Point your Web browser to www.companygreenhouse.com. Dial into the conference call where your counterparts in Dallas, St. Louis, Boston, and Seattle are waiting. Push your phone's “speaker” button to fill the room with the sounds of being there. Pour yourself a hot cup of java and tear open the Krispy Kreme box. Kick off your high heels and put your feet up. Loosen your top button. And don't forget to giggle nervously at the moderator's opening remarks.

Welcome to small meetings in the 21st century — all from the comfort of your office cubicle, home office, hotel room, or even your car. Today's meetings will find you — and you them — wherever technology can reach. Which is to say, anywhere.

They're Hooked, In More Ways than One

Anyone who has participated in a small online meeting raves about the experience.

“The first time I did one, I did walk away from it,” says Rebecca Foerst-Becker, manager, meeting and travel services, Harley-Davidson. “I got my boss and three co-workers. I told them, ‘Check this out!’”

Foerst-Becker has participated in four online meetings offered by the National Business Travelers Association (www.nbta.org), mostly following the events of September 11. The meetings were announced to members via e-mail. “It was convenient to me; I didn't have to travel anywhere,” she says. “I really, really liked the interactivity, having access to the speaker on the speakerphone. I also liked that NBTA can react quickly by using this medium. The time it takes to put together a PowerPoint presentation is all you need.”

The experience of participating in someone else's online meeting is often enough to convince many meeting planners that the format will work for their own company or organization.

“It's something we're looking at,” Foerst-Becker says. “Our corporate training area is evaluating software at this time. It's going to be a huge cost savings for the corporation. Compare it to a teleconference or videoconference; it's more interactive. You don't need special equipment, just a computer, which most of us already have.”

More Ways to Skin a Cat

The simplest, most widely accessible format for online meetings combines an Internet browser with Instant Messenger software and the telephone:

  • Internet Browser: The moderator or speaker shows a PowerPoint presentation or animation online.
  • Instant Messenger: Attendees can send questions or comments via instant messages to the speaker during a presentation. These can be answered as received in a general Q&A session at the end.
  • Telephone: Participants can listen to a speaker's presentation via the good ol' low-tech telephone. Phones can allow one-way communication during a presentation, then open up to conferencing afterward.

Most planners and suppliers interviewed for this article agreed that an online meeting cannot replace the impact of a first face-to-face meeting, the shaking of a hand, or making eye contact. What the Web does is allow more contact with more people in the same day. And when immediacy is important, as it was for many corporations in the aftermath of September 11, the online meeting is a desirable new alternative to time-consuming and costly travel.

A Success Story

InSystems (www.insystems.com), a Markham, Ontario-based software company with 350 insurance customers around the world, was one of many companies that had meetings scheduled for October 2001 and found itself furiously trying to cope with a frightened new world — and still accomplish its meetings objectives.

The original conference scheduled by InSystems was planned to run over four days, eight hours a day, from October 15 to 18, 2001. When the terrorist attacks caused the company to withdraw from its original plan of gathering everyone physically in one spot, says Andrew Jackson, senior vice president of marketing for InSystems, he turned to the online alternative. He compressed and edited his original plan for the Annual User Conference into four, two-hour-a-day blocks, presented over the same four days InSystems had already scheduled.

“We didn't just translate direct from the live event to the virtual,” Jackson explains. “Some things won't translate. And we knew people wouldn't sit around for eight hours in front of their computers and wait for speakers. You have to think about online meetings as you would a radio or TV program and think about content and flow.”

One of the biggest challenges was that the original live events were designed to have multiple, concurrent tracks for attendees, including management and technical users. Bringing everybody together online, InSystems instead combined elements of all the tracks. Jackson figured one person might be interested for 15 minutes, one for 15 minutes plus, another for the whole two hours. Those who weren't interested could drop off without a sound.

But that's not what happened.

“People stayed on a lot longer than we expected,” Jackson says. “We thought people would try the medium and leave. But we found our drop-off was less than 5 percent during the course of the two hours.”

Over four days, InSystems had more than 300 people — at 50 locations — participate in its online meeting.

InSystems used a product called PlaceWare (www.PlaceWare.com) on its end so that all its participants needed was a computer with a Web browser to view an online PowerPoint slide show and some animation, and a telephone to hear sound.

“The interesting thing about that is that in our live events, there is a fee for attending,” Jackson says. “That restricts the number of participants. For the virtual meeting, we made it no charge. As a result, companies could ‘send’ more people. At one location we had 16 people from one company watching in a boardroom.”

The teleconference line was one-way, so participants could hear speakers but they were prevented from directly interacting. The strict time schedule made taking live questions impossible. “But we did use PlaceWare to collect questions,” Jackson says. “There's a window in the Web browser. You type the question, hit send, and it appears on the moderator's list. It's a side-by-side technology. Then I, as moderator, could pose the questions in a given time period.”

InSystems used a moderator-driven agenda. Over the course of each two-hour session, the program featured four or five speakers, each holding forth for 10 to 15 minutes.

“It was like listening to a radio program hosted by me; that's the way I envisioned it,” Jackson says. “That meant a consistency and flow. I did radio work back in college. That's how I came up with the idea of making it two hours. Attendees could eat their lunch while taking part.” PlaceWare recorded the presentation and put it on InSystems' Web site for viewing by people who missed it live.

Jackson rated the online meeting a success because it attracted more participants than any previous in-person event ever had, most people came back each of the four days and stayed on for the entire two hours, and the comments he received were complimentary.

The Pluses

Attaining the goals of an online meeting depends on the planner's objectives. A well-designed online training session can convey twice the information in half the time. It all depends on what you're trying to do and how you go about it.

Some meetings are not appropriate for virtual events.

“Whenever a client comes to us, we want to know their objectives,” says Stephanie Franks, founder of the Denver-based ConferZone (www.ConferZone.com). “If they want to do a lot of networking, those aren't a good fit for the virtual event. If they want to launch a new product or hold a meeting for basic information, or recruit new volunteers, it's great. You have to think about whether the event is appropriate to virtual.”

Franks says the trend she sees evolving is one of combining traditional with virtual meetings. Corporations will hold a big event at or near headquarters, but, to cut down on travel by staff, all of its satellite offices will dial in to view PowerPoint presentations online. “It's a quality of life issue,” she says. “Corporations are concerned about employee safety.”

The key advantages to a virtual event are cost and time savings. Business people are tired of traveling for days to important meetings that may last a matter of hours. “I'll say this is a virtual event and people say, ‘Oh, thank goodness,’” according to Franks.

International reach is another positive. Getting up in the middle of the night in Japan to participate in a 10 a.m. online conference originating in Los Angeles is still less of an inconvenience than flying all day and night to get there in person.

In a physical meeting, the most common interaction that organizers can drive out of some participants is polite clapping. There are always people who are intimidated by standing up in a public setting and asking a question or making a statement that may be received poorly. But in a virtual meeting, no one can see you squirm. People can laugh, clap, or express disapproval with the push of a button. Or they can participate in simultaneous polls about the speaker's message or methods. You will actually discover more tools online for prompting interaction.

“People fear death less than speaking in public,” Franks says. “Even asking a question at a conference makes them uncomfortable. Asking over audio is less scary. Keep the groups small. It will create more interactions. Have a good moderator. Take some of the online chat and discuss key issues on the phone. Tell the operator to open a person's line.”

The highest return from using online technology often comes in reaching external customers. For cost and time reasons, many companies wouldn't be able to meet with these people face-to-face, anyway.

Control of these meetings rests with the hosts, who can e-mail invitations to selected persons or post a general notice on a corporate Web site.

The Minuses

There are negatives, of course, starting with the loss of face-to-face, human interaction. But even that factor may diminish somewhat with advances in virtual reality 3-D technology. In one application a speaker is surrounded by cameras that create a 3-dimensional image at remote locations so the audience can see the speaker as if he's in the room. And the speaker can put on glasses that enable him to “see” remote people raising their hands to ask questions.

Stability remains somewhat of an issue. People will sometimes lose their Internet connections. There is a risk that phone lines or servers will go down. And while you can send people detailed, plain English instructions, they may still become confused and throw coffee at their monitors. “Just like a real conference,” Franks says, “where people check in and they still can't find the breakout room.”

Security is an issue for companies that want to meet online for product launches or internal discussions but want assurances that their competitors won't be able to electronically eavesdrop. Absolute security is tough to ensure.

It's important that moderators for online events understand the virtual medium, equating it as InSystems' Andrew Jackson did with radio and TV. The process must be kept moving along, avoiding the bog of minutiae that is deadly in traditional meetings. Many suppliers will provide trained moderators to keep a meeting on track. Some companies hire local TV and radio personalities.

“My No. 1 recommendation for virtual events is communicate, communicate, communicate,” Franks says. “It's such a new thing and it's so intangible, people aren't yet comfortable. Explain the agenda. Tell people to use the tools. If they're having trouble, call a help number.”

Types of Services

The most fundamental issue for many meeting planners is finding a reliable service. If a supplier has even a one percent failure rate, participants get uncomfortable. Ask for and call references.

The ConferGuide is a free resource to ConferZone members (www.conferzone.com). The company's monthly newsletter is filled with tips on producing quality online events. Membership is free; suppliers and sponsorships support the site. Stephanie Franks, the woman behind ConferZone, started the Guide out of her and her clients' need for reliable information. “It was hard comparing apples to apples,” she says. “Different companies price their products differently and use different names. The ConferGuide evaluates the 20 top vendors. We don't sell any service or software. We're an online resource for people to learn about the industry.”

The best online meetings retain their structure from start to finish. “In an audio-only conference, there is a cacophony of voices and you don't know who is speaking,” says Chris Reed, vice president of corporate strategy for Centra Software, Inc. (www.centra.com) in Lexington, Mass. “With our online software, everyone knows who is speaking. You can fill in budget sheets together. Meetings can be run much more efficiency.”

Centra's product allows users to speak to one another directly through their computers, eliminating the need for separate telephone communications. “Retail teleconferencing rates from AT&T can cost a great deal per hour per person,” Reed says. “If they use our voice-over IP software, it's just going over the Internet. You don't pay more for that.” In order to use voice-over IP, all that's required is that the computer have a sound card, says Reed. Most recent laptops have built-in microphones. Desktop computers probably will need a microphone/headset. The sound quality is improved in either case by the use of one.

Reed takes part in as many as 10 online meetings a week. “I go to the same number of physical meetings as I used to, but they're better meetings,” he says. “The online meetings actually upgrade the quality of my physical meetings.”

Reed says that if your audiences' computers were bought in the last five years — with a 133 MHz processor and a 28.8-baud modem — they will work. Most common online meeting applications do not require broadband modems, i.e., T1 lines, cable modems or DSL. Video online takes mega-bandwidth; audio doesn't take much, by comparison. The vast majority of Centra Software's clients use simple dial-up connections.

“The great thing about these technologies is that it's viral,” Reed says. “It's like a big chain letter. If you have a good experience, you tell other people. It has a viral, propagation effect. And the technology is now stable enough to be compelling.”

Another consideration: Can you rent or lease the product or service or must you buy it outright? Many online meeting suppliers will actually let you test-drive their systems. “You can rent a virtual meeting room on a monthly or quarterly basis, ” says Reed.

The Webcasting Option

WorldBridge Webcasting (www.wbwebcasting.com) is a step up from small, informal, online meetings. The Los Angeles-based company provides end-to-end webcasts, from scripting and pre- and post-production expertise to compression for streaming video online. Recent clients include Forbes magazine, Compaq, MonsterCable, and Meeting Professionals International (MPI).

“The meetings industry is changing,” says WorldBridge Chief Operating Officer Diane Kegley. “Business needs to think about how it brings people together using technology. MPI is doing that; it wants its people to know ‘We are forward-thinking.’ The Forbes audience is high level and can understand those messages.”

Kegley believes online meetings can actually broaden or better fulfill a meeting's objectives. “It's no longer just about reaching people in the room,” she says. “It's about creating a reference tool for looking back. There's a misperception that moving online replaces face-to-face. But it doesn't. After September 11, I have a video producer who won't fly now. He took a bus from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for Comdex. People are making choices. Used to be, you could hit three cities in a day. Companies now need new ways of getting their message on the road without traveling.

“Companies need to get better about spending money on potential accounts. Their view is that you can increase your return on investment because you'll take your message to more people and reduce your cost per person,” she says. “The flip side is: This is an investment. It's not a $5,000 throwaway deal. Sometimes it can be a $25,000 investment. Some say, ‘That's a lot of money.’ But you're going to bring in video crews for a traditional event, anyway. Why not take your message to a larger audience? The cost-savings is in the number of people you reach by streaming it online and documenting it for a larger audience.”

Bruce MacMillan, vice president of marketing and digital services for MPI, Dallas, has used many of the tools available for online meetings. “I've tried videoconferencing with a camera on the laptop, as well as applications such as Astound, Webex, and Microsoft Meetings,” he says. “The No. 1 goal was always a collaborative effort involving a presentation or some kind of document contract review. If you're collaborating on a PowerPoint presentation, you can send control of the cursor to someone who has an idea. In remotely distributed offices, you can all collaborate online on a live document and save having to get together. It's a fabulous augmentation. It can help people prepare before they go to a live meeting. In our case, it is also a great way after the meeting for people to digest the meeting. It's an extension and enrichment of the physical meeting experience.”