How do web conferencing providers differentiate themselves from the pack and demonstrate their superiority in value and benefits to potential customers? The primary answer (as known by any commercial software product marketing manager) is to add features. “More features! I need to be able to put out a press release talking about new capabilities! I need to publish a product sheet showing that we can do something our competitors can’t do!”
So one vendor adds the ability to show a map of webinar attendees. Another adds innovative polling options. Another integrates payment processing in the registration module. Yet another creates fancy chat and Q&A management. It’s easy for a salesperson to tell a prospect “Look what WE can do!”
But there is another aspect of web conferencing superiority that is much more subtle and difficult to assess... The qualitative performance of the audio/video that gets distributed to participants in a web session.
- How quickly and smoothly does a screen sharing session update the image on participants’ machines? If you use your scroll bar on a window full of information, do attendees see the data scroll, or do they see a chunky and discontinuous redraw?
- How is the voice quality of streaming audio? Does it pause and buffer? Are there little dropouts? Does it sound lifelike, or clipped and “tinny”?
- Is video sharp and synchronized with audio? How does the streaming experience behave on an overloaded computer or a slow network connection?
- Is there a difference in the quality when watching an archived playback?
These are almost impossible to measure and compare in a repeatable, universal manner. Performance may be great for a single host on a T1 line going to another local machine on a T1 connection. But add in some internet hops, LAN congestion, a wi-fi connection, a computer with less RAM, or any of a hundred other potential factors, and how does your measured data match another user’s experience? I know that when I try to test performance between two computers on my home office network, I often run into bandwidth congestion as one machine is uploading while the other is downloading the same data to/from the internet.
I support public webinars all the time for clients with audiences around the country and around the world. Given a large enough audience, somebody out there will report problems with their reception of the streaming audio or video. All it takes is seven people writing in about “the atrocious sound quality” or “the stuttering video” and my clients panic and worry that their webinar was a technical disaster. I try to give them perspective on the fact that 300 people reported no such problems, but the complaints get the attention, not the silent contented attendees.
What is a web conferencing vendor to do? I’m sure they quickly reach a point of diminishing returns on continued R&D in this area of performance, since there is no chance of ever completely eliminating poor performance for some user’s lousy local conditions. And saying “we have really good performance” is unlikely to boost sales to new customers. But continued bad performance is VERY likely to lose existing customers, who get frustrated with a feature they want to rely on, but can’t trust.
Video is getting a lot of attention lately as the hot marketing fad of the decade. But I would rather see some serious attention paid to upgrading webcast sound quality, with clever fallback algorithms designed to provide smooth, high quality sound for people with good connections and then scaling down to still provide an unbroken but more compressed audio stream in low performing client computers. Some of the big name vendors who charge serious money are still far behind reasonable expectations of sound quality on their streaming audio. Audio is a fundamental, strongly influential component of an attendee’s experience and needs to be treated as an important aspect of the conferencing product’s quality and value. Too often, it seems to be treated as an afterthought.