To make the best decision between audio and Web conferencing for a meeting, you must consider many variables, including technical resources and expertise, audience size, the type of material you’ll cover, and the level of interactivity you need. Your budget and the comfort level your audience has with technology may also factor into your decision.
We asked several experts in the Web and audio conferencing fields about the issues that should affect this important choice. They offered specific tips and questions to ask yourself to help define each meeting situation and choose the most effective meeting style.
Audio conferencing is defined as a voice-only connection of more than two sites using standard telephone lines. It is relatively easy to use.
Web conferencing is defined as live online synchronous communication. It provides greater opportunity for interaction but may be more prone to technical glitches.
Questions and answers
Trisha Harris, vice president of global market development at Premiere Conferencing, a provider of multimedia conferencing and collaboration solutions, said that it’s important to consider what both mediums have to offer before making your decision. She offered two sets of questions to help you make your determination:
- Do you only need to communicate verbally, without sharing visual data?
- Do you need to communicate with a large audience immediately?
- Will you need a standing virtual conference room—a dedicated dial-in telephone number that is accessible 24/7?
If you answer yes to these questions, you’re probably better off using an audio conferencing service.
- Do you need to collaborate on documents or share information?
- Would chat features—where participants can interact with one another individually without disrupting the meeting—make the gathering more functional?
- Do you need Web tours, which allow the presenter to control the participants’ browsers?
- Do you require playback features for participants who may have missed the seminar?
If you answer yes to these questions, it’s likely that you’ll have to use Web conferencing for your meeting.
The technical aspect
Audio conferencing is necessary where the Internet bandwidth is limited, slow dial-up connections are the only option, or when the Internet is not even available, said James Dias, vice president of strategic solutions and alliances at Sonic Foundry, Inc.
Indeed, the quality of the technology has a direct effect on how much attention your audience pays to your presentation. In the case of Web conferencing, high-resolution video that downloads quickly and clear, easy-to-understand audio is imperative, Dias said.
Some Web conferencing technologies are simply not ready for widespread use. Ruth Stevens said that Voice over IP—real-time voice delivered via the Web—is one such technology because when it’s used, the slides are often out of sync with the presenter's voice. Stevens is president of eMarketing Strategy and a customer acquisition and retention-marketing consultant specializing in business-to-business.
Jeanette Cates said that even if you choose Web conferencing, it’s critical to provide an alternative to being live online for your audience or team members. Cates, an Internet strategist for small business and author of Online Success Tactics: 101 Ways to Build Your Small Business, has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design and has worked in e-learning for over 10 years. As an example of an offline alternative, she suggested you allow participants to download a copy of your slides in advance so that they can take notes on them.
“This is especially critical for consumers with slow connections or those with only a single phone line,” she said.
But even when you use the simplest of technologies, you can have problems. For example, speakerphones can be quite troublesome. When there is an annoying echo or buzz, or it sounds like people are in a cave, it will definitely distract your audience, Dias said.
Consider different learning styles, audience size
Major factors in the decision to use audio or Web conferencing are your audience’s size, the type of material presented, and whether there’s the need for interactivity, Dias said.
“Web conferencing can be interactive, such as through polling or surveying of the audience, but it tends to work best for large groups of people and where the material includes lots of visuals,” he said. “However, if your audience is small and you require a high level of interaction and participation, audio conferencing works best.”
Dias said that even if the meeting materials contain no visuals, Web conferencing still works better for large groups than audio conferencing, because the video/audio combination is tremendously more effective as a teaching and communications tool than audio alone.
“In fact, research has long shown that audiences learn and listen better when they see and hear information,” Dias said.
Rosie Kitson, director of data conferencing at AT&T, agreed. Audiences learn and retain more when more than one sense in engaged, so adding visual information to audio enhances communications, she said.
Kitson recommended that you also consider your audience’s comfort level with different technologies when you make your decision. Are they more comfortable with the telephone or with using a computer?
“If it's a business presentation and all of the attendees have high-speed lines and experience in using them, then use Web conferencing,” she said. “If it's a consumer audience, audio conferencing is generally more acceptable.”
Keep it simple and cost-effective
Daniel Will-Harris, a consultant and former CNET author, said he tends to use a low-tech compromise between audio and Web conferencing.
“If I'm doing an online seminar, I create slides, either in PowerPoint or Flash, and simply tell people which slide to look at,” he said.
For working conferences in which he discusses concepts with clients and colleagues, he said he uses NetMeeting so he can share the screen on applications and help clients by controlling their computer.
“I've yet to find that video is really necessary for either seminars or conferences,” he said. “It always sounds like a good idea, but seeing a talking head doesn't really help.”
Making the most of your audio and Web conferencing
For tips from this same panel of experts about how to keep your invisible audience interested in audio and Web conferencing presentations, read “Tips for successful audio and Web conferencing.”