January 19, 2011

Sizing up 15 top Web conferencing services

A screenshot from Watchitoo, an inventive and powerful new addition to the Web conferencing field.


Here are our top choices for live streaming tools, webinars & employee collaboration online

Target audience: Businesses, brands, educators, nonprofits, community organizations, Web publishers, individuals. Updated Feb. 18, 2011.

The following guide, originally created by TechSoup Global, has been significantly updated and expanded by J.D. Lasica and Kim Bale.

More and more businesses and entrepreneurs are turning to Web conferencing services to communicate with fellow staff members, customers, supporters and prospects.

webinarsA Web conference is a virtual meeting you conduct online, allowing you to share documents and applications from your computer with people in far-flung locations and to communicate with them via video, text or voice chat. Through Web conferencing, you can bring together employees to collaborate on a project, present webinars about your latest product or services, or train advocates or support staff.

While your business likely uses email or conference calls for much of your long-distance communication, sometimes a full-blown virtual meeting is the only way to hammer out the details of an important initiative. Web conferencing lets anyone with an Internet connection and a Web browser meet and collaborate online in real time.

Some conferencing tools require participants to install a piece of software on their own computers before they can participate; other tools are entirely Web-based. All require an Internet connection. The tools differ in the features they provide for collaboration and communication. For instance, some let participants speak to one another through their computers’ microphones while others let everyone interact via video. Still others have an option to join the audio part of the conference by a separate audio/telephone bridge.

To help you choose a service that suits your business, we’ve pointed out features commonly found in Web conferencing products and explained other considerations you should be aware of. Our list leaves out tools like Skype and Apple’s iChat, which offer great video conferencing (video chat) and text chat for a limited number of people but don’t offer full-on Web conferencing services that offer a wide range of collaboration capabilities.

When considering all of these great features, it’s important to consider how these capabilities will affect your Local Area Network (LAN). For example, many of the products below include videoconferencing. One person using hosted videoconferencing at a location wouldn’t add to much to local network issues. Multiple workers videoconferencing at the same time could slow the rest of your network traffic.

Whenever possible, try out the product before purchasing. Use the information below and on product websites to narrow your choices, then try the two or three products that best fit your needs.

Here is our comparison of 14 top Web conferencing services. If you have your own favorites, or have any updates or corrections, please share them in the comments!



Watchitoo: Multimedia collaboration

1We used Watchitoo during Personal Democracy Forum and the midterm elections and were impressed with its rich collaboration feature set. Watchitoo is a real-time collaboration platform where multimedia presentations meld with video conferencing to create a powerful stage for online communication. Its technology lets you easily host and participate in cutting-edge presentations that support multiple video feeds, screen sharing, white-boarding, API implementation, embedding capabilities and recording functionalities that enhance employee communication and collaboration.

Software required: Web-based, no download required.

Invitation tools: Multiple embed locations, internal email invitations.

Collaboration tools: Screen sharing, up to 25 presenters while simultaneously playing any form of rich media, text chat, questions, Twitter & Facebook posting, mobile access, videoconferencing, video editing, whiteboard.

Recording: Yes

Polling & survey: Coming in the next 75 days.

Post-meeting reports: Yes

Pricing: Free up to 5 people; up to 25 people for $39/month plan; up to 50 people for $49/month plan with a larger storage capacity.

Pay per use: Yes for live events

Trial: 30-day free trial

Bottom line: A cutting-edge service for collaborating around rich-media projects. Includes some capabilities not found elsewhere. One hiccup: a slight time lag in VoIP conversations.


Cisco WebEx Meeting: An industry stand-by

2The granddaddy of Web conferencing services, WebEx, was purchased by Cisco in 2007 for $3.2 billion. The WebEx suite offers a broad range of Web conferencing services, including a Meeting Center, Event Center, Training Center and Support Center. WebEx and Microsoft Office Live Meeting are considered the two heavyweights in the field.

Software required: No downloads for participants, will run on any Internet server or smartphone mobile device.

Invitation tools: Send meeting invitations and reminders using an automated phone call, text message, email from your local client or instant message.

Collaboration tools: Screen sharing via desktop and applications. Multiple presenters, annotating tools, text chat, teleconferencing, VoIP, mobile access for iPhone and Blackberry devices, videoconferencing.

Recording: Yes

Polling & survey: Yes

Post-meeting reports: Yes

Pricing: $49/month or $468/year per host. Additional options for the WebEx Training Center (up to 1,000 participants) and Event Center (up to 3,000). Continue reading