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Insider Tips for Buying Web Conferencing Software

Easy to use, uncomplicated and economical web conferencing software is what virtual teams and global employees look for when they decide to introduce web conferencing to their enterprises. Besides the ease of use factor, the major expectations include world-class feature sets, as well as security and the ability to work in all standard environments. There is no doubt that the requirements of small to medium-sized organizations will be different from that of large companies. However, there are some insights that are common to all buyers of web conferencing systems.

One of the very first considerations is, who are you buying the software from? Vendors will either sell direct or through integrators or resellers or sometimes in both ways. Whether or not purchasing the software and equipment directly is unlikely to make much difference, but when purchasing web conferencing as a hosted option, there is a hidden risk. Some vendors offering hosted conferencing services will run their own data center, hosting the service themselves, while others will rely upon partners and resellers to arrange for hosting independent of the vendor. In the latter case, more scrutiny is required. Even though the primary vendor may be reputable, the company doing the hosting may be unknown and unproven.

It is easy to overlook important elements in the web conferencing deployment. In addition to examining web conferencing systems, it may also be necessary to take into account other related applications and whether or not they need to be integrated, and the possible need for additional infrastructure. For example, if you are hosting your web conferencing in-house and are planning on extensive video feeds, it may be necessary to plan for additional bandwidth to accommodate the extra traffic. In addition, it is important to take careful account of compatibility issues. Many web conferencing packages offer easy connectivity from any standard web browser, but this may not mean that everyone who wants to participate will have the ability to access all of the features. Most of the web conferencing software available today is Mac-compatible, for example, although some features may not be compatible with the Mac environment, depending on the vendor’s implementation.

Web conferencing has entered a stage of maturity, and now it is certainly possible to find a vendor with a solid reputation – and, in the case of a hosted provider, one that has a robust global network with a detailed Service Level Agreement (SLA). The SLA is another often overlooked aspect of obtaining web conferencing solutions. The SLA should offer very specific uptime metrics, as well as actions that will be taken should the guaranteed uptime not be delivered. In general, 99.9 percent uptime capability is the minimum desired. The mere existence of an SLA means very little; take the time to examine it carefully. Some vendors use an SLA merely as a marketing tool and create it using vague and subjective terms. An SLA that promises to deliver “sufficient” uptime means nothing. An SLA that guarantees 99.9 percent uptime is the real deal.

And lastly, security may be an important issue, depending on use. Standard authentication through passwords or hardware token should be incorporated into the conferencing system. But beyond the login procedures, there may be additional security concerns. Will the web conferencing system work with your corporate firewall, and the firewalls of any external participants? If it does not, it may become necessary for participants to temporary shut down their firewalls, thereby creating a potentially dangerous situation. The conferencing system should be able to function while the firewall is enabled. Ask the vendor whether the system will work with your specific firewall.

When considering a web conferencing system, whether hosted or on-premises, the following basic steps can be followed to ensure success:

  • Grasp the technology. Before just buying any product it is necessary to understand the basic concepts of the technology. The same holds true for web conferencing software. Web conferencing software takes on many forms, so get a good understanding of what is available and how it works.
  • Understand your requirements. Once you understand what the technology can do, then it’s time for a “needs assessment.” Define your needs in very specific terms. What do you hope to accomplish with your web conferencing software, and what do you expect the system to do for you? In creating the needs assessment, gain input from all departments that may be using it, as requirements may vary between departments. For example, the sales department may have very different web conferencing needs than the accounting department.
  • Pick your platform. Web conferencing software products are available either as an on-premise solution or a hosted option. An on-premise system will require more up-front capital expenditures for equipment and software licenses, as well as an increase in administrative overhead and manpower. The hosted system will typically cost less, but may be inappropriate for large-scale needs that may involve high-end video.
  • Analyze the market. Before deciding on web conferencing software, take a good look at the web conferencing market in general, to determine how other companies may be using the software successfully, what features are available, and what features are likely to become available in the near future.
  • Narrow the field. Now that you have decided the type of web conferencing software you are going to buy and what you want to do with it, start putting together your “short list” of vendors. Check each vendor for details about the service itself, as well as the company’s reputation and financial stability, availability of support and training, quality of service, and in the case of a SaaS delivery, the existence of a Service Level Agreement. Obtain demonstrations whenever possible before making your final decision, and ask for customer references.
  • Try it out. Many web conferencing solutions offer a free trial. Take advantage of this and try out the solution. It’s ideal if you can try it in the environment that is close to how it will actually be used. Be sure to test all the features that are important to you. Pay extra attention to the attendee experience. Ultimately it is the attendee vote that counts with their participation as the measure of success.
  • Plan your deployment. After you have made your decision, plan your deployment carefully. If you are going to use web conferencing in several departments, move the technology in stages.
  • Run a test. Run a test of your web conferencing software involving your staff members and all departments. This will help you identify any training issues or technical problems that may exist before you apply the technology.

Web conferencing has come down in price considerably since its first appearance, when it was mostly limited to larger organizations. Today web conferencing is affordable for almost any company, no matter how small. The least costly option is usually deploying web conferencing as a hosted service, because this eliminates the need for most up-front capital expenditures. Within the hosted service option, the pay-as-you-go format is the most basic, and most appropriate for newcomers with only occasional conferencing requirements. Pay-as-you-go simply means you pay by the minute and per participant, without the need for a long-term contract. Although the per-minute cost may be higher, if use is only occasional, the bottom-line expense will still be less with this option.

For those who plan to use conferencing more frequently, vendors of hosted services also offer pricing models based on number of seats, often with unlimited conferencing allowed.

On-premise web conferencing systems may be costly, but for larger organizations with very frequent conferencing requirements, this may be the better option. The software licenses may run tens of thousands of dollars alone, and to that must be added the cost of equipment, as well as the added cost of in-house administration and manpower.

When considering pricing, return on investment (ROI) is a consideration. The web conferencing software should be able to deliver a measurable ROI. The first and easiest aspect of ROI to measure is travel reduction; however, the bottom-line benefits go beyond cutting back on travel expenses. The presence of web conferencing may also result, at least indirectly, in an increase in sales, as it gives sales reps a tool to reach customers more efficiently. Furthermore, it enhances collaboration overall which may lead to easier and quicker decision-making. Lastly, training and support costs can be reduced with the use of web conferencing as well.

What Features to Expect from Web Conferencing Software
The features of web conferencing software are different from vendor to vendor. There is an endless array of bells and whistles available, but not all of them may be necessary for all users. Following are a few of the more common features and aspects to look for in a web conferencing solution:

  • Video. Video adds a personal, highly interactive element to web conferencing, and it may be as simple as adding a fifty dollar webcam or as complex as a ten thousand dollar high-end full-room video camera. Adding video to the web conference may also require additional bandwidth both downstream and upstream, so it’s important to make sure that adequate bandwidth is available before arranging for a live video conference.
  • Audio. Almost every web conferencing system will offer an audio component. This may be accomplished through Voice over Internet Protocol and incorporated directly into the computer display or through a separate phone bridge.
  • Record and playback. The ability to record the entire conference and archive it for later playback is invaluable, especially to accommodate those who may not have been able to attend – or, in the case of a training session, to provide for an archived library of training modules that can be referred to at any time.
  • File transfer. Web conferences may require participants to share files. An integrated file transfer feature will allow for easy sharing of files in real time.
  • Interactive whiteboard. Another common feature, the whiteboard allows all participants to view and simultaneously mark up a common screen for “brainstorming” sessions and other purposes.
  • Third-party app integration. Some web conferencing systems allow for the easy integration of presentation software such as PowerPoint or word processing or spreadsheet applications.
  • Desktop and application sharing. The presenter should be able to allow all participants to view, but not necessarily interact with, his or her own desktop for the purpose of illustration.
  • Remote control. The presenter should be able to take control of the desktop of a participant. This feature is particularly useful for training or for customer service or technical support meetings.
  • Multiple monitor support. This allows the presenter to utilize more than one monitor at the same time during a conference.
  • Polling and surveys. This common feature allows the conference leader to take instant polls or surveys of all participants and show the results in real-time.

New Web Conferencing Technology
You understand the technology, and you know what you want. But as is the case with any technology, vendors are constantly innovating.

The 3D interface is one excellent example of a new addition to the web conferencing feature set. Tixeo Soft’s Workspace 3D for example, allows a conference leader to create an interactive, 3D environment to the conference. This delivers a tremendous advantage, especially to conferences that lack a video feed. Live video adds the advantage of being able to see visual cues, but it can be costly and require additional bandwidth that may be lacking. In this case, the 3D addition will add back in the ability to see visual cues and emotions. A user is also at liberty to simply display panoramic images of their office during the meeting. From several photos of your office a panorama can be created for a very realistic rendition of your actual environment.

One of the novel features introduced by DimDim Web conferencing software is the introduction of a webinar widget. A user can share this widget on any website by way of FaceBook or Twitter. The main advantage of this widget is anyone can register for the conference event by just entering their email address. On successful registration a confirmation email is sent to the entrant followed by another email informing them about the start of the meeting.

Yet another feature introduced by TurboMeeting Web conferencing software version 4.0 provides its users with an improved capacity to host and administer extra large meeting groups. By using 4.0, enterprise teams can currently host web conferencing for up to 200 attendees.

Finally, more web conferencing solutions are incorporating mobile support, so that participants can join from their mobile devices such as the BlackBerry or iPhone.