Tracey Wilt, manager,travel, meetings, and conference solutions, Xerox: “Virtual collaboration is a huge initiative.”
Webconferencing is spreading like wildfire. Virtual meetings save time and money, get a thumbs-up from the “green” crowd, and offer new ways for companies to communicate, market, and sell. It's time for your department to start booking and managing them.
If you've never attended a webinar, check the home page of your favorite industry association. One will be coming soon. If you've never organized a webconference, you won't believe how cheap and easy it can be. And if you've never thought of webcasts (or virtual meetings in general) as falling squarely within the scope of your meeting department, think again.
Why You Need to Know
Research firm Gartner Inc. predicts U.S. businesses will spend $1.6 billion on webconferencing products and services in 2011, more than twice what they spent in 2007. Driving that growth, says Gartner analyst Jeffrey Mann, is “the need to support workers in different locations, travel reduction, and the inexorable drive toward richer forms of communication and collaboration.”
Providing rich forms of communication sounds a lot like the goal of a meeting department. “Virtual collaboration is a huge initiative at Xerox,” says Tracey Wilt, manager, global travel, meetings, and conference solutions, at Xerox in Webster, N.Y. Eliminating or shortening in-person meetings, she says, “allows for employee productivity, work/family balance, helps us to be green by avoiding CO2 emissions, and reduces our travel spend.”
Xerox consolidated its travel and meetings management with its virtual conference management in 2005. At that point, Wilt was managing travel. But a promotion in October 2007 gave her responsibility for travel, meetings, and conferences. “Since then, the synergies have been huge,” she says. “Internally we like to say, however you need to meet — whether virtual, live, or a hybrid of both — we have the portfolio of solutions to accommodate your needs.”
And the planners' role is consultative, not just logistical. “We currently have two outsourced meeting management companies that are extensions of our meetings team,” she explains. “Our meeting management suppliers talk to end-users about virtual collaboration. We want them to be effectively influencing the decision on the best way to meet. Even if part of the meeting is in person, maybe the first day could be done as a webconference. Maybe a four-day meeting could become a two-day meeting by integrating webconferencing tools.”
It's a whole new realm for busy planners to understand and manage. “I had been a user of the services, mainly audio and webconferencing” Wilt says. “I tend to be a quick study, but once I got conferencing as part of my responsibility, I knew I needed in-depth knowledge of the services. I started to do online research, network with peers, and use our preferred suppliers to gain more knowledge on the conferencing solutions. And every day I'm still learning.”
It's a path all planners should follow, believes Debi Scholar, CMP, CMM, CTE, who is director, meeting and event services, at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Florham Park, N.J. At PwC, virtual meetings management has been fully integrated within the meetings department since 2002. Initially, a virtual meetings team led by Terry Schmidt, senior manager, resided within the meetings department and handled all virtual conferences. But with virtual meetings up a whopping 107 percent since 2006, a reorganization was carried out this summer. “For the fiscal year ending June 30 we managed about 600 virtual meetings,” Scholar says. As of July 1, she and Schmidt have scrapped the dedicated virtual meetings team in favor of requiring all planners to understand and offer virtual meetings options to internal clients.
After all, the focus should be on the message, not the medium. “Virtual meetings are not about the technology, but rather about bringing together virtual attendees to accomplish a goal,” Scholar says. “All of the creativity that meeting planners bring to a face-to-face meeting can be repackaged in a virtual environment.”
And on the operations side, planning departments withprograms in place are already set up to take on virtual meetings. “Meeting managers focus on process consistency and data reporting for face-to-face meetings,” says Scholar. “Why not use those defined processes to centralize and manage virtual meetings? Virtual meetings can be registered and tracked, routed through an approval process, paid for using a centralized system, and most important, included in the cost-savings report.”
Bring It On
But Scholar and Wilt are trailblazers here. Nearly half the corporate meeting planners surveyed by Meeting Professionals International for its FutureWatch 2008 report said that webcasts would be “more or much more frequent” in 2008. Despite that, only 29 percent of corporate planners surveyed said they are making an effort to position their departments as “a go-to source on webcasts.” And almost half said they would be “minimally or not at all responsible” for executing webcasts in 2008. And when Scholar surveyed her own list of senior corporate meeting planners, nearly half of the respondents said virtual meetings are handled by their IT departments.
“Webconferencing often lacks a ‘home,’” Scholar says. “Technology support may lie with IT, yet building the environment to accept virtual meetings should lie within the meetings and events department. It requires a meeting planner to strategically manage the direction of virtual meetings in an enterprisewide environment, with, of course, meetings stakeholders and IT.”
Indeed, webconferencing vendors say that meeting planners are not their typical contacts within companies. “Usually it's the end-user of the product — the person who runs sales, the person who runs,” says Mark Yeager, vice president of marketing at webconferencing provider iLinc, Phoenix, Ariz. “It can be IT, but only when a company is trying to centralize the technology to be used across the enterprise.”
Yeager believes, however, that meeting managers would do well to step in and guide their companies' webconference sourcing and use. “You can absolutely make a business case for meeting planners to be driving or influencing the decision-making,” he says. “The reality is, the people who are using the products and care about the experience are the ones who should make the decisions. What I often see is the IT department making a decision on a vendor, and then the actual users go out and use whatever they want.”
Industry guru Ken Molay, president of consultancy Webinar Success, Cary, N.C., notes a similar failure to create a unified plan. “In some companies I've seen a central organization that purchases and controls [the technology], but then no one knows whom to contact or how to set up an account.”
Online Meetings Take Off
Here are some quick definitions, courtesy of Molay, who is also a tireless industry observer with tons of great content at his blog (wsuccess.typepad.com/webinarblog/): “Webconference” is often used as the umbrella term for online meetings — people connected via conference call and viewing common content on their computer screens. But it can also indicate a small, collaborative meeting where everyone participates and shares ideas — for example, a project meeting.
A webinar is primarily a one-way flow of information where the sponsor is requesting some type of feedback from participants via pre-registration and/or instant polling during the session — for example, a sales demo or prospecting meeting.
A webcast is the least interactive, a “one-to-many” meeting, where the “many” can number into the thousands — for example, a CEO addressing the global troops or an investor relations conference.
At Xerox, the latest and greatest application is on-demand media, powered by Brainshark. “The best way I can describe it is as ‘voice over slide show,’” says Tracey Wilt. Which sounds similar to a conference call with screen sharing except that here the communication is on demand. Say Wilt needs to communicate a new piece of the Xerox travel policy. She creates a couple of PowerPoint slides and records two or three minutes of audio explaining the slides. Then she posts it on the Web and sends out a link. When recipients want to view it, they simply click on the link and are taken to the slides, which they view while hearing Wilt's voice describe them.
At Xerox, this technology has become popular for training and, most recently, within sales for lead generation. Not only is it more convenient for attendees, who can view it whenever their schedules permit, it's great for presenters as well because of tracking capabilities. They are able to see who clicked through and how much of each slide was viewed. Use of the technology has exploded at Xerox. “It was a struggle to get 25 Brainshark authors in 2003,” says Wilt, “and now we have more than 1,000.”
Molay sees webconference growth happening in two ways: On the collaborative side, he says, “it's a ground-up popularity, like instant-messaging.” With webinars and webcasts, the growth is “top down” — companies need to disseminate information to a large number of people and are looking for alternatives to the ballroom. “Travel is becoming more expensive and a lot less fun than it used to be,” Molay says, “and the very current aspect is that green sells. Companies want to be seen as doing something for the environment.”
Grace Kim, vice president of product development at San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems, which took over webconferencing provider WebEx last year, agrees. “The hottest topic right now is ‘going green,’” she says. “Webconferencing can directly reduce CO2 emissions while still giving you the benefits of a meeting.” Besides, she continues, “it fits nicely into most major business initiatives today. The key themes of the business world are the global nature of the economy, the distributed work force, and reduced corporate travel.”
At Citrix Online, Goleta, Calif., developer of GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar, Senior Product Marketing Manager Kineon Walker calls the webconferencing market “hot,” noting that Citrix Online is growing twice as fast as parent company Citrix. “The traditional use of webconferencing was for things like the project meeting inside the house,” he says. “Now clients are using webconferences outside the house, to reach prospects and customers.”
Industry research reveals a broadening of webconferencing use as well. “The most compelling return on investment has been in sales and marketing departments, followed by training,” says Roopam Jain, principal analyst, Frost & Sullivan, Palo Alto, Calif. “These three account for 74 percent of webconferencing revenue. As we go forward, we expect webconferencing will continue to be a strong tool for sales, marketing, training, and customer support, but really [will] become more horizontal and spread to a wider user base to address the entire business work flow.”
Extending Meeting Reach
And while everyone cites travel reduction as a driver of webconferencing growth, especially now, with jet fuel costs out of control, there's another trend at work here. Many virtual meetings are used in addition to or as part of existing in-person meetings — rather than as replacements.
“Integrating virtual meetings with face-to-face meetings allows meeting sponsors to reach broader audiences,” says Scholar. “As an example, a webcast of a live event to virtual audiences extends its reach without additional travel costs and lost productivity. And many face-to-face meetings have pre-conference work or follow-up activities that can be done in virtual meetings to ensure that the overall meeting objectives are met.” Scholar notes that while virtual meetings have increased at PwC, the number of face-to-face meetings has remained constant.
“I don't think any of our customers are trying to sub out all face-to-face meetings,” says Citrix Online's Walker. Some, for example, may have a face-to-face meeting at the beginning and end of an internal project, with webconferences at regular intervals in between. Conversely, he says, a company might “wrap virtual meetings around a live meeting,” by using webconferences as prep and post-mortem sessions.
Robert Tess, director of marketing and communications at MPI, believes that the most interesting webcasting trend revealed by the FutureWatch 2008 survey was “the use of webcasts in conjunction with live events, raising the total attendance overall.” According to Tess, MPI began tracking webcasting use in 2007 with questions “designed to uncover whether webcasts cannibalize the number of and attendance to live meetings, or if they are complementary to the industry, creating additional ways to gather and exchange knowledge and build relationships, thereby providing a new channel for industry growth.”
Art and Science
And, one might add, a new channel for meeting planners' expertise to shape corporate communications. “Running an effective face-to-face meeting is an art and a science, and it's the same online,” says Yeager at iLinc. “There are best practices.”
For example, Terry Schmidt at PwC says there are three factors behind the decision to do a virtual meeting: type of content, length of time required to cover the content, and the level of interaction required among the participants. “We consult with the customer to determine their meeting objectives,” she notes. “If we agree that a virtual meeting is optimal, we look at factors such as content, audience size, location of presenters, and budget to select which type of virtual meeting to plan. The meeting and event services department makes the decision in the best interest of the customer.”
Among the options: “Our webcasts provide streamed audio or video, along with interactive features and the ability to show PowerPoint files,” she says. “Our webconferences allow for a more collaborative meeting with additional file-sharing options and group tools. And we have done hybrid meetings, broadcasting the program from a face-to-face meeting via webcast to those invitees who could not attend in person.”
The least formal webconferences require no more skill than basic telephone etiquette. In fact, believes Walker of Citrix Online, we're approaching a time when “businesses of all sizes will use this technology like they use the phone.”
Molay agrees. “The on-the-fly webconference will become commoditized and eventually will be free — a loss leader for webconferencing companies,” he says. It's already free at DimDim.com, and cheap at GoToMeeting.com from Citrix Online (starts at $49 a month) and MeetMeNow.com from WebEx (starts at $39 a month).
End of Travel? Don't Bet on It
No one in the e-conferencing business is predicting the end of live meetings. In fact, more than one of the sources contacted for this article was traveling on business at the time of the interview. Says Molay, “A webcast is not going to replace your annual customer summit. But it could shorten it. You could decide to deliver all the information with a virtual meeting and deliver the social aspect in person.”
And at Xerox, says Tracey Wilt, “there will always be the need for travel. We are a global company. But we want to make sure it's the right balance of travel and other effective collaboration solutions.”
Who Can Hook You Up
Adobe (Acrobat Connect or Connect Professional)
The pitch: Ease of access for presenters and attendees on any Flash-enabled computer. “Connect Pro has incredible flexibility to reconfigure the layout and content of the viewing console and excellent audience interactivity features,” says Ken Molay, president, Webinar Success.
The pitch: Create, deliver, and track on-demand Web-based presentations
Cisco Systems (WebEx)
The pitch: We fit your niche. For support, there's Support Center; for a classroom setting, there's Training Center; for sales demos, there's Sales Center; for webinars, there's Event Center; and you can still get the basics with Meeting Center and MeetMeNow. “As customers adapt WebEx to their uses, we will add features,” says Grace Kim, senior product manager. Molay's take: “They're the market leader, with a huge support network — both hardware and human.”
Citrix Online (GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar)
The pitch: Easy and affordable. “We said no to a lot of people who asked us for specialization so we could say yes to a lot of people who want to use our products immediately without training,” says Kineon Walker, senior product marketing manager.
The pitch: It's free. “And not just free, but open-source, allowing users to add enhancements and fix bugs,” Molay notes.
IBM (IBM Sametime)
The pitch: Integrated with the Sametime software customers are using for other communications
The pitch: Forget the monthly payments and own the software. “If you're using a lot of webconferencing, the economics make sense,” says Mark Yeager, vice president of marketing. “You can install it on your network or we can host it for you.” iLinc also offers the Green Meter, a rolling total of CO2 emissions savings realized during a webconference.
The pitch: “Integrates into the Microsoft Unified Communications model,” says Molay.
The pitch: “Not just the software, but full services around event production, promotion, and syndication,” Molay says. “There is much more emphasis on streaming webcasts with video.”
The pitch: Add features, pay the same price. ReadyTalk has launched EventManager, which adds webinar-type features to its basic collaboration model. Molay's take: “It's David going against the Goliaths.”
Get Ready for the SVMMP
Five steps to launching a strategic virtual meetings management program
Get educated. Participate in webinars, try demos at vendors' Web sites, talk to planners with virtual meetings experience.
Get the big picture. “Step one is to uncover all the virtual meeting, webconference, and desktop collaboration use throughout your company,” says Debi Scholar at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Speak with the suppliers to find out what money you're spending.”
Get stakeholders involved. Analyze your data and take it to all stakeholders, including the high-volume users, legal, risk management, procurement, and your IT group. Then you can create a comprehensive requirements document in order to select standard suppliers.
Get the. Create RFPs, narrow the field of suppliers, and negotiate contracts. Scholar advises developing service agreements with each one.
Do some hand-holding. “Create a virtual meeting and distance-learning culture,” says Scholar. “Make it easy for internal clients. Become the single point of contact with exemplary customer service skills and the ability to interface with IT and suppliers as needed.”