With 15,000 to 20,000 page views per month—and growing—what keeps users coming back to www.conferzone.com? According to ConferZone founder Stephanie Franks, the biggest draw is the site’s vendor database. The listings include about 500 e-conferencing suppliers in five categories—video conferencing, Web conferencing, audio conferencing, collaborative conferencing, infrastructure, and consulting/training. Franks says that the ConferZone staff adds about 15 to 20 vendors each week to the database, helping users keep up to date with a fast-moving vendor market. "This industry is all about blurring lines and disappearing acts. People are leaving. Companies are going out of business, changing their names, being acquired. It’s all over the place," Franks says. The site also offers a daily news wire, a glossary of e-conferencing terms, archives of the monthy ConferZine newsletter, a file of frequently asked questions, and, for the more advanced user, a library of white papers on subjects such as "IP Telephony Technology," "Interactive IP Multicast," and "Deploying H.323 Conferencing on Your IP Network."

Stephanie Franks, president of MarKomm Consulting, a Denver-based event marketing and production company, is the mind behind ConferZone, a year-and-a-half-old Web site that bills itself as "the first objective e-conferencing resource." With its vendor database, daily e-conferencing news service, and white papers, among other content, the site has cultivated a following that logs about 20,000 page views per month. And its monthly ConferZine e-newsletter has close to 6,000 subscribers. Franks has personally produced about 150 virtual events since her first just three years ago and has consulted on many more. We spoke with her recently about ConferZone and the changing world of e-conferencing.

CMI: What was the impetus behind the ConferZone Web site? Stephanie Franks: I was working with clients who were interested in doing virtual events— webinars and terms like that were just starting to pop up. I attempted to go out and learn more about the industry and had a very difficult time finding information about vendors, and making apples to apples comparisons on features, functions, and pricing. It was very confusing. I thought there was a niche to create something where people could learn more about this industry, how to do the events, and who the players are.

CMI: What are the most frequent mistakes companies make in their e-conferencing strategy? It’s same across traditional and virtual events: not setting objectives. A lot of people go out looking at vendors, getting demonstrations, before they really know what they want to accomplish with their event. For example, if a company wants to create a low-cost virtual event for its internal staff in order to roll out an insurance program, they need to get that documented. Because with that objective, they probably don’t want to go with a vendor like a Placeware or Mshow. Those tools are more expensive; they’re more complicated to use; and they’re very rich in functionality. If they want to keep it simple and low-cost, they probably want to go with a company like Raindance. However, if you’re planning a product launch and your objective is to get 500 people online, do a lot of interactive polling, and have software product demonstrations, and so forth, then you will want to go with some of the more complicated tools. Your objective has an effect on the vendor; it has an effect on the way the agenda for the event goes, who the speakers are going to be—everything. Other mistakes I see are a lack of education and a lack of planning. A lot of people just dive in and think all we have to do is find a vendor get some speakers. A lot of people think its going g to be easier than it is. E-conferences are as difficult to plan as a regular seminar as far as all the details. We have a seven-page checklist that we use.

CMI: Is e-conference marketing different? The number-one thing is to incorporate virtual channels as much as possible—newsletter advertising, banners, e-mail blasts, an event Web site. Normally when I produce a virtual event, no hard copy, no physical marketing component is created. I find that with virtual events, even more than traditional events, people want convenience. People who really like virtual events are people who are short on time and like the convenience of clicking on a banner and filling out a form.

CMI: What new e-conferencing features can we look for? We’ve hit a little bit of a plateau. For a while you were seeing a lot of new features—whiteboarding, inserting multimedia clips, polling. Now development efforts are going into making products more stable and bug free, making it easier to download the applets, and creating better user interfaces. Suppliers aren’t adding more bells and whistles, but rather improving the bells and whistles that they already have. I am starting to see some new technologies creeping up, like teleportation, where you can actually teleport an entire virtual image of a person, or virtual hosts, where you can take a video of a person and make whatever words come out of their mouths.

CMI: What technological developments do you expect to have the biggest impact on the e-conferencing business? Besides greater availability of high-bandwidth connections, which will make the biggest impact on e-conferencing, I see an changes with the adoption of voice-over IP [Internet protocol] technology, which allows users to get audio through the computer. Currently I see that as being more popular with my international attendees, who want to avoid the long-distance calls.

CMI: With 150 e-conferences under your belt, what do see that makes a good virtual event? The best events are interesting, educational, and unbiased. The events that get the fewest attendees are those that come off as sales pitches. You need to come up with an educational topic about your industry to really get people there. Also, make it as interactive as possible. Don’t have just one speaker. Try to have a panel of people, have a moderator, bring in customers, bring in testimonial case studies. Push the speakers to interact a lot. People have lost so much without the visuals—not being able to look up on stage—that you have to compensate for that.

CMI: Other advice for the novice e-conference organizer? Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. You can not over communicate on a virtual event. The speakers feel a little unsteady because they are going to be dialing in from their office and there are going to be other speakers dialing in, and they’re often not sure how it’s all going to work. Also, they may feel uncomfortable with the technology that they need to learn how to use. And then you’ve got your audience to consider. They get very ansy if it’s a week before the event and they haven’t received confirmation information. With a traditional event they know they can just go to the hotel and figure it out when they get there. With an e-conference, it’s important to send reminder notes, updates, just really communicate with people to make them comfortable.