In recent weeks I have fought with VoIP difficulties on webinars using three different web conferencing technologies. Is VoIP truly ready for prime time?
A bit of background first for those unfamiliar with the terminology and concept. VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. In our particular niche - looking at web conferencing – it refers to letting participants use a microphone or headset connected to their computer as a way to let other meeting participants hear their voices.
This is subtly different from “broadcast audio” or “streaming audio”, which deals with the transmission of sound out to participants’ computer speakers. The sound in that case may come from a telephone call patched in to the web conference or from recorded audio clips being played as part of the meeting content.
VoIP is a great concept. When it works correctly, it offers several potential advantages:
- It removes a separate technology (telephones) from your meeting equipment requirements and places focus solely on the computer.
- It reduces the complexity of instructions you need to send out to participants, since there are no telephone numbers and codes to remember.
- It can reduce costs by eliminating telephone connection charges.
Unfortunately, VoIP is prone to several disadvantages as well:
- Not everyone owns a computer headset/microphone. If your participants don’t have the right equipment, they are helpless (I think it’s fair to say that everyone has access to a telephone).
- Computer-connected headsets require configuration for use. Many web conference participants are not experienced or patient enough to go through the right steps. You are dealing with a computer peripheral that has drivers to load and interactions with Control Panel settings. Simply getting your computer to select the headset as the input/output audio device to use can flummox users on occasion.
- The interaction between the conferencing software and the headset can potentially be confusing (to use a charitable term). I have had cases where the order of connection can mean the difference between success and failure. I’m not saving myself any time in connection instructions if I have to tell participants to connect their headset first. Then select it in Control Panel. Then start the conferencing software. Then confirm a popup box that lets Flash recognize the device. Then run a test step to set audio levels.
- This isn’t a fair ding against the technology itself, but the nasty fact is that most of the computer headsets I’ve come across out there in the general community are of appallingly low quality. Businesses all too often seem to tolerate purchases of VoIP headsets as a lowest-possible-cost toy rather than as a valued business asset.
Even when everything else works, computer headsets in webcasts sometimes exhibit random behaviors that are nothing short of mysterious. I was on a webinar yesterday where my headset worked fine until I had to replug it right before show time. Then it switched to a feedback mode where my audio was picked up by the mike and rebroadcast. I sounded like I was talking in a giant tin can. I had an event where my client as the primary speaker could use her VoIP headset right up until I connected mine on another computer under a different login, at which time she was blocked out. The vendor couldn’t explain it at all. I gave a training session where we used collaborative participation with audience members on computer headsets. One person could never get his headset to broadcast through the software. One person’s mike was live the entire time, even when explicitly muted in the webcast software.
When these things happen, you can easily spend long, frustrating periods of time trying to diagnose and repair the setup by long distance. And that’s a recipe for disaster with your audience. As soon as they start concentrating on the technology rather than your topic and content, you have lost the battle for effective achievement of your goals in holding the meeting. With my training class, I spent a short time trying to solve my audience’s problems, but ended up rescheduling the session with the promise of a telephone dial in.
All in all, I’ll reserve VoIP participation in webinars for internal business sessions with coworkers I know. Ones where I can tolerate some fumbling and frustration if things get muddled. But for public sessions and webinars where I need to rely on voices actually making it all the way into the web conference without exception, I’ll stick with the telephone as the input device of choice.