How to select the best web conferencing software

A beginner's guide to choosing web conferencing systems

Web conferences can offer businesses a cost-effective way of holding meetings, that bring together a lot of people from diverse geographical locations. It enables them to talk 'face-to-face' over the web, and share presentations and documents, and can therefore be a more profitable way of holding a meeting than using audio alone.

Web conferencing services enable workers to hold collaborative meetings that use interactive white board tools, give live and visual demonstrations and presentations, as well as allowing the sort of roundtable discussions that businesses have in a physical meeting.

These elements make web conferencing superior to standard conference calls, which require participants to rely on verbal cues alone, and frequently mean that people talk over each other, leave awkward silences, and have to clarify their points because they can't use visual indicators to assist.

Getting the right start

Web conferencing requires a video camera, which now tends to be built into a laptop computer or can be attached to the top of a monitor, and a web browser, and generally involves downloading a small application from the web.

Some of the leading web conferencing service providers offer recording and playback tools, so that participants and authorised users can access meetings after they've taken place, and review presentations and demonstrations, also being able to access whiteboard sessions. This can be a useful way of sharing information with broader teams, or audience members who could not attend the web conference.

Cost savings from web conferencing

In terms of the financial advantages of Web conferences, these include saving money on physical travel expenses, because colleagues do not have to be flown in for business meetings, with additional costs that can include hotel charges, conference room hire fees, and so on. It also enables executives and other participants to use their time more efficiently, for example attending several web conferences in a week, whereas they might only be able to attend one major meeting if it requires travel.

There are many web conference services available, and they all tend to support the main operating systems (Windows 7, Windows Vista and XP, and the Mac OS), but vary greatly in their tools, look and feel, security features, and audio and video quality. In addition, some services will support up to 1000 participants, with others only allowing 15. They also vary in terms of how much they charge, but range between £20 and £30 a month.

Examples include

Web conference add-ons

One factor to look out for, in a web conference service, is a high-quality interactive whiteboard facility, because one of the benefits of using a web conference is that you can share presentations that you wouldn't be able to over the phone. Businesses should also look for a range of feedback and collaboration tools, because web conferences should be viewed as a way to enhance a room-based meeting, rather than just replace it.

They should also look at security features, because sharing sensitive information over the Internet, even in a web conference, holds a risk. Look for seamless security, with user registration and authentication as well as end-to-end encryption, which can scramble the data from the participant through to the service provider and the other attendees.

Choosing the best web conference package for your business

Businesses should also look for ease-of-use, and this is important because participants will have different levels of technical knowledge and confidence. Services should have tutorials and step-by-step start-up instructions, and there should also be adequate help and support as web conferencing can be very complicated. This should be in the form of help menus built into the system, and step-by-step guides to every stage of the meeting, from initiating a session to terminating it. Many of the major web conferencing providers offer 24x7 support for meetings.

Which one you choose depends on if you're planning on regular conferencing or on an occasional basis. Experts advise that it is best to find a web conferencing service that suits your business needs, as they vary greatly in their tools, quality, and the number of users they support. Nevertheless, there are plenty to choose from.