There are a number of different software products on the market for online conference calling and video conferencing. In this guide, we’ll explain how online meeting software can facilitate a variety of business processes, including:
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Conference calling and video conferencing are two of the most important technologies in contemporary workplace collaboration. In fact, Software Advice research found that one in four employees in the U.S. uses audio or video conferencing at work.
Online meetings enabled by conferencing software can take a variety of forms, from simple collaboration between employees to complex presentations for potential investors. Generally, screen-sharing and audio and video conferencing applications are all that is needed for one-on-one meetings.
Larger meetings, on the other hand, require specialized Web conferencing products, which offer audio and video conferencing functionality along with special features for hosting webinars.
The market for conferencing solutions is vast, and there are different solutions available for different business needs. To find the solution that best meets your needs, you need to consider how you plan to use the software. Most businesses use conferencing solutions for one of the following activities:
Internal collaboration. Online meeting software for employee collaboration includes basic applications, such as audio conferencing, video calling and screen-sharing. These applications are also found in many VoIP phone systems. Unified communications (UC) clients, such as Microsoft Lync and IBM Sametime are the most complete internal collaboration tools, as they integrate conferencing and other communication channels (e.g., instant messaging, presence, voice calling) within a single user interface. However, many UC solutions are designed (and priced) for enterprise-level rather than small businesses.
Webcasts. Webcasts are streaming broadcasts of content over the Internet. While webcasts usually deliver pre-recorded content, businesses can also webcast live events to reach a greater audience. Some Web conferencing platforms offer special functionality for webcasting, such as streaming slideshows combined with audio conferencing (where participants can view a slideshow and discuss it with others in real time).
Webinars. Webinars are online seminars that allow for more participants than webcasts. They also allow participants to interact with the presenter by asking questions and making comments. Webinars can be used to build brand awareness by presenting information on trending topics, to educate users about a product or to provide updates to customers and investors, among many other purposes.
Web training. Some Web conferencing vendors offer solutions with dedicated functionality for training employees. For instance, presenters can split participants into “breakout session” groups for closer, more interactive collaboration. Reporting functionality also allows administrators to see how well employees are performing on tests and to track if employees are attending sessions, and for how long.
Conference calling and video conferencing can be supported by private branch exchange (PBX) systems, which are the basic components of business phone systems. Using a PBX system designed for use with VoIP service (known as an Internet Protocol PBX, or IP PBX), businesses can make and receive conference calls via hardware conference phones and video phones, or through software applications that have been configured as extensions of the phone system.
Software applications are also used in some stand-alone Web and video conferencing products, such as Skype.
An emerging technology known as Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) promises to make it possible to use standard Web browsers to make and receive audio and video calls and participate in online meetings. This technology wouldn’t require client applications or even browser plug-ins to be downloaded. While some vendors already offer plugin-free Web conferencing with WebRTC, other Web conferencing products depend on plug-ins and extensions, and some require users to navigate to Web portals in their browsers in order to join conference calls and video meetings.
The table below lists the most fundamental online conferencing applications:
|Audio conferencing||Allows users to make calls between more than two participants. Some phone systems limit users to three-way calling, while others offer true audio conferencing that can support thousands of participants.|
|Video conferencing||Allows users to make calls and coordinate meetings involving streaming video and audio, and is offered as part of some phone systems. Stand-alone solutions may require installation of on-premise hardware (e.g., recording equipment and widescreen displays) to ensure high-quality video and audio for participants.|
|Screen-sharing||Allows a user to view another user’s screen and activity in real time. Included in most stand-alone video conferencing solutions and some VoIP phone systems, this application is particularly valuable for remote workers.|
|Recording||Allows participants in a conference to record audio and video for later review. Web conferencing solutions also allow users to broadcast pre-recorded content.|
|Moderation||Allows conference hosts to do things such as add, drop and mute participants.|
Though Web conferencing products offer screen sharing, recording, moderation, audio and video conferencing functionality, they’re used in different contexts than basic audio and video conferencing solutions. Thus, they also offer a number of specialized applications, such as:
|Interactive polling||Allows presenters to instantly administer polls to webinar participants and show the results in real-time.|
|Email invitations||Allow presenters to send emails with information on how to join the webinar, or with “click-to-join” links that allow participants to join directly from the email message.|
|Persistent conference rooms||Allow presenters to design a “virtual conference room” by uploading materials and recording content before the webinar.|
|Annotation tools||Allow presenters to highlight/mark up slideshows, images and other materials used in presentations.|
Most stand-alone Web conferencing products include some or all of the applications in the above table. Additionally, some enterprise UC systems offer Web conferencing within a broader integrated suite of communications applications.
Pricing options for online meeting software vary according to solution type:
Stand-alone video and Web conferencing applications. Pricing for these products is on a per-user, per-month basis. Users have presenter privileges, so you only need to license employees who will be presenting webinars or regularly using video conferencing.
The price for a stand-alone video conferencing solution depends primarily on the number of employees you want to license. Pricing for Web conferencing software products, on the other hand, follows a tiered scheme that factors in both the number of hosts and the maximum number of participants allowed in the conference room.
Stand-alone audio conferencing services. Stand-alone audio conferencing services are priced somewhat differently, as they tend to follow a per-minute, per-line pricing model (businesses pay per-minute rates for each participant in the conference room).
Business phone systems including conferencing. Audio, video and Web conferencing functionality is also included as part of some on-premise and cloud-based phone systems designed for VoIP service. These systems are generally priced on a per-user, per-month basis.
Telepresence systems. High-end video conferencing systems (also known as telepresence systems, due to the fact that their advanced widescreen displays allow participants to appear virtually “present”) generally involve custom, on-premise installation work. Pricing depends on factors such as how many physical conference rooms will be equipped for telepresence and how many screens are needed. These systems generally involve a steep, one-time investment in equipment and installation, though some vendors allow businesses to rent equipment on a monthly basis.
Cloud-based vs. on-premise. Most stand-alone audio, Web and video conferencing solutions are cloud-based. Maintenance, upgrades and support are provided by the software vendor (generally for an additional fee). Business VoIP systems that include conferencing applications can be deployed either as cloud-based or on-premise solutions.
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