Web Conferencing: Which Service Is Right for Your Business?
BY Mary O. Foley
How online conferencing works and how it can help small businesses communicate with customers, investors and employees like a big player.
The word is out: Web-based conferencing is a tool can let even the smallest business swim with the big fish.
Web conferencing can replace the need for face-to-face sales pitches and training sessions -- and the travel budgets, airport wait times, and seminar fees that go with them. They can be more productive than teleconferences, because participants can view the same document rather than have it read to them.
And they allow small and mid-size businesses to angle for market share in places where they have no on-the-ground presence. Frost & Sullivan forecasts that the Web conferencing market will grow by 24.4 percent to $2.9 billion by 2011, with small and mid-size businesses driving much of that growth.
But which product serves the small business market best? “It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish,” says Alan Greenberg, senior analyst and partner with Wainhouse Research, a Duxbury, Mass. research firm. Companies seeking a training venue may prefer one provider, he notes, while those using the technology for demos, meetings, or collaborative work may prefer others. Ease of use, functionality, technical support and pricing are all important considerations.
Here are four Web conferencing products tailored for small and mid-size businesses and what experts have to say about them:
Cost: Per-user pricing structure starting at $180/year per user; other options.
Features: Intuitive for Microsoft Office users, Live Meeting meshes well with calendaring and IM, according to Forrester Research’s Claire Schooley. A hosted product, it offers good scalability and supports billing and eCommerce, she says in a June 2006 report. A downside? Schooley refers to its complex pricing structure as “a challenge.”
Features: The industry leader, Webex has 67 percent of the Web conferencing market. MeetMeNow allows up to 10 people to participate. Its ultra-secure data systems back up data and allow document and transcript retrieval. While Schooley says some desktop features such as its whiteboard are not as strong as other competitors, she gives its audio system and global dependability superior marks. Adds Greenberg: “Webex has rock-solid service. It may cost more, but it can be worth it.”
Features: Previously Macromedia Breeze, Adobe’s retooled product uses Flash to power its Web conferencing product. “It’s like a breath of fresh air,” Schooley says, “since 98 percent-plus of [computers and hand-helds] have Flash, the meeting starts immediately.” Flash allows a conference to be launched from a PDF document, and supports streaming video with ease. Adobe assigns users a static URL for conferencing that customers can add to their contact information.
Cost: GoToMeeting’s “all you can meet” is a flat fee for unlimited service.
Features: Perhaps the most minimalist Web conferencing product, GoToMeeting offers screen-sharing over a secure 128-bit-encrypted connection. While it allows instant messaging (IM) and the ability to invite guests via e-mail, its desktop functions are limited. But that's where the product's strength lies. “It’s built for simplicity and to get you up and running quickly,” says Wainhouse’s Greenberg.