Ahead of the Curve

What if you gave a meeting and most of the registrants stayed home? It would mean a pink slip for most planners, but not in today's Web-enabled biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors, where thousands of delegates attend remotely, by "Webinar" or audioconference.

Webcasting is already a $500-million business, much of which is coming from pharma/biotech. And along with Web-enhanced audioconferences, it's becoming an invaluable adjunct to traditional meetings, connecting people when they can't be there in person.

New Term, New Uses

Conferences with an Internet component, often called Webinars, are increasingly common across the entire medical field because of changing business circumstances. "The situation that pushed medical-industry meeting planners to finally jump in and use the various Internet applications was the reaction after September 11, when nobody wanted to travel and planners received many cancellations or never even heard back from prospects," says Dave Anast, publisher of the Biomedical Market newsletter www.biomedicalmarket-news.com. "It's clear that the meetings have recovered from that setback, but live Webinars and other types of Internet-based courses, conferences, and seminars have become a potent and permanent factor in the marketplace."

While delegates are returning to conferences, travel costs and being away from the office to attend meetings are simply not as attractive as in years past. What's more, foreign scientists, executives, and others are finding it more difficult to travel to the United States, so a robust technological alternative is appealing to them.

How appealing? Consider this: In mid-2001, Anast would get perhaps four press releases each month announcing a biomedical Webinar. Today, he receives four a week.

Real ROI

Some of these events can be as intense as a traditional in-person meeting. "For Novartis, we had an eight-hour Webcast in total, with six hours of presentation, an integrated slide show, and an audio press conference," says Mary Anne Pierce, CEO of New York City-based MAP Digital.

For obvious reasons, then, not only delivering the conference via video but also capturing and posting it for future viewing "can really enhance your ROI if it's done correctly," says Pierce. "If a firm has a new drug, the goal is to reach the thousands of doctors who would write the prescription. So you want to get the content up as fast as possible. This way, you capture the momentum of the event, but also remember that there's a long shelf life for this kind of on-demand content. People come back to it months later." And on the back end, posting presentations on the Web saves big bucks. "When one of my pharmaceutical clients sent out the conference presentations on CD-ROM, she had a $70,000 UPS bill," adds Pierce.

In the pharma/biotech niche, planners are finding ways to use the Web to pare down their budgets throughout the whole conference cycle. "By putting the brochures on the Web, conference providers and associations save money on printing and mailing brochures that many people don't open anyway," says Anast. And even on the audioconference side, significant savings can be seen. Siva Coffey, senior education product coordinator for medical information provider HCPro in Marblehead, MA, says that her firm charges from $149 to $229 per conference, and that "it's common for 15 or 20 people to cram into a hospital conference room and dial in."

Planning Power

To maximize value from Webcasts that accompany live meetings, the process requires extensive planning—starting with registration and data capture, continuing to the broadcasting of video or audio, and ending with captured audio and video and presentation materials posted to a website, as well as e-mail and Web follow-up to delegates.

With preplanning, "It begins with the smallest details of the registration information you extract from your delegates, whether they're attending in person or virtually," says Pierce, whose company has worked with Novartis, Pfizer, and the American Dietetic Association. "The drug companies have incredibly limited time in front of doctors—the more specific and targeted your information, the better. Meeting planners sometimes don't think much about data collection, but it's critical to plan ahead so as to get quality data."

Other questions that can be addressed by good up-front research include: Who exactly is in the audience? Where are they getting the Webcast? Do they have high-speed connections, and will firewalls at hospitals or universities pose a barrier? Do Web attendees want some form of two-way communication to ask questions. Remember, the more active and engaged attendees are, the longer they'll stay on.

Good pre-event data collection has many payoffs. For example, in the weeks leading up to a meeting, if a pharma planner finds that there are more practicing MDs registering than academic researchers, she can contact speakers to alert them to tailor their material accordingly. What's more, Pierce notes that the technology is sophisticated enough that "we can tell you what segments of the event virtual attendees watched, how long they watched, and what kind of connection speed they had, so that we can adapt future sessions."

To make sure both your virtual and in-person delegates have the best experience, a service provider should be able to determine which media player, browser version, and connection speed is used by each virtual participant. A connection of 100 kbps or faster is best for receiving video Webcasts, while a 28.8-kbps dial-up modem connection is the minimum for audio Webcasts.

With the "on demand" video that MAP has provided to pharmaceutical clients, Pierce says there's always a Q-and-A section. "When someone posts a question, we make sure that someone at the pharmaceutical company posts an answer within 24 hours so everyone can see. It's a great way of continuing the outreach to the chosen constituency."

Finally, getting good up-front information makes for easier follow-up for feedback from delegates, real or virtual, on speakers and future conferences.

Now Hear This

Interestingly, one of the most popular forms of virtual conferencing in pharma/biotech is the simplest: audioconferencing. But audioconferencing today has been turbocharged by the use of the Internet. HCPro puts on ten audio conferences per month regarding new regulations, compliance, long-term care, and health-information management. A week before each conference, HCPro e-mails the speaker presentations to every registered attendee. For attendees, downloading the presentation to view via laptop, or simply to print a hard copy, goes a long way towards making an audio- conference more engaging. "You can view the graphs, charts, and guidelines, and it keeps people following along far better," says HCPro's Siva Coffey.

The communication isn't just one-way, either, says Coffey. "Conferences are interactive; the last 30 minutes allow for debate among the speakers, and then there are questions from the audience." Adds Denise Dixon of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which also holds events in the medical regulations and compliance arena, "We send PowerPoints out via e-mail prior to the conference to our audience so they can follow along. People tell us that they simply need that information in front of them."

The final hurdle that these technologies have to clear among planners in other industries is the perception factor. After all, the phrase "technology-based meetings" brings to mind worst-case scenarios that include failures during live presentations and other headaches. But the planners in the pharma/biotech sector are proving that event coordinators can master these tech tools quickly. MAP Digital's Pierce has a bit of proof: "A recent JP Morgan health conference attracted 60,000 online viewers; we fielded just 10 help requests."


The Holistic Approach
How AV products and the Internet converge

The audiovisual technology that makes an in-person conference engaging often dovetails with the task of presenting the event on the Web. For example, at a recent conference on urban health issues at the Academy of Medicine in New York City, event organizers used cutting-edge projectors and plasma displays to make the content stand out. Problem was, more than 700 medical professionals flocked to a facility whose auditorium could seat only 500.

Mary Anne Pierce, CEO of New York City-based MAP Digital, who was the technology provider for the event, had a solution: "We had booked overflow rooms on site so that people could watch a feed from the auditorium. And since we were already videotaping, we also decided to encode the video and stream it over the Web, so all the people who couldn't get there could see it." Of course, "The meeting planner has to decide whether she wants the Web video to be live or on demand. Live is more expensive and riskier; on demand takes more time to release, but you can edit it and the whole thing costs less."

Costs vary, but Pierce says her firm charges $100 per hour for engineering work such as encoding video for streaming or setting up a dedicated Web site. For one client, to set up the video, Webcasting, and streaming for six months cost $10,000.

Further, posting a conference's PowerPoint presentations is relatively easy, fast, and inexpensive too. At a conference that Pierce did for a client promoting a new drug, "The doctors were screaming, 'When can we get the slides?' " The presenters could only say, 'Come up after the presentation, give me your card and I'll e-mail them to you,' " Pierce sighs. With a little forewarning, "I could have had those slides up on the Web within 24 hours after the event ended," she says.

Technical and cost issues aside, some speakers and companies are reluctant to distribute their content over the Web. One spokesperson at a major pharmaceutical firm says, "People are concerned about their intellectual property being 'out there' over the Web, in a much more complete way than people simply taking notes on a presentation at an in-person meeting."

While drug and biotech conferences usually feature wireless Internet access for delegates' personal use, planners will still contend with cables for connecting conference rooms, transmitting video, and most other tasks. Says Pierce, who had to wire the New York Academy of Medicine for its conference, "It's always best to have category five cable, for reliability and security reasons."