Zoom is a relative youngster in the web conferencing space. The company was founded in 2011 and its preliminary collaboration product (Zoom Meetings) went into general availability at the start of 2013. I originally knew it as a peer group meeting product, which is not my primary focus, so I didn't stay on top of developments. By late 2014, Zoom Video Webinar had come along and I should have paid more attention. But I did not have a client using the product until recently, giving me the chance to use it in a production setting and properly review its utility as a webinar platform.
I asked Janelle Raney, a product marketing executive at Zoom, for help with background on the company itself. Janelle explained that corporate headquarters are in San Jose, California, with additional support locations in Kansas City and Malaysia, sales offices in Santa Barbara and Denver, and development offices in China. The company does its own engineering in-house, rather than using outsourced developers (this is important to me in helping to maintain quality control). Growth has been fast, and there are now approximately 475 employees worldwide supporting more than half a million businesses using Zoom conferencing and collaboration products (these include hardware-based conference room video conferencing systems, instant messaging, and phone conferencing).
I used Zoom's web-based live chat for technical support quite a few times during my testing. No matter what time of day or night, including weekends, I was able to get a tech support person chatting with me in short order. They were knowledgeable about the product and were able to answer my product operation questions.
This review will focus exclusively on Zoom Video Webinar. Licensing follows the now typical industry model of allowing unlimited usage for a monthly subscription charge. Tiered plan rates start at USD $40/month for a room capacity of 100 participants. Plans can extend all the way up to 50 speaking roles and 10,000 view-only attendees. There are add-on charges you will probably want to plan for, such as storing, streaming, and downloading webinar recordings on Zoom's cloud servers. Participants can always use computer audio or telephone with local toll numbers. But if you want to add global toll-free numbers or call-out to participants, you'll pay more as well.
The basic operation and conceptual organization of Zoom will be familiar to anyone who has used GoToWebinar. Visual content comes from sharing a presenter's computer screen… there is no upload and conversion of PowerPoint files or other types of documents. Presenters can stream live video from a webcam. The live video image overlays a portion of the screen share display rather than residing in a separate margin space. The software runs as an installed executable application on each participant's computer.
Zoom's clear differentiation is in the quality of its screen sharing. I will say without hesitation that this is the highest performance screen share I have encountered. I ran PowerPoint slides in slideshow mode at full screen, full resolution and the software was able to smoothly display the most complex animated sequences involving movement and color changes to every pixel on the screen. I was frankly amazed to see PowerPoint's "origami" slide transition effect reproduced perfectly. I can't imagine anyone using that effect for anything other than torture testing a screen share product… It visually "folds" the slide content into an origami swan that rapidly flaps its wings and flies off the screen. It's a crazy amount of fast pixel movement that Zoom somehow manages to keep up with. I don't know how they do it. As a presenter, you can easily use smooth scrolling on a document or web page and know that attendees are able to see the scroll happen as you see it, rather than as a discontinuous sequence of partial redraws.
Live video performance is also fine, with nothing particularly good or bad to remark upon. An interesting and unusual feature is that a presenter can set a dynamic option during a session that optimizes the screen share for showing full motion video. Again, this is the only screen sharing product I have seen that can keep up with a full smooth motion video and display it to attendees with synchronized sound. If you pause the video, attendees pause on the same video frame. Very impressive.
Interactive features include the usual polling (which can be "choose one" or "select all that apply"). There are slots for up to 8 selection choices. Presenters see raw votes, while attendees see percentages only. Polls can be predefined as part of the webinar setup, or may be added during a running web session. Interestingly, you can define multiple questions to be displayed within a single "poll" - acting as a miniature survey within the session.
There are some quirks involved with typed interactions. It took me a while to get comfortable using Chat and Q&A (two different types of text interaction that can be controlled separately). For one thing, administrative options use inconsistent interfaces.
Here is the Chat window. The organizer has options found under the word "More" at the bottom right:
Compare to the Q&A window. The organizer has options found under "Options" at the top right:
That is obviously not a big problem, but it is one of several areas that left me feeling like features had been added piecemeal, without an eye towards overall cohesiveness in operation.
I don't know if you could read the option on the Q&A panel, but it is unique in my experience with web conferencing products. Organizers can choose to allow participants the option to submit questions or comments anonymously if they desire. If the option is enabled, attendees can check or uncheck a box to attach their name to their text submission. The problem is that even when the option is disabled, attendees see the option box to "Send Anonymously"… It just is inactive. This can be frustrating and confusing if they don't know why they can't use an option they see on their interface. It would be much better to eliminate the display of the option when not enabled.
This problem exists in other areas as well. For instance, the host can disable chat for attendees, but they still see the option and can open the chat window with a message saying "Host disabled viewer chat." Don't tell my attendees what they could have done if only I had been a kinder host!
Question and Chat management is fairly simple. Chat messages may be tagged to be seen by the entire audience or by panelists only. A panelist can respond privately to an incoming chat message from an attendee. Questions can be answered publicly or privately in typed text, or the host can set a flag indicating the question was "answered live" (presumably by audio). There are no other panelist/host controls to set priority flags or delete individual submissions. Text in the Chat window is selectable for copying and pasting into another document, but text in the Q&A window is not (more inconsistency).
One of my biggest areas of dissatisfaction with Zoom Webinars is that the host cannot open attendee microphones if desired. Viewers (Zoom uses the term "viewer" to indicate an attendee without panelist authority) are always limited to text responses. If you want to allow a viewer to speak, you need to promote her or him to panelist status. This causes a logout/login sequence to occur on their computer, taking several seconds. The attendee then has all other status privileges associated with panelists, including the ability to see private panel chat, turn on their webcam, and so on. It is simply impractical.
I was also disappointed in Zoom's implementation of private setup mode for use before a webinar goes live. They refer to this as "Practice" mode. It is very simple… It just blocks all viewers from logging in to the webinar. Panelists can speak with each other and test out their content in private. Then when they are satisfied, the host exits Practice mode and lets attendees log in. I find this much less useful than products that let attendees log in early and see some kind of lobby display or visual content while the panelists are able to continue talking in private.
Recording worked nicely. You have the option to record to your local disk or to your cloud-based Zoom account. You can pause and continue a recording during a session (I wish more products had this feature). Recordings are automatically saved in two standard formats: mp4 for audio/video and m4a for audio-only. I did run into a problem in one of my tests where my profile headshot remained displayed over a corner of the shared screen content. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get rid of it.
Registration page customization is fairly standard. Zoom lets you use a standard field for Country with a pre-populated drop down list of choices. Even better, it gives you a proper State/Province drop down with choice lists that change dynamically for the USA and Canada. Now if they could just make that State/Province field disappear completely when another country is chosen! You can add custom questions in short text input format or your own set of drop down choices.
Email customization is extremely limited. Confirmation and reminder emails have a standard format and content, with slots where you can slip in some text of your own. You can't customize the email that goes out to panelists with their login instructions. You only have three options for when reminders get sent… 1 hour before start time, 1 day before start time, and 1 week before start time. Even the optional follow up emails to attendees and absentees include boilerplate text you can't get rid of. And the soonest you can schedule a follow up email to go out is 1 day after the webinar. That is insufficient and Zoom needs to work on better flexibility and shorter response windows.
Post webinar reports include a Q&A report in spreadsheet format. It lists each question, the user name, email, and any answer that was provided (or the "live answered" flag). It does not include a time stamp for when the question was submitted.
An Attendee report shows the usual join/leave times and number of minutes in session. The spreadsheet format is frustrating in that it includes different sections all on the same sheet, with column titles that don't correspond to the same column data in other sections.
A Performance report shows quick summary stats for numbers of registrants, attendees, and questions asked.
And now we come to the tougher part of the review… Subjective impressions. This is where I end up frustrating the Zoom product management folks, because I'm not pointing to specific features, but to my overall "feel" for the product as a user. As I said at the beginning of this piece, the screen sharing performance is unmatched. It's a great vehicle for showing software product demos. I would use it in a heartbeat for meetings and conferences where everyone is on an equal footing for participation. It is obvious to me that this was the original development focus and vision.
The relative simplicity of many features points to a desire for a short learning curve and easy "pick up and use" operation. Yet when I did my early testing and ran my first client webinar, I repeatedly found myself confused over how options should be set, how to most effectively manage attendee interactions, and especially how to handle multi-presenter handoffs and presentation control. I had a situation that never got resolved, where we couldn't lock the live video on one primary presenter… Every time another panelist spoke, the image switched to them. The feature that was supposed to lock it to one person had no effect.
The inability to allow attendees (viewers) to speak was frustrating for my client's needs. And I wanted much more control over email content and scheduling.
I think Zoom Webinars is "almost there," but needs a bit more detail work to bring it up to fully competitive status with other products concentrating on business webinars as opposed to web meetings. It's not that it needs more features… It just needs some hardcore use case analysis and refinement of existing functionality to make it more intuitive and flexible for webinar administrators and presenters.