This blog post is targeted specifically at “one-to-many” webinars such as marketing presentations or investor relations webcasts. Many of the points I raise will not apply to smaller, more collaborative peer-based web meetings.
In large session webinars, the majority of the information flow is outbound from the presenters to the audience. It’s simply impractical to let the audience members all chime in during the session. So if we accept that there isn’t going to be much two-way voice interaction between the presenters and audience, is phone conferencing still worth talking about?
I maintain that it is.
Whenever possible, I prefer to give my audiences an option on how they can listen to the presenters. They can listen over their computer speakers or dial in on the telephone. People have different personal preferences, equipment, and business considerations. Hopefully the web conferencing or webcasting software you use has a way to integrate telephone and computer streaming audio. This almost always entails having your presentation team call in on a teleconference line and then streaming the telephone audio into the webinar content so it can be distributed as part of the audiovisual information received by all attendees.
Given the ubiquity of teleconferencing in North America and the incredible number of providers you can choose from, is this just a simple commodity where you should go with lowest cost? Or are there actual differences in features and functionality that matter in a webinar? No prizes for guessing my answer… It’s the latter. Let’s take a look at teleconferencing features that can make your life easier when working with a public webinar. (By the way, I acknowledge that audioconferencing may be less common and less feature-rich in other countries. My experience is based on the American market.)
1) Multiple presenters. It is common to have anywhere from two to six people working on the presentation side of your event. These can include multiple subject matter presenters, a moderator, a supervising administrator, and perhaps some technical assistants who work on prioritizing and answering audience questions via chat. Watch out for teleconference systems that only allow a single host for a call. You need to let your entire presentation team join with higher privileges than the webinar attendees have.
2) Call joining. Most teleconference systems provide a single call-in telephone number for the meeting. They then step callers through a series of question/response challenges to identify them as presenters or attendees. A very few teleconference systems provide completely separate numbers for attendees and presenters. It cuts down on the number of steps callers have to go through before they get access to the meeting and I find that this also reduces the odds of presenters calling in and identifying themselves as attendees by mistake (something that happens with ridiculous frequency). The tradeoff is that it is easier to mix up the call-in numbers… You don’t know pain until you find you have sent out the presenter dial-in number to your entire audience!
3) International access. Obviously this only applies if you have international participants! If you do, this becomes a huge differentiator between providers. Check pricing structures from the various countries that may call in. Find out which countries have toll free access numbers and toll (direct dial) numbers. Many countries need both… It is common to find countries that ban toll free access from mobile phones for instance. Does your provider host an online reference page that lets attendees look up the most convenient access number for their location? Or will you have to create the list and host it yourself? Try calling an international access number and listen to the prompts. Are they in the local language or English? Will this matter to you? Watch out for prompts that say “Press the pound key” – Most foreign countries don’t refer to the crosshatch symbol as “pound”.
4) Barge tones and announcements. Make sure you have a way to turn off “barge tones” (beeps indicating when people join and leave the call) and announcements of each caller. These features may be useful for small meetings, but can destroy a large public webinar. The call mechanics should never call attention to themselves. You want no distractions from the information flow.
5) Private presenter subconference. Sometimes called a “green room” (an entertainment industry term), this lets the presentation team talk to each other without the audience hearing them. Absolutely essential for professional public audience events, since you don’t want early joiners hearing the team make final preparations or joking around. The convenience feature to look for is automatic entry into the subconference for all presenters when they dial in at the start of the call. Some providers force the presenters to dial codes to enter the subconference or force the call host to explicitly place them in the private conference. This creates more opportunities for things to go wrong. I like being able to press a single code at the end of the call to take all presenters back into the subconference for a private debriefing and wrap-up discussion.
6) Audience muting. You should be able to configure your call so that audience attendees automatically join the call with their lines muted and are not able to unmute themselves.
7) Call recording. Even though I record my full webinar presentation using the web conferencing technology, I like to record the audio call as a backup. This gives me the ability to digitally edit the audio file and to re-create the presentation if the webinar recording fails for some reason. The teleconference recording should have higher audio quality than the webinar recording (most webinar technologies heavily compress their recordings to reduce processing and file size). Look for the ability to get a lossless format digital file of the call – or at least an extremely high bitrate MP3 (192K or higher). If you use the green room subconference idea mentioned in item 5, you should be able to make your recording start and end automatically in conjunction with joining the presenters into the main conference and pulling them out at the end. The fewer commands you have to issue, the better.
8) Question management. This gets tricky on big events. If you want to let audience members ask questions over the telephone, it’s usually best to use your teleconference provider’s operator services to help you. You may be able to save money by running things yourself, but this needs practice and expertise as well as higher level capabilities in the teleconference software. You want attendees to be able to queue themselves to ask a question (the digital equivalent of raising your hand in an auditorium and waiting to be called on). Then a host needs to be able to open a specific queued line and indicate to the caller that they are live and on the air. Then the host needs to be able to mute their line again and open the next one in queue.
9) Call ending. Especially if you use a private subconference after your presentation, make sure you can force a disconnect on all attendee lines. As strange as it sounds, some attendees will stay connected, running up your costs, even though they can’t hear anything. Maybe they wander away and leave the line open. I’ve never understood it.
Use these guidelines to help you in your selection process along with close looks at audio line quality, pricing, billing/reporting details, and customer complaints found through Google searches on the company name. Finding the right audio conference provider can simplify life for the host, presenters, and audience members in your webinars.