No matter whether you call them--electronic meetings, online collaborations, Webcasts, or Webinars--Internet-based conferences are finally happening on a noticeable scale. Small compared to the in-person meetings industry but growing fast, global Web-conference revenue was $960 million in 2006, and is forecast to be $1.5 billion by 2010, says analyst firm The Gartner Group.
Just as important, there's a growing recognition that electronic meetings can complement, not simply compete with, in-person meetings. While electronic meetings still have a "techie" edge to them, they work better now than at any time before. Part of the reason is that the most successful electronic meeting platforms no longer seek the absolute cutting edge. For instance, in a WebEx meeting on "Ten Tips for Great Online Events," my audio came via telephone. Further, there was no two-way live video, no video of the speakers, no YouTube-style playback video--all possible, but not always needed.
The online presentation started with photos of speakers Laura Vizzusi and Lauren Follett, Web seminar managers for WebEx, so they were known to attendees as more than just disembodied voices. And other information was conveyed in Power-Point-like simple slides, charts, text, and photos, with Q & A and chat features providing interaction.
WebEx claims you need only a Pentium III PC with 128MB of RAM and a sound card, plus a high-speed (DSL, T1) connection, telephone, and microphone to lead a meeting. A second PC is recommended to capture the audio. The solution providers also claim online meetings are secure; Citrix GoToMeeting uses SSL and U.S. government-standard 128-bit AES encryption, for example.
WebEx says that PC, Mac, and Linux users can all participate via the Internet, using Netscape, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Firefox, or even AOL browsers. My three-year-old PC running Firefox worked fine, and I was using a high-speed connection, though WebEx claims a phone modem will work.
Even if that's a stretch--some participants still report jerky, slow performance as well as interrupted audio--the technology has improved to the point that planners can concentrate on content, not delivery method. Just tell participants to sign in early, so they don't whine about being unable to get in.
The tips listed below (more detail on them at http://www.webex.com/web-sem inars/view_recording/661996123) were designed to lead people to choose the WebEx conferencing solution. But these ideas would work as well with a Citrix, Microsoft LiveMeeting, or generic conferencing solution, and have resonance in face-to-face meetings as well.
Promoting your event, for example, is critical. WebEx suggests e-mail, direct mail, e-newsletters, third-party sponsor promos, and advertising on your firm's website, with phone and e-mail reminders one week, one day, and one hour before. That's not overkill--to get 100 attendees, you might need to extend 20,000 total invitations, says WebEx.
And once you've got them, you've got to keep them. This means providing timely, valuable information, using rich media and frequent polling. Participants should also be able to submit comments and feedback via a Q & A on-screen panel or by speaking.
In-person meetings still tend to be a target, though. Citrix cites Wainhouse Research's survey where 69 percent of firms said a key Web conferencing benefit was replacing in-person meetings. But Web solutions have costs too. Microsoft Live Meeting Conference Center offers 10 seats for $750/month--plus hardware and tech support.
Then again, Gartner notes that "By 2008, Web conferencing will be available to the majority of corporate users as a standard facility." The challenge for planners: to continue highlighting the benefits of in-person meetings. And even if a Web conference works, participants will likely want to make additional progress by meeting face-to-face.