Dec. 29 2006 12:21 PM

If the expression "electronic conferencing" conjures images of you and a roomful of colleagues gathered around a squawky speakerphone, it's time to think again. One of today's fastest growing information sharing practices is Web conferencing, and it is moving virtual meetings out of specially equipped conference rooms and into individual offices and workstations.


Requiring nothing more than a standard desktop computer and an Internet connection, Web conferencing delivers real-time multimedia communications that encompass interactive work sessions, facilitated group learning and more. Companies of all sizes have begun using the technology to foster productivity, strengthen collaboration and contain costs.


The Changing Needs of Business

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, there has been an increased willingness to try various forms of electronic conferencing as an alternative to business travel. Economic conditions have also forced companies to consider ways to conduct business differently and more efficiently. In a 2002 survey of meeting habits conducted by Wainhouse Research, Web conferencing far surpassed both audio and video conferencing as the respondents' preferred means for conducting meetings since 9/11.


Analysts predict online conferencing services will be a $5 billion industry worldwide by 2005, with a compound annual growth rate of 79% for 2001 to 2005. A major force driving this growth is the rapid advancement in electronics technology. The personal computer (PC) is already evolving into a universal communications appliance, capable of handling data, voice and video transport as well as PC-to-PC application sharing. The maturing of Web conferencing technology means that with little up-front investment, smaller companies can use it as part of their daily workflow and realize the same benefits larger organizations have been enjoying for several years.


A New Way to Web

At its most basic, Web conferencing enables users to share information and applications on their PCs with anyone else who is connected to the Internet. Where traditional forms of electronic conferencing typically require participants to have specially equipped endpoints, Web conferencing carries the media directly to participants' PCs, allowing them to connect spontaneously and conveniently from their own offices or workstations.


Today's advanced Web conferencing systems have even eliminated the need for traditional phone lines to carry the audio portion of a meeting. Instead, using a PC equipped with a microphone, headphones and an optional Web

camera (for live video streaming), data, voice and video can converge onto a single transport platform called Internet Protocol. Shifting these communications to the language of the Internet allows companies to cut the access fees for integrated services digital network (ISDN) connections or variable rate charges associated with phone calls, making Web conferencing a highly affordable alternative to most other forms of electronic conferencing.


The Web-based approach to business communications is gaining broader acceptance as a tool for strengthening virtual teams, reducing travel costs or connecting a geographically dispersed audience. Companies are fundamentally changing the way they do business by implementing Web conferencing for such varied activities as employee training, sales presentations or customer education.


Relationships Based on Information Sharing

One company familiar with the advantages of Web conferencing is Firstlogic, Inc., the Wisconsin-based developer of Postalsoft mailing software. The company offered its first "webinars" to customers back in 2001 and since then has hosted more than 150 Web events, most as part of its annual iSummit online conference series. Firstlogic webinar

participants are able to interact in real-time with company representatives and industry experts on a wide range of topics without having to set foot outside their offices and without incurring any costs other than their time.


"The organizations that license software from our company look to us as their 'postal experts,'" says Christopher Lien, Firstlogic's commercial mail market director. "An important part of that role is helping them discover ways to improve efficiencies and reduce costs. By using the Web for sharing information, we're able to provide mailers with an innovative way to collaborate and increase their knowledge, while at the same time helping them eliminate the time and travel expenses associated with learning opportunities."


Because presenters and participants don't have to physically be in one location, the medium has proven especially successful for online collaborations between postal officials and industry experts in communicating compliance issues associated with changing rates and regulations. Joe Lubenow, of Lubenow and Associates, is the immediate past-chair of the Mailers Technical Advisory Council (MTAC) for the U.S. Postal Service. As an iSummit presenter, Lubenow has an appreciation for the efficiency of Web conferencing. "Traditional conferences typically require a six-month timeframe for planning and getting everybody there," he notes. "Web conferencing offers much more flexibility and trims planning time down to basically whatever time it takes to prepare presentation materials. You can be more responsive as a result."


Convenience is a major reason the webinars have become so popular. Besides not having to travel or take time away from the office, Kathy Osterberg, an analyst with Corporate Graphics Document Solutions outside Minneapolis, likes the ease in which Firstlogic's online events can be entered as well as exited. "You can sign off and go on your merry way and nobody is disrupted," says Osterberg. Moreover, "if you register for a session and something comes up where you can't attend, they automatically send a recording of the live event that you can download and listen to at your leisure. That's a real plus."


The Truth is in the Test Drive

The variety of options available in Web conferencing technologies is vast, and sometimes overwhelming to the new user. Evaluating conferencing solutions means stepping beyond the usual features and functionality checklist to really examine how you plan to use the technology and how well it matches your company's size and current information technology infrastructure.


Basic considerations include:

  • Networking Can participants in a live event be

    connected from both fast and slow connections? What is the minimum bandwidth for connecting?

  • Scalability Will the system support any number of

    concurrent users or events? Does it provide server load balancing for greater reliability?

  • Participant Tools Is the client application easy to use? Do the tools enable the level of interaction necessary for a positive user experience?

  • Presenter Tools How easy is it to create materials? What file types are supported? Will the system support multiple presenters?


    There may be no better way to understand the potential of Web conferencing than to participate in a live session. With just a few clicks, you can try a test drive from the comfort of your own PC and see why Web conferencing may well be the "Next Big Thing" for your mail center operation.


    Leslie Wegener, is founder and principal of Juniper Hill Partners. For more information on Web conferencing, visit

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