It's one thing to organize a meeting. It's quite another to persuade everyone you want to reach to make the effort to be there or, for that matter, to be sure that those who do attend get your entire message. As you've no doubt heard, the Internet offers a promising way to broaden your events that gets to the heart of these problems. The Web, the same medium that's transforming the way we find meeting properties, send RFPs, and register attendees, can now broadcast--Webcast, that is--our meeting messages.
Just four or five years ago, the best broadcasting that the Web could handle was a meager six Kbps audio feed. A couple of years later, technology giants such as Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. began using the Web to launch new products, and companies such as Dell Computer Corp. and Bell & Howell were broadcasting their shareholder meetings. Today, Dell, IBM Corp., and many others hold weekly Webcasts as a way of keeping in touch with their customers. Even low-tech businesses like network marketing leader Amway Corp., which reached an online audience of sales affiliates estimated at half a million in one night, have embraced the power of Webcasting.
For those blessed with bandwidth, video on the Web can now move nearly as fast as it does on television, with similar quality. For the rest of us, Webcasts featuring audio, slide presentations, and animation are easily managed. Whatever the format, event planners are using Webcasting to enhance communications and to broaden their reach. Some use it to make the tent bigger, to include people who couldn't make it to the live meeting. Others broadcast their content to maximize the event for those who did attend. And for others, the Web is the catalyst to create new meetings or supplant live ones that aren't otherwise cost-effective.
"The meetings industry is finally coming out of the Flintstones age into the Jetsons age," says David Dubois, chief operating officer of Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International, which has drawn thousands of viewers to Webcasts of sessions from its live meetings in the past year. "Some people will say this technology is going to reduce the number of meetings, particularly small meetings. And the jury's out on that. ... On the other hand, people still need to meet [in person]. You cannot replace that through a computer."
Who's Out There? So you want to try a Webcast. You'll find the devil is in the details. Without some grounding in the basics, you'll be baffled by your choices. Live or archived? High-bandwidth or low? Audio, video, or both? RealPlayer or Windows? Do you plan to use slides or animation? Do you want to take or ask questions by e-mail or a live chat? Present documents? Collect statistics on your audience? Conduct an online poll?
Ready to give up? Not an option.
The most basic question is perhaps the most essential: Who is the audience? The answer will drive decisions about style, substance, and technology. First, find out how much bandwidth your audience has at its disposal. If you're trying to reach people in their hotel rooms or homes, count on modem speeds between 28.8 Kbps and 56 Kbps. But if your participants will be watching from corporate desktops connected to wide pipes, such as T1 lines, you may want faster viewing options, such as 100 Kbps or even 300 Kbps. Ultimately, audience capacity impacts content, especially the choice between a live, bandwidth-hogging, streaming broadcast and archived content.
While your audience's Internet connection is a major issue, the good news is that there are few other technological challenges from the viewer's perspective. Webcasts require nothing more than a Pentium-grade PC with sound card and browser. If prospective viewers don't have a media player--RealPlayer and Windows Media Player are the most common--one can be downloaded free from the Web. Your audience can even choose to get the audio over the telephone.
The audience's attention span will also direct content decisions. An employee who is directed by management to watch a one-hour training seminar on the Web is likely to pay attention for the whole hour, but a potential customer, channel partner, or member of the press may have a hard time staying focused. "We tell clients to get their message out in the first 10 minutes, and no more than 30 minutes for the entire Webcast," says Stan Woodward, vice president of business services at Yahoo!, the Dallas-based Internet giant that acquired Web event company Broadcast.com last July. The company's Yahoo! Broadcast division orchestrated MPI's Webcasting efforts. "Attention span averages about eight to 12 minutes," Woodward says. "The good news is people who are interested will stay longer."
Another consideration is audience size. It is tempting to think that Webcasting transforms your meeting into one with unlimited reach and that it costs almost nothing to
add viewers. But there are limits. Some vendors can manage a few thousand participants at a time, while others can handle as many as 100,000. Have a realistic estimate of how many people you want to reach when you start.
Finally, carefully consider whether your audience wants to meet in cyberspace. While a Webcast may be convenient and efficient, it may be lost on people who would rather meet face-to-face.
Content Counts On the Web, just as in a live meeting, content is king. Your content must adapt well to the Web environment and the limits of bandwidth and human attention span. Moreover, if your presentations are not compelling, it simply does not make sense to spend the time and money to adapt them for Webcasting.
Typically, audio of a good speaker equipped with PowerPoint slides and background material such as photographs and text will translate well in the Web environment, whether it's audio or video. A more entertainment-oriented event should feature some video and perhaps animation.
One piece of advice Woodward gives is to film your entire event, even if you are not planning to Webcast it. It can easily be uploaded later, and you never know when it might add to a Webcast, he says. You might even find you can make a little money. The Comdex folks, for example, have made 115 hours of fall 1999 sessions available on their Web site and are charging daily, weekly, or monthly rates for access.
How Much Can We Spend? One difficult question to resolve will be "How much can we spend?" It is tempting to throw budgets to the wind and invest in the flashiest, most impressive Webcast possible. But taking a meeting to the Web costs a minimum of several thousand dollars; the most elaborate productions can reach half a million. Knowing your budget will make choosing among the options much easier. Three choices in particular will have a significant impact on the cost of a Web event:
* Choosing between an audio-only presentation and one that includes video is the biggest single factor in the cost of a Webcast. Adding audio archives of meeting sessions to your Web site, one of the least expensive Webcasting methods, can bring hundreds of people to your site who would not have shelled out the money to travel to hear your message. However, a full-scale, live videocast may make the difference between a high-impact product launch and one that falls flat.
* A second major choice is between a live broadcast, with audio and/or video streaming from a server to your audience's PCs, and merely archiving recordings. A live presentation is more expensive because of the costs of satellite time and keeping technicians standing by. When the Austin, Texas, office of consulting firm KPMG hired Yahoo! to Webcast its annual awards dinner for the high-tech community last fall, it decided that an archive would serve its purposes, which were primarily to allow companies that won awards to replay the ceremony for their employees and to enlarge the audience beyond those who could afford the $125 ticket price. "I think the biggest payoff was [including] the people who couldn't attend," says Fred Tedesco, managing partner of KPMG's Austin office, which also Webcasts monthly meetings to offices throughout its region.
* Finally, the range of download options has a big impact on budget. Offering multiple connection speeds to coordinate with various systems, from 28.8 Kbps to 300 Kbps, can be pricey, but it allows users with high-bandwidth capability to see the presentation at a higher quality while not excluding those with slower, dial-up modems. Likewise, if you want to offer the presentation in both RealPlayer and Windows Media Player formats, it will cost more, but it will also expand your reach. Finally,the feed to a vendor's servers, which is often safer than trying to host it on your company's system, will add to the price.
The Extras Of course, that's not where the questions--or the costs--end. Most Webcasting providers have a laundry list of options to enhance presentations, everything from audio and video production to follow-up audience research. "Almost every corporate client we have understands that a broadcast is compelling, but not as compelling as asking questions, giving answers, and collecting information while people are online," says Yahoo!'s Woodward. "It is actually incumbent on corporations to use those tools, or else they don't get the full value of what we offer."
Start with the basics. Most providers should be able to keep Webcasts password-protected and behind a firewall, ensuring your security. And just in case an audience member doesn't have the right computer configuration to receive a Webcast, some vendors feature an automated service that identifies the problem and helps the user fix it.
In preparation for your event, most Webcasters offer ways to alert your potential audience by telephone, fax, or e-mail. Connex International of Danbury, Conn., offers E-Message, a service that issues invitations, confirmations, and special notices. Your audience may also be able to register for the Web event online ahead of time.
One of the easiest ways to enhance your presentation's impact is to create animation around slides or as an introduction using Flash or other design tools. Many companies find that animation is the best medium for branding the Webcast or for beginning even a simple, stripped-down presentation.
Interaction Is the Answer Perhaps the most intriguing feature that Webcasts can now include--and the one that brings them closest to the realm of in-person events--is interactivity.
Webcasts can include live chats among audience members by e-mail or conversations between the audience and the presenter. Presenters can answer questions in real time during the Webcast, and they can choose whether to respond individually or to present answers to the audience. Littleton, Colo.-based MShow.com, which specializes in slide/ audio Webcasts, allows presenters to conduct real-time online polls and to display the results almost instantly. Last year, Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif., used MShow.com to help launch a portal site for major customers. The interactivity was vital to explaining the use of Cisco's networking equipment and the function of the portal, which would offer important customers a new level of service. "The people [handling the] 10 minutes of Q & A didn't have to fly to a location to be available for 10 minutes of Q & A. They could do it from their desktops," says Scott Etheredge, manager of business development for Cisco, who organized the Web launch. "As you can imagine, they are a lot more willing to commit to something like that than to fly to a number of different cities." Next up for Cisco, according Etheredge, could be Web-based product demonstrations and training seminars for customers.
Finally, post-show research can quickly answer questions about the size of the audience, average viewing time, the questions the audience asked, and basic demographics. "Post-show reports are loaded with information," says Marilyn Hendricks, pre-sales manager at Lawson Software of Minneapolis, which used MShow.com to roll out a new online recruiting service and found that 62 percent of audience members were asking for immediate follow-up from an account executive.
Will We Do It Again? Post-show research can go a long way to help groups decide whether to use Webcasting again. Last year, when the Professional Convention Management Association, Birmingham, Ala., broadcast an edited version of its annual meeting on the Web on San Diego-based SeminarSource.com, it liked the reaction. During a 10-day period about six months after the event, PCMA counted about 350 viewers, or more than 10 percent of its in-person attendance. Of those who filled out a post-show survey, 64 percent liked what they saw and wanted more, so PCMA decided to broadcast the 2000 meeting live from San Francisco.
Last year, "it was just kind of an experiment," says Carla Krause, communications director for PCMA. "We think it's really a good way to extend the value of the education, and we also think it's a good way for us as educators to demonstrate this technology."
MPI is also making changes based on the post-event feedback. Broadcasting sessions live didn't make sense in hindsight because it required the audience to be at their desks on a Sunday night and to pay attention for two hours of content. The next Webcast won't be available until after the meeting, and it will be shorter.
"We were pleased with the first attempt, but organizations must be prepared that if they do it live; they have to look at the," says MPI's Dubois. "It costs money."
Yahoo!'s Woodward said he "preaches frequency" to his clients. Perhaps not surprising, since his job is to sell these things, but Woodward sees real value in looking at Web meeting as a fundamental method of business, just like in-person meetings. "You don't want to just do one. You want to do these frequently. And you want to make this part of your business," he says. "So the goal is to be frequent and then you can back into value created, markets created, and savings realized."
Stan Woodward, vice president of business services at Yahoo!, has several predictions for the future of Webcasting.
* In-person meetings will be less frequent, but bigger, with higher production values.
"[Li ve] meetings will become more of an experience," Woodward predicts.
* Web conferencing will become much easier from the planners' perspective. Woodward expects Webcasting to become just another service that planners order from hotels and convention centers, like rear-screen projection and lavalier mikes.
* Planners will get more creative about marketing their meeting presentations, retooling their content to new markets that they can reach via the Web.
There are scores of Webcasting vendors, and the heavyweights have gotten huge. Two of the biggest, RealNetworks and InterVU, have market caps in the billions of dollars, and last year, Yahoo! bought Broadcast.com for $5.04 billion. Here are some of the players :
Activate.net Corp., Seattle * (206) 830-5300, www.activate.net
InterVU Inc., Seattle * (206) 674-6000, www.intervu.net
MShow.com, Littleton, Colo. * (888) 996-7469, www.mshow.com
RealNetworks Inc., Seattle * (206) 674-2700, www.realnetworks.com
Santeler Marketing Group, Redwood Shores, Calif.; * (650) 367-7713, www.smgtv.com
SeminarSource.com, San Diego * (619) 293-0684, www.seminarsource.com
Third Millennium Communications Inc., Atlanta; * (404) 377-1489, www.3mc.com
Yahoo! Broadcast, Dallas * (214) 748-6660, www.broadcast.com