Web conferencing has become essential in the age of higher travel costs, lower budgets, and online collaboration. But it’s easy to simply rely on conferencing tools as a kind-of stepped up instant messaging system.

To wrest the most use of these systems, experts offer tips on how to best use them to communicate and collaborate.

Barbara Thompson is training manager at USA Funds of Indianapolis, which trains financial aid administrators on new policies and procedures.

Before bringing in Cisco's WebEx conferencing tool she and her colleagues would use for long-distance training, she asked WebEx consultants for advice. Their main tip: keep it interesting. After all, they advised, the audience will be staring at a screen rather than interacting with a live person, so trainers need to ramp up the visuals and offer many opportunities for interaction.

Getting through to employees

“We knew that to be effective we had to be entertaining and provide good information and engage the audience,” Thompson says. “We changed the look of our PowerPoint slides to make them more visually appealing.” Changing the look included adding more graphics and brighter colors. Also, two USA Funds trainers now head each conferencing session. Thompson finds that having two people speaking makes the presentation more interesting to listeners. 

Ruth Folit owns Chronicles Software Co., which makes the journaling software LifeJournal. She began using the GoToMeeting Web conferencing software to help walk her customer’s through LifeJournal’s ins and outs. During Web conferences Folit can actually demonstrate how the software functions.

“In the past I’ve had to tell people how to do something by saying ‘look in the top right corner,'” she says. “Now I can point out and highlight and circle things with a bright yellow marker on screen.”

And she can reach more users in one session rather than working individually over the phone, as she did in the past. Still, keep meeting sizes small, Folit says. She opens up hers to about 16 users, which allows everyone to ask questions and feel part of the group.

Small business owners should consider the added value Web conferencing tools can bring to a business, she adds.

“We charge revenue for the meetings and it’s a money maker,” she says. “It’s added value to our journal software because it gives people a let up in learning the best way to use it.”

Right conferencing tool for your needs

Begin by asking yourself why you’re looking to Web conferencing. Will it be primarily to save time, to save money, to meet with users, to train distant employees? These tools’ capabilities are often tailored to different uses, says Joyce Tang managing consultant at IT consulting company AgilisIT. She consults with customers on selecting the proper Web conferencing package for their needs and suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • How many people will you meet with online? Different tools allow for different numbers of participants, up to about 1,000.
  • Will you need to access your participants’ desktops via the tool? Again, this capability varies by Web conferencing application.
  • Does the tool need to run over a browser like Internet Explorer—and do all your participants run this browser--or can it be access via the Web itself?
  • Will you need video and camera capabilities? For her larger medical clients, Tang recommends e/pop from WiredRed, which allows users to high-end Web conferencing equipment that lets you zoom in and out and read one another’s body language.

SIDEBAR: Costs for Conferencing Capability

Folit is billed monthly for her Web conferencing tool, though she could choose to pay annually. She recommends taking advantage of the complimentary one-month product demo.

“That gives you a chance to actually get your hands on the controls and you can get a sense of how hard or difficult or easy it is to use,” she says.

The costs of these conferencing tools vary widely, though small business owners can easily find tools to fit their budgets and needs. Here are some options:

  • Fuze, a conferencing solution from CallWave Inc. is $29 per month. The conferencing solution works on mobile devices, an aid to those attending without benefit of a computer, and can allow up to 1,000 people in a meeting, says Jeff Cavins, chief executive officer.
  • Zoho Meeting is $12 month and integrated with Skype, says Tang. She often recommends this budget-saving pairing to small businesses.
  • GoToMeeting charges between $39-$49 per month for unlimited meetings with up to 15 participants in each meeting.