep costs down and accessibility high. Others include videoconferencing capabilities.
- Once all the attendees have logged on, the organizer designates a presenter who controls the shared desktop and any shared documents and applications. We'll talk more about these important features and others in a minute.
The main differences between Web seminars and Web conferences are the group size and the presentation interactivity level. Web conferences resemble virtual meetings with fewer than 25 individuals in attendance. During a Web conference, each attendee is usually given an opportunity to speak, make comments and even take a turn as presenter.
Web seminars, on the other hand, are "one-to-many" or "few-to-many" presentations with attendees numbering in the hundreds or even thousands. Attendees of Web seminars usually don't speak or become a presenter, since it would take too much time.
Using common applications such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Adobe Flash, presenters can create dynamic graphic presentations enhanced by audio or even streaming video. E-mail invitations can be created with easy-to-use templates. Event reminders and follow-up e-mails can be sent.
During the seminar, desktop sharing allows the presenter to display items on his computer. Attendees can see what the presenter sees, and the presenter can hand over his desktop to any other attendee. Or by changing presenters, any of the other attendees can share his desktop with the rest of the group. In smaller Web conferences, a presenter may hand control of an open document to an attendee, who can edit or change the document remotely.
Other features include:
- File transfer allows documents to be available 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 for attendees to all be muted.
- 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.
Web seminars can be recorded for later use in presentations or training sessions or downloaded for on-demand playback. Most Web seminar software includes built-in video capability to stream directly from a Webcam or digital video camera.
Presenters can take real-time polls to analyze a seminar's success. Some Web seminar software programs include the ability to monitor users' desktop behavior to see if they become distracted from the presentation and begin working on other documents. If so, the program can tell presenters when their attendees' attention drifted, and how long the distraction lasted.
We'll explain more about how these Webcast services work in the next section.
Web Seminar Technology
Web seminars work because they're hosted on a server. Images from the presenter's desktop are captured, uploaded to a server and then downloaded by attendees who have access to the server feed. Web seminars require a powerful server that can capture, encode and encrypt several images a second and "serve" them back to hundreds or thousands of attendees at the same time.
Companies have two options when it comes to these servers. They can either buy a dedicated Web seminar server to host their seminars on-site, or they can subscribe to a Web seminar service and let the off-site provider worry about hosting. The choice depends on how frequently the company holds Web seminars, the average number of attendees, and the number of engineering and information technology personnel available to administer the server.
The ability to share documents and applications, not just desktops, relies on this same server technology. The document or application temporarily "lives" on the server, so that everyone can gain access to it. This also requires a tremendous amount of server power so that not only the images, but the actual functionality of the application can be replicated in real-time.
The second important technology behind Web seminars is high-speed, broadband Internet connectivity. Imagine that a presenter is using his cursor to point out important graphs on a PowerPoint slide. If an attendee's computer isn't able to download the screen images from the server fast enough, the scrolling cursor will jump and jerk across the screen instead of sliding smoothly.
Connection speed is particularly important if the audio portion of the Web seminar is being conducted over VoIP. Audio will come across as choppy and garbled at a connection speed less than 90 kbps.
Security is another important component of Web seminars. It's crucial for businesses to be able to use online seminar technology to hold large meetings, and it's equally important that competitors can't access these meetings.
As a first precaution, no one can enter a Web seminar without an access code or password. In addition, most Web seminar services offer Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and/or Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt all information traveling to and from the Web-seminar server.
Web-seminar software provides the tools and controls necessary to create and manage effective presentations. The software can either exist as a stand-alone package or as a smaller plug-in that integrates with existing office applications. Some subscription Web- seminar services can be managed entirely through a Web interface in your browser.
To stream a live video presentation online, first the video needs to be shot on a high-end digital video camera, not a Webcam. Then the video feed needs to be compressed into a digital code such as MPEG, Windows Media or Quicktime. Finally, the compressed signal needs to be encoded for transmissions and playback over an IP network.
As with audio Web seminars, there are several subscription service providers for Webcasts which provide many of the same tools -- off-site compression and servers, software tools such as invitation management, polling and reports, and even professional video production and editing assistance.
Now let's go over some of the most useful applications of Web seminars for businesses and organizations.
Web Seminars Applications
Marketing and Sales
The goal of every good marketing department is to generate leads for its sales representatives. If you've ever wondered why every city, big or small, needs a conference center, this is it. Conferences and trade shows allow vendors to reach the ears and eyes of thousands of potential clients.
With Web seminars, marketing departments have a cheaper, targeted method for generating leads without having to travel to the annual trade show. They can simply contact potential clients via e-mail and invite them to an online product launch or product demo.
Through the online registration process, they can gather useful information about the client and use that to measure the success of the presentation by business sectors. Web-seminar software makes it easy to generate reports about who attended and what they thought of the presentation. It's also easy to schedule personalized follow-up e-mails to direct potential clients to sales reps.
With the application-sharing feature of Web seminars, software or Web services companies can even conduct online test-drives of their new products.
Companies can save money by training new and existing employees through Web seminars rather than paying for dozens of separate in-person sessions. Depending on the group size, trainers can add different levels of interactivity to the training, from two-way audio to question-and-answer sessions.
For industries with strict compliance standards, Web seminars offer an easy way to document the employee's attendance. It's also easy to record the training session for future use or for employees who couldn't attend the live session.
More and more colleges and universities are adding online degrees. Web seminars offer a dynamic way to improve the quality and depth of the online learning experience. Rather than simply reading class materials, students can listen and watch live or on-demand online presentations.
As with employee training, depending on class size, students can have the option of communicating with the instructor and each other via audio, chat or IM.
With Web seminars, executives can gather their entire company at a moment's notice for important "town hall" meetings to share news and information of crucial importance to the company's success. These are also an excellent opportunity for company-wide Webcasts, which can be broadcast both online and on closed-circuit television systems. With the high-security standards of Web seminars, confidential information won't leave the "room."
Web seminars are an excellent example of how technology is changing the way we do business. With increasing computing power, broadband penetration and the use of mobile computing and communication devices, the traditional office might soon be a thing of the past.
Read on for more information about Web seminars and the technology that makes them tick.
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