According to Collaborative Strategies, a research firm in San Francisco, the online conferencing market is expected to grow to $1.8 billion by 2002. And Forrester Research, a Boston-based research consultancy, predicts that Web conferencing will eclipse instant messaging as the fastest growing interactive service among big businesses over the next year and a half.

Will your firm be part of the growing ranks of Web conferencing users? If you’re looking for a simple, inexpensive way to communicate with clients, business partners, or remote employees, experts say Web conferencing is the solution. We talked to several vendors and users about the benefits of this emerging technology. Here’s their advice and some tips for getting started.

Eliminate travel expenses
Rik Chomko, managing director of technology for Calypso Systems, Inc., a Chicago-based technology strategy and application development firm, is one of a legion of IT consultants trading the hassle and expense of air travel for the ease of online conferencing.

Calypso conducts a combination of sales presentations and demonstrations during Web conferencing sessions. (Calypso used Microsoft NetMeeting, a videoconferencing application, over the last two years before switching to WebEx, an entirely Web-based tool.) For example, by “sharing” a desktop with a group in Italy during a recent Web conference, Chomko was able to demonstrate a tool set that Calypso uses and licenses to develop Web applications using Microsoft technology. During the online demo, Chomko’s group verbally communicated with the group in Italy via phone. (WebEx supports conference calls, but the company chose not to use those services because only two parties participated in this conference.)

The conference was not altogether perfect, but problems were minute, according to Chomko: “Everything worked fine except for a few minor glitches.” Maximizing a PowerPoint presentation on Chomko’s IBM ThinkPad running Windows 2000 caused the machine to automatically reboot. In addition, Chomko’s group could share the Italians’ desktop with them, but the Italians could not see Chomko’s desktop.

“Overall, it was a good experience, easy to get going, and much cheaper than a flight to Italy,” said Chomko.
Most Web conferencing services offer the following tools to enhance online conferencing.

  • Shared Web browsing—This gives users the ability to transport attendees to specific Web pages during the conference.
  • Polling ability—Presenters can get feedback from conference participants in real time.
  • Slide and PowerPoint presentations—Users can upload and manage slides.
  • Application sharing—This allows users to show any application on their desktop, collaborate on spreadsheets, and conduct software demonstrations.
  • Shared whiteboard collaboration—This feature may be used by all participants or controlled by the presenter. Participants can provide comments on materials and circle or point to one area of the whiteboard.
  • Text chat—This is used for structured question-and-answer sessions or more informal communication during conferences.
  • Mood indicators—These are signals that allow participants to let presenters know if they should speed up or slow down their presentation.
  • Tech support—Online chat with tech support during the conference and help buttons can aid participants with technical questions.
  • Large meeting service/event planning—Most Web conferencing services offer administration, scheduling, registration, evaluation, and archiving services for large online conferences and trade shows.

Web conferencing’s popularity is growing
Mayrasol Sison, public relations specialist for PlaceWare, Inc., a Web conferencing and online training service based in Mountain View, CA, credits the growth of Web conferencing to ease of use.

“All you need is a Web browser and a phone to hold anything from a small Web conference to one that accommodates the same number of people found in a large auditorium,” Sison said.

Placeware conferences can accommodate anywhere from two to 2,500 people. PlaceWare’s Meeting Center services are designed for smaller groups, and they also offer Conference Center services for larger groups.

Most Web conferencing services require that both the presenter and the attendees have a Java-enabled Web browser like Netscape Navigator 4.06 (or later) or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 (or later) with a minimum 28.8-Kbps Net connection. Some services also require downloadable software to facilitate presentations that require the presenter and attendees to have Windows NT 95 or 98.

“Setting up a meeting is a simple process of filling out the date, time, and length of the conference, uploading the presentations to be used, selecting any bookmarks, and creating polling questions,” said Nancy-Rose Netchi, vice president of marketing foriMeet, Inc., a Web conferencing provider based in Pittsburgh. “It’s all wizard-driven and very intuitive. Once you’ve uploaded the presentations or selected bookmarks once, they’re always in your account, and you can then choose whether or not to include them in a subsequent conference.”

Simon Hayward, vice president and research director for Gartner, a Stamford, CT-based technology research and consulting firm, confirmed the growth of Web conferencing services. “I’m certainly seeing increasing interest from Gartner clients. To date, [Web conferencing] has mainly been [used by] the high-tech area and by some pockets in financial services, but now it is starting to spread into the mainstream,” he said.

Netchi said she has seen an “explosion of acceptance” of the technology. “The fear factor has lessened,” she said. “We’re past the curve of early adopters.”

For consultants concerned about price, many Web conferencing services offer per-month or per-quarter subscription fees along with one-time charges for initial setup.

Chomko is among the true believers in the power of Web conferencing. “Cost is a major benefit, but I feel speed of delivery is just as appealing. When I say speed, I don’t mean the speed of the conferencing software itself, but the ability to speed up the decision-making process. The ability to demonstrate our Web application development capabilities within hours…versus days is of great importance,” he said. “In fact, recently, it enabled us to close a deal faster, eliminating the possibility of a competitor winning the engagement.”

Getting started
Chomko offered the following tips for first-time users of Web conferencing:

  • Just as you would for all presentations, practice. Try conducting the conference over a corporate network, from a home dial-up line, and from a DSL or cable modem connection. All of these different networks can potentially pose their own problems, so it’s best to discover these potential glitches beforehand.
  • Make sure the other group involved has the technical capability to participate in the Web meeting well before the scheduled demo. It really kills momentum when the other party discovers (after the meeting should have begun) that there is something incompatible with their machine or network setup that will prevent them from participating.
  • It helps to have a good understanding of the underlying technology involved in Web conferencing so you can quickly troubleshoot and resolve problems. Trying to get off-site, nontechnical people set up for conferencing can be challenging. We recently were demonstrating some applications to a potential client in Virginia, and while she was able to log in to a WebEx session earlier in the day, she was unable to get into our session. The only solution was to tell her to reboot her machine.
  • Finally, schedule the meeting in advance and send the participants the meeting identification and logon information to make sure everyone is prepared.

Is Web conferencing an appropriate replacement for in-person sales presentations and project meetings? How do you use Web conferencing technology to the fullest advantage? Post a comment below or send us a note.