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Web Conferencing Explained

What is a Webinar and What Can it Do?

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The most common word for a web conference is webinar, which is a blend of two words – web and seminar. So taking from these words, a webinar is a seminar held on the web. But it is not as simple as that. It can be more complex and more powerful. It is also called an online workshop, where there is not only voice or video communication, but sharing and collaboration in many ways. The most successful webinar tools are those that recreate the environment and features in such a way that it is closer to a real workshop.

Web conferencing and webinars are what they are today due to the big advancement in communication technologies, especially VoIP (voice over IP). VoIP allows the use of the Internet for making voice calls among computers and other portable devices like smartphones and tablets, often for free, if not for very cheap. VoIP also provides lots of features that make these online meetings very productive and efficient. Imagine having to organize a conference or workshop using the plain old landline phones or mobile phones using traditional carriers. Besides being terribly expensive and unaffordable for most, it would also be lacking in features and possibilities.

Features of a Webinar

Thanks to VoIP and other communication and net technologies, webinars have become powerful tools for online meetings, group communication and collaboration, in the broadest sense of the term. Here are the features that characterize it.
  • Voice communication using headsets, microphones and speakers, or mobile devices. It can be done in groups of many people. VoIP communication is free in many cases and is therefore economically accessible to nearly anyone around the world, thereby creating a larger audience for the organizer of the webinar.
  • Video chatting. The same technology that carries sound can carry video. Participants can therefore see each other during the session, opening the way for visual presentations, improved personal acquaintance, trust etc. Most webinars that target a wider audience don’t include video though, because of the increased requirements, which include web cameras and good bandwidth. Internal and corporate webinars do.
  • Text chatting. Your webinar tool is foremost an IM (instant messaging) tool, in which you can send and receive text messages or SMS. This allows people without microphones to communicate. For example, someone in the audience can send a question in written.
  • Recording for future sharing. What happens to those who could not attend? A webinar can be recorded and broadcast or shared in any other way later on.
  • Screen sharing. The presenter can share whatever appears on her screen to all other participants. She can have a PowerPoint presentation, for example, or just make a demonstration, or else have a video being played.
  • Whiteboard. Or blackboard. They call it white because markers have replaced chalks, but you can choose the color. As an extension of screen sharing, the presenter’s shared screen can be turned into a freely writable area where she can jot down points or draw objects, or have pre-written text highlighted.
  • File sharing. In a conference where there is collaboration over data, data files can be shared through the webinar tool. These include pictures, text documents, presentations, sheets etc.
  • Questions and answer sessions. Webinar tools have intuitive ways of easing the question-answer time of the conference. For instance, you can have the raising of hands, which is actually simply the motion of your finger – you click a button and the presenter sees that you want the floor. It can also be the other way round. The presenter might want to set polls, surveys, or simply multiple choice questions, like in the case of an educational or tutorial webinar. Some tools have refined evaluation features designed for these types of webinars.

Who Holds Webinars?

You might consider holding webinars or web conferences in the following cases.
  • For marketing. You want to draw people to a product of service through explaining things to them.
  • For corporate meeting and collaboration. Your business meetings can be more frequent and less costly, as you would cut cost on travel and save a lot of time in the process. People in different physical locations and different dispositions (some may even be on holidays) and still participate. The collaborative features make everything possible.
  • Education. Make a virtual classroom through web conferencing. Here too, collaboration and resource-sharing features help a lot. This is the way to go for distance learning courses, or after-hour help. It can also help students organize group works.
  • Awareness programs. You want to make a workshop or simply communicate your ideas on a topic and want to sweep a worldwide audience. Organize a webinar and invite people to it.
  • Family and friends. Who said webinars are only for serious stuff? You can have friends and family meet up online for a chat, or for planning something.

This list is of course not exhaustive.

What is Required for a Webinar?

  • An audience. You may have all it takes in terms of logistics and technology but if you don’t have people to participate in your webinar, forget about it. This is probably the most difficult thing to achieve in most cases, when organizing a webinar, especially those that are for awareness and marketing. There needs to be a lot of things to do well before to make sure that the ‘room’ is going to be full. Even if you already have your audience (co-workers, students, friends etc.), you still need to have them around at the date and time, so planning the schedule and working towards it is very important.
  • A web conferencing service, which will link all participants wherever they are, in the system to your webinar. The service and all its software features will be hosted on the vendor you are paying.
  • The necessary hardware. That would include a computer or a portable device (smartphone or tablet). Audio devices like microphone and speakers, or headsets are important. For video, a webcam is of course necessary for the presenter, but not for the big audience.
  • An Internet connection with sufficient bandwidth. With only voice, the bandwidth need not be very high, although you should always keep in mind that voice quality is heavily dependent on the bandwidth. Video web conferencing requires obviously more bandwidth.

What it Costs

As a simple participant, it might not cost you anything if you already have the hardware (and nearly everyone does) and the connection. There are however some seminars that have intellectual or commercial value that are charged for participation.

As an organizer, you do have a cost. It depends on the amount of people you want to host. For up to 50 participants, you might need to set around $20 aside. This cost varies also depending on the features obtained.

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