Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, November 7, 2003

The Future Of Web Conferencing: Good Interviews Stephanie Downs

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Here is Stephanie Downs, a corporate marketing communication expert who has been pioneering, showcasing and educating the enterprise market to the new opportunities and benefits offered by the world of Web conferencing.

Frequently hosted by the major enterprise platform vendors, Stephanie is the public evangelist of Web conferencing in the enterprise market.

Stephanie has been targeting what she believes are the key corporate marketplace pressing needs, left unfulfilled by most of the early Web conferencing companies: service and training.

She is the one to refer to when your company goal is to organize, setup and deliver professional Web seminars, presentations and marketing presentations.

Stephanie's role in this industry is truly one of the edu-marketer. The person who without using technical terms and while giving and showing lots of examples can most easily facilitate your corporate initiation in this new fascinating universe.

As Stephanie Downs is not a techno-geek herself, her words and demonstrations make it appear all too evident that to be able to meet and work with other people online you need only decide that you want to do so.

Stephanie is there to help you out discover applications, solutions, to prove to your management that Web conferencing has really some ROI behind it and to support you in identifying your evaluation criteria when in need to choose your perfect Web conferencing solution.

Robin Good: What should the corporate enterprise market expect from Web conferencing vendors in the near future?

Stephanie Downs: From an industry perspective, they will begin to see mergers, acquisitions, and what I call disappearing acts. There are hundreds of players with very similar technology. Something has to give. Users in the corporate enterprise market need to prepare for these changes by selecting vendors that are financially stable that will help insure their survival either independently or as an attractive acquisition target.

With the introduction of Microsoft into the industry, we will see more of a business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer focus. To date, e-conferencing has been very business-to-business focused. There are some companies that broadcast weddings, family reunions, and even funerals, but this is a small segment of the market.

Microsoft's entrance will also increase competition and decrease pricing. At this point Microsoft intends to offer it as a stand-alone, ASP based-product, but if it decides to bundle it in with Microsoft Office, this will turn the industry upside down.

Robin Good: How will Web conferencing tools evolve in one year from now? And in three?

Stephanie Downs: Over the next year, users will see e-conferencing continue to evolve in a few key areas - improved ease of use, decreased bandwidth constraints, and streaming going main-stream. For ease of use, the features and functions will continue to become more intuitive. Also, simple and complex technologies will merge in a modular format so people can utilize one technology and set the complexity level for the event at hand.

Bandwidth constraints have improved significantly over the last few years. The vendors are developing new ways to push more through smaller pipes, and WiFi will leapfrog DSL and other connection options that have rolled out at a snail's pace. Once we are all on fast connections, e-conferencing vendors can open the flood gates and crank out some great features.

Users can expect to see the next generation of product going main stream. Currently, pushing PowerPoint with an audio call is still the most common form of e-conferencing. Although it is great that the technology is generally accepted, people are beginning to bore of it. Streaming audio and video are readily available, solid technologies, but they are not yet the common delivery method. However, with improved ease of use and improved bandwidth, you will see these technologies quickly evolve into the common format.

In three years, pushing slides and audio bridges will be a thing of the past and attendees will be bored with streaming. We will be on the verge of virtual reality meetings. We will be teleporting images of ourselves into other rooms and walking into virtual meeting rooms with our colleagues. I can't wait for this!

Robin Good: What kind of role will play the SOHO market into the development and growth of the enterprise one? How do the two interact?

Stephanie Downs: I think the SOHO and enterprise market will evolve together, but the SOHO market will continue to push its individual needs which will steer the development of product features.

Many large corporations have virtual employees working from their homes. Therefore, technologies they are adopting have to work for their corporate offices as well as remote users in their homes.

Also, as the enterprise tools become more advanced, the current enterprise tools will become SOHO tools as the prices drop and the ease of use improves.

Robin Good: What is the one aspect of online collaboration that has been the least understood so far by the companies developing the products?

Stephanie Downs: I think vendors have missed the mark on the service/consulting aspect. They have developed great technology, but they have dropped it in the lap of the user.

I speak often on e-conferencing. Two of my most popular speaking topics are on ways to use e-conferencing and how to plan an event. I am surprised that people are still identifying -- what to me are -- common ways of using e-conferencing.

Not only do they not realize all the ways they can leverage e-conferencing, but they are still intimidated by the planning aspect. Vendors have wrapped some project management services into their solutions - such as writing and sending invitations or managing the rehearsals -- but there is so much more to planning a great event. For both small and large events, there is a lot of strategic planning and creative thinking that goes into implementing good e-conferences. Vendors have an opportunity and an obligation to their customers.

Robin Good: What do the WebEx, Live Meeting, Interwise and other enterprise conferencing tools have that it is impossible to find in competing low-cost solutions?

Stephanie Downs: For the most part, low-cost solutions primarily offer a "show-me" window. The more expensive solutions offer features such as polling, white boarding, chatting, VoIP, app sharing, detailed reporting, surveying, etc. However, these features have been around for some time and are being integrated into the low-cost solutions. The higher-end solutions are now integrating streaming video, registration systems, event management tools, virtual hosts, and even teleportation.

We are seeing the gap closing between lower- and higher-end solutions - which is great for the user's budget and pushes the advanced technologies to even higher levels.

Robin Good: How relevant is the issue of authentication and identity for you in online meetings? Why?

Stephanie Downs: I do not get many questions about this issue from members of ConferZone or when I am speaking. From what I have gathered, people are not using online events for highly-sensitive meetings outside the firewalls or intranets. I do, however, think this will become more of an issue over the next few years. The younger generation of workers will soon become upper-management will be more accustomed to technology and more focused on quality of life (a.k.a less travel). This will increase the interest in using e-conferencing for highly-sensitive discussions.

Taking this a step further, as we start to see virtual reality come to life in these products, identity will become a hot topic. Like we are already seeing with online dating, people will stretch the truth or be someone else if they can. E-conferencing will someday enable people to project the image they want. This will take fraud and identity theft to a whole new level!

Robin Good: What are three Web conferencing tools that you have used and you would recommend as best of breed to any corporate client who asked you for advice? Why?

Stephanie Downs: I do have my favorites, but I think I better keep that to myself ;-) I can however give your readers some advice on selecting a vendor:

* Flexible - Find a vendor that provides a technology that grows as your needs grow. Various technologies enable you to turn off many of the bells and whistles at the beginning and add them as you are comfortable. Also, resellers of multiple technologies offer you more flexibility. You only have to develop and manage one vendor relationship but have access to various technologies as your needs change.

* Financially stable - I once had a client whose vendor filed for bankruptcy one week before the event. In the traditional world, that is like having your conference hotel burn down. You can also get hurt if you buy annual seats from a vendor that disappears. Although I am a big fan of the small players that develop very cutting edge technology, just be careful to not take too much of a risk.

* Good support - Find a vendor that has a good support program. I would request a specific account manager and require a 24/7 support line. Also, a sign of a good support program is lots of training and a good Web site.

Robin Good: If end users could design a system around their true core online collaboration needs which three features do you think they would keep of all the ones they have available today?

Stephanie Downs: If forced to keep three features, they would go with the basics:

* Slide push - PowerPoint is still the standard and it will be for years to come. Even as streaming video becomes common, the presenters will still want a presentation to talk to.

* Polling - Polling is a great feature and one of the most commonly used. It provides interactivity for the audience and feedback for the presenters and company.

* Q&A or Chat - This is another great feature for interactivity and feedback. It also allows some interactivity between the attendees if you allow this. One of the missing aspects of e-conferencing versus traditional conferencing is attendee interaction. Chatting helps alleviate this.

Robin Good: What is the price model that is going to work best in this market?

Stephanie Downs: One that is customizable. People like options. Some buyers will want to hold one event; some will want to buy the solution outright; and others will want to pay as they go.

We will also see e-conferencing follow the typical technology circle - from general to customized and back around. Sometimes, the market demands tools that are general and can be used for multiple purposes. Then they start demanding that vendors understand their specific needs and develop technology to solve their problems. E-conferencing vendors are already starting to evolve into niche areas, such as industry specific. As this happens, pricing models will follow.

As I said earlier, Microsoft will play a very strong role in setting industry pricing. If I were a vendor, I would be a little scared of the power it has in this area.

Robin Good: In the marketing and promotion of Web conferencing and online collaboration products, what do you think have been the vendors greatest shortcomings?

Stephanie Downs: Terminology.
The original idea for ConferZone sparked from the difficulty I was having in doing an apples-to-apples comparison of e-conferencing vendors. I could read five vendor's promotional materials and be certain they had completely different technologies - but when I received demos they were showing me the same features and functions. Show-me window vs. view window, annotation vs. transparency, chat vs. Q&A, polling vs. surveying, Webinar vs. web seminar vs. web conference, and many more.

In the age of dotcom, it was cool to create terms, but I think it has hindered the adoption of e-conferencing. In our attempt to be cool, we have confused and scared away the customer.


Stephanie Downs is a marketing communication expert and an active entrepreneur offering a broad range of strategic and tactical experience, including extensive work in event management and marketing. Stephanie Downs is a frequent speaker about virtual events and communication and the impact e-conferencing continues to have on the business community. She is also the founder of MarKomm Consulting, focusing on the strategy, marketing and production of traditional and virtual events. To complement her consulting business, in 2000 she founded ConferZone, an objective e-conferencing resource that provides comprehensive industry analysis, market data and guidance to organizations.

See also: Best Online Resources For Web Conferencing, Live E-Learning, Real-Time Collaboration and Live Presentation Tools

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    posted by Robin Good on Friday, November 7 2003, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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