Web conferencing and Web-based seminars are taking a bite out of traditional business travel and telephone conference-call budgets, with companies like WebEx, Microsoft, Raindance and Netspoke leading the revolution. Indeed, with the surge in demand around Web conferencing technologies rapidly increasing, IDC predicts that the conferencing-applications market will grow from nearly US$600 million in revenue in 2003 to more than $1.1 billion in 2007.
The Web conferencing market has matured and all-out exploded since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused business travelers to think twice before casually hopping on an airplane. While some observers thought the terrorism threat would inspire a temporary boost, industry players say the momentum shows no sign of slowing.
The E-Commerce Times got together with Netspoke President & CEO Scott D’Entremont to discuss the challenges in Web conferencing today and to find out how his company plans to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
E-Commerce Times: What is the state of Web conferencing today?
Scott D’Entremont: Today, Web conferencing is an accepted, widely usedbusiness communications tool compared to six or seven years ago when the technology was new and intimidating. The technology has evolved to a point where companies of any size depend on it and host, attend or schedule several Web conferences per week.
ECT: What are some of the most encouraging signs that this technology has finally found a secure home in corporate America?
D’Entremont: Since we’re out in the field quite a bit helping existing customers, as well as talking with new customers about our service, we see first-hand how widely adopted the technology is. It’s encouraging because companies now actually budget for this technology. It’s a common line item on most corporate budgets. We’re also seeing the uses for Web conferencing expand beyond sales and marketing to other areas such as training and distance learning, investor relations, creative collaboration, and customer service.
Another encouraging sign is that companies are now looking to standardize on one corporate conferencing solution versus each department working with its own service provider. There aren’t as many rogue users and therefore the company has a more unified look and feel to its Web presentations, the IT department only needs to keep track of one set of technical requirements and network needs, managers have one view of billing, and companies can negotiate a more favorable price for the service.
ECT: Research firms predict this market will reach the billion-dollar mark in the next two years. What is driving Web conferencing technologies?
D’Entremont: Cost savings certainly drive the adoption of any new technology. If a company can save money, it will use and adopt a new solution. A few years ago, Web conferencing was seen as a good alternative to the high cost of an airplane ticket. While this still applies to some extent, companies now realize they can save money and increase revenues not only by reduced travel costs, but also because conferencing technologiesallow employees to be more productive and efficient.
Confidence in the technology and ease-of-use has also made Web conferencing a more accepted way of doing business. It’s not a pre-scheduled, ‘I’ve got to practice for my Web conference’ mentality anymore; it’s more, ‘Hey, let’s hop on a Web conference to figure out this spreadsheet.’ In addition, increased penetration of broadband is making the Web conference for both the presenter and the attendee more reliable, faster and a better overall experience. Attendees are more receptive because they had a good experience and presenters are more confident.
ECT: Are there any unforeseen circumstances that could slow the momentum?
D’Entremont: Broadband is predicted to grow at an increased adoption rate of 80 percent in the enterprise in the next few years, which is significantly faster than the current 50 percent rate. If this predicted adoption slows, that could affect increased use of Web conferencing because no one likes a slow connection.
ECT: What are the biggest myths surrounding Web conferencing technologies?
D’Entremont: I think there are a few, but probably the one that still sticks with many people is the fact that it’s hard to do, expensive and unreliable. Many of the early products weren’t ready for primetime when they hit the market so this perception was created and validated for a while. But everyone in the market has worked hard to overcome these obstacles and Web conferencing is now an easy, cost-effective and reliable way to conduct an important meeting.
ECT: What should companies look for in a Web conferencing provider?
D’Entremont: There are many conferencing providers, and selecting the right solution really depends on the customers’ unique needs and requirements. In general, I’d recommend companies look for a provider that can offer integrated Web and audio services.
Choose a solution that tightly integrates both audio and Web conferencing so there is no disconnect in the interaction between parties using both services. Look for a vendor whose solution is flexible enough to meet your needs. For example, choose a solution that lets the administrative work be done by administrative people — setting up and removing customers isn’t something that should be so confusing that your CTO is the only person who can do it.
Additionally, you don’t want to have to rely on your provider to make such changes if you need to quickly grant or remove access to a user. The product should be easy-to-use and intuitive. Conferencing bells and whistles are meaningless if the solution is difficult to navigate. Users should have point-and-click access to the features they need in an interface that makes sense.
There should also be good reporting tools that allow administrators to easily track Web and audio usage and participation so they can keep an eye on costs and who has been using the service when. Some other important features are application sharing and file sharing, as well as interactive feedback — the ability to let users chat online, conduct Q&A sessions and poll attendees on vital business issues.
You’ll also want to look for a provider that has a good reputation for scheduling, preparing for, executing and reporting on operator-assisted calls. These calls can play a key role in a company’s public image, and executives don’t want to have to worry about the details.
Finally, customers should ask vendors to provide total cost of ownership figures for their solutions. Don’t just think about the cost of the services or subscription rates. Think about the cost to pay people to administer the services and the time expense of pulling them away from their core responsibilities. The more complex a vendor’s services are, the higher the total cost of ownership.
ECT: What new capabilities or features are Web conferencing technology providers offering?
D’Entremont: Enhanced integration with other applications such as Outlook and other e-mail systems and instant messaging. Industry analysts predict that instant messaging will become the platform for launching most virtual meetings because team members can instantly see who’s available for conferencing. Also, look for support for IP-based conferencing. The promise of lower phone costs is pushing VoIP toward critical mass. This will become a focal point for many conferencing vendors.
ECT: What’s next? How will this technology expand in the future toinclude more options for users?
D’Entremont: IP is turning conferencing into a one-click, on-demand, desktop-centric paradigm. Users will be able to tap into a rich new range of conferencing services. “Instant” conferencing means that presence-based technologies like instant messaging will allow users to find one another on whatever device they want to be found — their cell phone, desktop, Blackberry, etc., so that they can collaborate on a project.
Presence will be the front-end of how businesses communicate in the future. Enterprises will no longer need to schedule important conferences hours, days or even weeks ahead of time. Instead, presence-based conferencing will allow them to locate important stakeholders instantly and initiate real-time conferences on the fly so that business doesn’t wait. IP-based conferencing will converge real-time voice, Web and collaboration tools over a single packet-based network, creating a new, productivity-enhancing user experience for the digital conference room. The future for conferencing is promising for both vendors and their customers.