Web Conferencing: Not as Scary as You Think
By David R. Woolley, April 2005
You’ve probably heard the buzz about web conferencing by now. Maybe you’ve even attended a web conference or two – an online meeting arranged by someone you work with, or a free “webinar” put on by some vendor. But it might not have occurred to you that web conferencing could be a useful tool in your own work. Or perhaps the thought has crossed your mind, but you’ve put off doing anything about it because the whole subject seems too big, too complicated, too fraught with peril, and you’re not sure how you would use it, anyway.
Consider this: in a typical week, how much time do you spend in meetings or phone conferences with people who don’t work in your office, be they clients, consultants, or coworkers at other locations? If it’s more than an hour or so, then it’s worth taking a look at how web conferencing could improve your communications and possibly even save you a lot of time.
Let’s start by looking at a few of the reasons you might have been avoiding web conferencing:
- Too hard to use. You might have visions of software with so many buttons and controls it resembles a jet cockpit. And, indeed, some conferencing software is pretty complex, particularly software designed for large-scale webinars with multiple presenters and hundreds of people in the audience. But software meant for small group meetings tends to be much simpler. If all you need to do is share what’s on your screen with a few coworkers, you can use stripped-down software that does exactly that, nothing more. Screen sharing software is so simple you can be an expert user within a few minutes. And that’s if you’re the meeting organizer. All your teammates have to do is fire up their web browser and go to the URL you give them.
- Too expensive. Sure, it’s possible to spend six figures installing an in-house, enterprise-level conferencing system. But the needs of a small organization or work group are not so grandiose. For a group of ten, for instance, you can find conferencing service providers that will give you unlimited use for less than $500 per year. That works out to about $4 per person per month. Considering the travel time you’ll be saving, web conferencing begins to look like a no-brainer.
- Too unreliable. A few years ago when web conferencing was on the ragged, bleeding edge of internet technology, getting it installed and working properly could be, shall we say, a challenge. Much of the problem was due to web browsers themselves, as the major browser makers tried to out-do each other with mutually incompatible (and often buggy) feature sets. But web browser software has settled down and become more stable, and conferencing software has matured, as well. Conferencing vendors have learned to make the user experience fairly smooth and painless, even managing to go through most firewalls without a lot of hair-pulling and reconfiguration.
- Too insecure. Of course, you don’t want your competitors — or even the wrong people from your own company — listening in on your meetings. Since just about everyone who uses web conferencing in business is concerned about security, every conferencing vendor has had to deal with this issue. You should certainly ask your vendor about security before you buy their service, but in general you can expect that your conferences will be protected by the same level of encryption that protects online credit card transactions. If this isn’t enough, there are some conferencing vendors who specialize in military-grade security.
“Okay,” I hear you saying. “Maybe web conferencing isn’t really so scary. But you still haven’t told me why I should bother with it.”
One word: Pictures.
Yes, pictures. You know, those things that are worth a thousand words?
A web conference is like a phone conference, only with visuals. Think of any situation where you might conduct a meeting by phone, and chances are there’s something you’ll all want to look at together. It might literally be pictures: an architect’s sketches, storyboards for a new advertising campaign, a graph of last quarter’s sales figures, even medical x-rays. Or it might be some other kind of document: a spreadsheet showing year-to-date revenue and expenses, a draft of a movie script, technical specs for a new product. Whatever it may be, most meetings go better when everyone is looking at the same thing.
Of course, you know this. That’s why the last time you arranged a phone conference you probably faxed or emailed something to everyone ahead of time. That’s fine as far as it goes, but what if there are last minute changes? What if after the conversation has started you realize you need another document? Even when you’ve managed to get all the relevant documents in front of everyone beforehand, the meeting itself can be frustrating. Does this sound familiar: “Wait, which paragraph did we just delete? I don’t see it. What page are we on, anyway?”
In a web conference, every participant sees whatever the facilitator is showing them at any given moment, so you can make sure everyone is literally “on the same page.” Any document on your computer can be pulled into the conference and shared with everyone at a moment’s notice. You can give a tour of a web site, or a software demo, or run through a PowerPoint presentation, as easily as if the other participants were sitting in your office. You can use markup tools like highlighting or freehand drawing to call attention to specific items on the page. And all the while, you and your colleagues are simply talking with each other the way you would in an ordinary phone conference.
In fact, it might actually be an ordinary phone conference. Many people hold meetings using a traditional phone conference, with a simultaneous web conference carrying the visuals. That’s the most universally accessible method. But if everyone in your group has a headset they can plug into their computer (cost: about $25) then you can save on long distance charges by letting the web conference carry the audio, as well. The technology has improved to the point where conversations carried over the internet usually sound just as good as conversations over telephone land lines – and better than cell phones or speaker phones.
Of course, this being the world of computers, there are plenty of other things you can do in a web conference that you can’t easily do in a phone conference. Things like seeing a list of who’s present, updated automatically as people join and leave the meeting. Or recording the conference so people who missed the meeting can play it back later. And if you have webcams, you can even incorporate live video, so you can see each others’ smiling faces.
But these are extras, like retractable sunroofs and heated leather seats in a car. Luxury features can be nice, but the important thing is getting there. And when it comes to phone meetings, sharing a common view through a web conference means you won’t be driving blind.