LAST JUNE, the Society of Nuclear Medicine drew about 4,000 members to its annual meeting in New Orleans. The 10,000 other member physicians, chemists, and radiopharmacists who couldn't make the event were still able to experience selected sessions and pick up continuing education credits, thanks to a CD-ROM produced by Blue Sky Broadcast, a Del Mar, Calif.-based conference-archiving provider. Subsidized by funding from a diagnostic imaging company, the CD-ROM was offered free to members when they paid their 2004 dues.

More and more, Reston, Va.-based SNM and other organizations are hiring electronic archiving providers to capture their annual meetings and educational sessions for later use as part of an interactive CD-ROM or Internet-based CE program.

“This does not cannibalize attendance; nothing will ever replace the real experience of being at a conference and exchanging ideas with the audience members,” says Philip Forte, president of Blue Sky Broadcast. “But this is a great way for associations to leverage the return on investment in their meetings.”

First, Find Funding

The cost of producing online or CD-ROM programming varies depending on the amount of material archived; whether it's a live webcast, video, or simply audio and text; and how much the archiving company is involved in other services, such as Web hosting. The price tag can range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, healthcare companies are often looking for the broader reach of an online presentation and are willing to subsidize the costs.

But you need to make the decision to archive your meeting and secure funding early in the planning process. Bobbi Smith, CAE, executive director of the American Thyroid Association (ATA), learned that lesson the hard way: Her association decided to offer its annual meeting content online well after the program was established, and she was forced to go back to commercial supporters, a process that had mixed results. Next time, Smith says she plans to build the cost of the Web program upfront into grant requests.

Designate a CE Point Person

Another area to address early on: Make sure to designate a point person within your organization to ensure your archived programs comply with any applicable regulations for offering CE or CME credit. “A lot of fine details have to be considered, and that one person should be responsible for looking at the paperwork and reviewing the session transcripts, video, and audio to make sure they reflect exactly what the individual said and that everything was spelled correctly,” says Brenda Johnson, director of education for SNM. If there are differences between the live and the archived presentation, those changes must be approved — and that can hold up release of the product.

Medical meeting organizers also recommend that you choose an archiving company that specializes in medical education. These vendors can often assist you by, for example, collecting material for the archived program, such as faculty bios and financial disclosures.

Protect Intellectual Property

Your Web archiving partner will also need your help. To ease the production process, you need to get each speaker to sign a release that grants exclusive rights for the program. That can be tricky.

The release forms can raise red flags among presenters. Smith says many of her presenters had never been asked to sign a release form before her association's first attempt at a Web-based program, and “we got a lot of questions about the language,” she recalls. Several speakers expressed concerns about intellectual property and how their cutting-edge research would be used. To allay their concerns, the Falls Church, Va.-based ATA allowed speakers to determine whether their content would be available to the public or to association members only.

Make It User-Friendly

The next challenge is coaching presenters for the cameras. “We're basically a live capture, so whatever they present in that room, we're going to capture,” Forte says.

Kevin Alder, director of marketing and membership for the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, Alexandria, Va., says he reminds presenters that the session should have a logical flow, stay on course, and include visuals that complement the text. “That way, it's easily transferred into an online piece,” he observes.

For online programs to be effective, they need to be presented in short segments. “If you have an eight-hour program and you want to present it as one long piece, that doesn't make sense,” says Lloyd Myers, president of Pittsburgh-based CECity, an online healthcare education company “From a usability standpoint, smaller is better: A 15-minute program is more accessible than an hour- or two-hour-long program,” he adds. Physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals seeking CE credits are not going to sit through anything longer than 90 minutes.

Similarly, no one wants to sit at a computer and watch a series of stale images. Sessions can take advantage of the Internet's interactive capabilities and offer users access to polls, links to listservs, and other features. Sometimes interviews or other media can add interest to a program, although these bells and whistles bump up the production cost. If the original program included an audience response system, those results might be part of the archived version. But it's important to avoid overdoing it as well.

“Sometimes it's easy to get attracted to a glossy, mixed media program, but unless there's added value in creating a video, that's an added cost that may not be needed,” says Amy Ravi, president and CEO of ConferenceSeek, an Evanston, Ill.-based content management company.

Get 'Em Hooked

Today, many organizations are giving away online educational content as an incentive to encourage new and renewed memberships — and as a way to get those members comfortable with the process. “There's a lot of interest from physicians, but one of the barriers is making sure the course is complimentary or has fairly low cost barriers so physicians will try it first and get hooked,” says Ravi.

Ultimately, however, some associations would like to see computer-based educational materials turn into a profit center. Forte suggests that one way to drive sales is to offer a package of CD-ROMs capturing an entire meeting, discounting the price slightly from the cost of full on-site participation in the event. Another method is to offer members pay-per-view options that can include single use or subscription-based pricing.

Forte offers a Hollywood analogy. “Consider The Matrix,” he says. “You've got to be there [in the theater] to experience it and pay your $10; three months after that you can get it for $3 at Blockbuster; and then three months later it's sold through HBO, where you're paying $20 a month for unlimited viewing; and then finally it's on network TV, but it's ad-supported.”

How to Choose an Archiving Vendor

Select an archiving provider with care. Meeting organizers should thoroughly review a company’s products, and ask these questions:

  • Will the archive medium work on all platforms, like Mac and Windows? If not, what operating systems are compatible?
  • How many CD-ROM products have they developed and for whom? Ask for references.
  • In what format is the audio?
  • Can you play the audio-only version in a standard CD player (e.g., car or home stereo)?
  • What are your standard testing procedures?
  • Can we include links, sponsorships, and promotion of next year's meeting, exhibitor listings, and other features?
  • How do you provide technical support for your product?
  • Are Web archives available 24/7/365?
  • Do you replicate the CD-ROMs in house or through a vendor?

And don’t wait too long to select your provider, says Jeff McCormack, chief knowledge officer of DigiScript, Franklin, Tenn., who says teamwork is critical to providing a successful experience. Meeting planners, he says, need to involve their solution provider early on in the process. Considerations need to be given to the final product early in the planning. A Web-based product has a different set of criteria and requirements than a CD-based alternative. —EJ Siwek, CMP, and Susan Hatch