Goblin, Glitches & Gaffes

For meeting planners and attendees already comfortable with the Internet in their professional lives, making the leap to online meetings is a no-brainer - or so it seems. It's a jump more planners are taking: According to a survey of 451 meeting planners by Equation Research and MeetingNews in June, about 28 percent of meeting planners for companies and associations recently began using electronic conferencing to cut meeting costs.

But planners should proceed carefully. While online meetings can be effective, efficient events, trouble in the new world of webconferences can come from the most unexpected places. Make sure you've conquered the bugs and glitches before it's show time. Here are a half-dozen of the most common problems, and how to deal with them.

Hotel Hassle

Whether you're holding an online meeting from your own office or from a hotel meeting room, shortcomings at the venue can cause glitches in your webcast. Jeff W. Rasco, CMP, senior vice president at JRDaggett & Associates in Austin, Texas, is a webconferencing expert. He's held meetings online for years, and still he is sometimes surprised by an unexpected pitfall.

At a Meeting Professionals International (MPI) conference last fall in Cancun, Mexico, things went awry while Rasco was making a presentation about webconferencing. "The whole premise of the session was that we would educate people on webconferencing by making our presentation a webconference," he says. While Rasco appeared in person in front of the assembly, his partner would call in from Virginia and take over the session by remote control, directing the computer presentation via the Internet, and addressing the audience from a speaker phone.

Trouble was, the hotel couldn't come up with a speaker phone. "We had speaker phones in our sleeping rooms, but they couldn't find one for the presentation itself. I could hear David, but since there was no speaker phone, I had to repeat his speech to the audience. Plus, the Internet connection was iffy, so the slides were behind the commentary he was making." Rasco was stuck in front of the audience, phone cupped to his ear, repeating a speech to the crowd as their slide presentation lagged behind. "What a disaster!" he says.

Maybe a dress rehearsal would've paid off. But, Rasco says, "You can rehearse, and plan, and get all your specs together, but there's always a chance something will go wrong. So if you're planning a webconference, make sure you have backup phones and backup computers. And make sure everyone involved knows exactly what they need to do."

To learn if the venue has everything you need for an online meeting, conduct a technical site inspection. Identify the bandwidth at the location and compare that to your needs. If you're webcasting from within a corporation, talk to the IT department; if you're at a hotel or conference center, get specs from the conference services manager. And remember to get this information in writing. That way, if the venue doesn't hold up its end of the deal, you can argue for compensation before you pay the bill.

Bad Connection

Online meeting attendees might also experience trouble with their Internet connections. Just ask Stephanie Franks, president and founder of the Denver, Colorado-based firm Conferzone, a consulting company for online meetings and an online resource for planners who want to learn about webconferencing. She tells the story of a demonstration webcast that didn't go as planned:

"One of the speakers' Internet connections was so slow that the audio was coming in at a 30-second delay," Franks says. She struggled through that meeting with the annoying time lag: "Reading the speaker's lips, and then hearing the words half a minute later wasn't the most effective way to hold a meeting."

How do you avoid problems with Internet connections? Know the participants' connection speeds, and cater to the slowest. How do you do this? Just ask. When they register for the event, have attendees tell you what type of hardware and Internet connection they'll be using to access the meeting. Once you know what the slowest system in the meeting will be (it'd better be 56Kbps or better, or don't even try running video over the Internet), conduct a trial run using the slowest setup of the bunch. Often the most convenient way to do this, says Franks, is to make a test run on your home computer, if you have a 56Kbps modem under your hood. That way, you'll feel under-connected attendees' pain before they do, and you can better decide whether a webcast is worth it.

Firewall Folly

Even if attendees use high-speed Internet connections to access your webconference, other unforeseen problems can jeopardize the success of the meeting. One potential roadblock is a firewall. Firewalls are systems designed to prevent unauthorized users from accessing information on a network, and they're the rule in corporate settings. If you're holding a corporate webconference, find out if a video- or sound-blocking firewall exists by contacting the information technology (IT) department at attendees' offices.

"When I first started out webcasting, I tried unsuccessfully to set up an online meeting at the corporation where I worked," says Jeff Rasco. "It turned out our firewall was stopping the video from getting through the network. So the IT department had to put a hole in the firewall before I could conduct the meeting."

Usually the firewall can be easily altered to allow a webconference through, but this has to be done by people with access and expertise: namely, the IT department. It pays to check for firewalls well ahead of time.

Supplier Secrets

Rasco says that firewalls are just the type of problem webconferencing suppliers don't tell you about. For instance, he says that with Microsoft's NetMeeting webconferencing software, "The documentation made it sound like all you had to do was open the program and go hunting around for people and ring them up. It's not that simple.

"NetMeeting is a pretty effective design, but it takes some figuring out," he says. For guidance, try contacting an expert, like the support staff at a webconferencing company, or a colleague who already knows the ins and outs of holding meetings online. Webcasting sites on the Internet can be helpful resources as well. The Conferzone webconferencing portal (www.conferzone.com) is a good place to start.

Technically, No

In some cases, webconferencing is not an option, due to the limited technical hardware attendees are packing. If meeting participants have computers that are more than four or five years old, if they're accessing the meeting with modems slower than 56kbps, or if they aren't familiar with the Internet, you might think twice about trying to bring the meeting online. In fact, holding a webcast for less tech-savvy folks is something you may wish to avoid, because the quality of the webcast is directly affected by the individual viewer's equipment.

Even if you're a webcasting expert, it's best to keep things simple for the benefit of your attendees. One way to simplify real-time Web meeting is to handle audio communication by conference call, rather than bothering with the relatively complicated process of broadcasting sound on the Internet. "Planners facilitating collaboration on the Web are almost always better off with a telephone bridge," says Rasco. A telephone bridge is a conference call between online meeting participants that coincides with the Internet portion of the event.

If your Web meeting doesn't require collaboration, consider archiving sound and video from the presentation on a Web site so participants can download the information at their own pace. This is especially effective for speeches and PowerPoint presentations. Plus, if you archive the information online, it can be cut into smaller chunks for attendees whose slow computers can't download the whole presentation at once.

Communication Breakdown

Deidre M. Young, a meeting planner at the ENCORE Management Corporation in Silver Spring, Maryland, says that when you're holding a meeting online, communication with your attendees is of the utmost importance. At one webcast she worked on, participants were unable to access the event because they weren't able to navigate the event Web site. "Although the providers thought the webcast was a success, [the meeting planners and attendees] were very disappointed," she says. "Many people who wanted to view the session on the Web experienced difficulty all day accessing the Web site. We also experienced problems with people being kicked off the site, and with questions not being routed to the moderator for discussion. For something that is so costly, we couldn't justify attempting another webcast anytime soon."

The best way to make sure attendees are able to fully participate in a virtual event is to make sure they're aware of the protocol for submitting questions to speakers, and otherwise interacting in the webcast. Distribute these rules to attendees well before the event via e-mail, fax, or snail mail.

Rasco relates one final story about a communication breakdown between himself and attendees at a corporate meeting: "I used [webconferencing provider] Webex for a small presentation, but I didn't realize that the program required each attendee to put [small programs called] cookies on their machines. It was a really important meeting, and we spent the first 30 minutes of the conference trying to figure out what was wrong. That was embarrassing."

Solution: Find out if attendees need to install special software for the webconference, and communicate this information to them well ahead of time. Get specific instructions.

Webcasting is rewarding when it's done right. Just be prepared to stop the bugs.