Shaun McIver is President and CEO of Streamlogics Inc. (www.streamlogics.com), a leading global provider of webcasting and web conferencing services.
What's the difference between webcasting and web conferencing? Under what circumstances should each be applied? This has been one of the most confusing topics in the online events business for the past decade. Unfortunately, some vendors are only adding to the confusion. I recently Googled the keyword "webcast", and most of the companies who ranked highest under the paid search category were, by definition, web conferencing vendors.
The purpose of this article is to define the benefits of each medium, dispel the disinformation, and help you decide which is right for your organization. But first, let's agree on the proper definitions of these technologies.
A web conference is an online meeting typically conducted by combining your phone with the web. You can present slides and share desktops online using your PC. Audio is captured and transmitted through your phone line or by VoIP. In some circumstances, video can be captured using a desktop video camera. Web conferencing is ideal for smaller, collaborative meetings where most if not all participants communicate amongst one another.
A webcast on the other hand is a live or on-demand presentation streamed in audio or in both audio and video over the web. Ideal for targeting larger online audiences, webcasting is essentially "broadcasting" over the Internet. A webcast is typically a sophisticated, professionally produced program of broadcast quality, streamed live with almost any combination of interactive features, from Q&A tools to surveys and polls.
The business goal for either medium is typically the same: to communicate with a geographically dispersed group of people via the Internet. However, the degree to which the tool will impact the success of your online event is staggering. When assessing which to use, we'll consider these three business factors: audience, presentation quality, and budget.
Location: Is your audience concentrated in larger enterprises, smaller businesses, or home offices? Are they in one country or dispersed around the globe? These crucial distinctions may impact whether you select a webcast or a web conference for your next online presentation.
When using or viewing the application (desktop) sharing feature, most web conferencing tools require the use of java-based, PC software. This software can be either a stand-alone application or browser plug-in that presenters and audience members must download. There's a downside: in larger enterprise organizations, most IT managers prohibit employees from downloading software which has not been approved by the corporation for security-related reasons. Therefore, application sharing may not be accessible for all enterprise users.
Most webcasting suppliers rely only on the software that is already bundled into typical PC operating systems. The intention is to make it so simple to participate in an audio or video webcast that any user can do so on a new PC, just out of the box.
Also, is your audience located in one country or multiple countries? A webcast provides one common link to the same event no matter where the audience is located geographically. A web conference, on the other hand, usually uses a conferencing bridge as the capture and transmission medium. This means that a web conference may require multiple toll-free access numbers to provide local dial-in in each jurisdiction. This adds to the potential for confusion and audience frustration.
Size: Are you hosting a smaller, collaborative meeting or a mission-critical presentation to a larger audience? Web conferencing is ideal for smaller, interactive working sessions with 5 to 10 people, especially if you require real-time collaboration or document-sharing. The larger the audience, the more you should consider a webcast. Webcast participants can still enjoy the flexibility of real-time dialogue with presenters through Q&A and polling; it's just managed in a more moderated, controlled environment.
Consider ahead of time how easy it is (or isn't) for your audience to join the meeting. Remember, participants may need to download a plug-in to take part in a web conference. Now, imagine 300 participants trying to login into a live event at a specific time, with some or all of them having to download an application to participate. For smaller meetings, the audience will usually wait, but for larger events, the show must go on.
Finally, all web conference products have scalability limitations. Some platforms are limited by the number of audience members they can support at once. This issue becomes important when the application or document-sharing feature is used. Webcasting, on the other hand, is a broadcast format and scales to nearly any audience size.
2. Presentation Quality
What is your quality expectation? Of course, you want every presentation to go off without a hitch, but some presentations are simply just more important than others. A collaborative team meeting between two remote departments of the same company will have a much greater tolerance for mistakes than a CEO publicly disclosing a controversial acquisition. Presentation quality can be impacted in three ways: whether you present in audio or audio with video, the importance of promoting your brand, and the reliability of the medium delivering your content.
Video: Both webcasting and web conferencing offer video integration. With a webcast, the quality can be vastly superior. A web conference will typically rely on a local capture source such as a webcam, whereas a webcast will use a TV-quality broadcast source.
While webcams today can be of very high quality, the end result relies a great deal on production value and operator experience. A video webcast is usually a "produced" event, meaning it has, as in television, a producer assigned to manage the shoot as well as professional lighting, sound, and camera operation. Interestingly, in 2003 Streamlogics launched a self-service desktop webcasting application that allowed users to capture content from any video source, including their webcam, or import high quality video content. The vast majority of our customers, who are predominately larger organizations, opted for professionally-captured video content versus webcam-captured content.
The way video is handled by webcast technology differs significantly from its handling by web conferencing technology. Webcast technology was developed specifically for video, where web conferencing uses an audio tool with video as an add-on.
Branding: Branding is seldom a concern for small internal meetings, but can be critical for externally targeted presentations. Most clients hosting larger one-to-many events are very particular about promoting their brand. Webcasting always offers more options for branding and layout to match a specific style guide. The look and feel of a webcast end-user interface often perfectly matches the company website to the point where they are indistinguishable.
Most web conferencing applications offer limited branding capability. Of course, smaller collaborative meetings typically don't require branding. If it's an internal collaborative meeting between colleagues, branding is not an issue.
Platform Reliability: Since web conferencing is usually captured on the presenter's PC, there is one possible point of failure. In addition, the presenter's PC is probably used for many other day-to-day applications, which increases the risk of a "crash". Also, the presenter is often sitting on a network somewhere behind a firewall on a limited bandwidth connection. If there is any interference on that connection whatsoever, quality may suffer or, worse, the event may fail.
The streaming video incorporated into a webcast is usually created in a controlled environment on machines designated exclusively for webcasting. These machines are regularly tested and backed up for redundancy. Moreover, dedicated network connections are often used to deliver the encoded stream to a highly-reliable Content Delivery Network (CDN) for redistribution. This dramatically reduces the possibility of degradation.
Though web conferencing can be purchased under various licensing models, the most common model is a cost per minute, per participant. In short, the more participants, the greater the charge. There are charges for the audio bridge plus the web conferencing application, which are often bundled. The result is that it becomes very difficult to budget in advance for web conferencing events because the cost always varies. A webcast, on the other hand, is typically charged at a flat rate for a maximum number of peak concurrent attendees, making budgeting much more predictable.
Cost can also vary significantly between both mediums, especially for larger presentations that target larger audiences. Let's assume you're hosting a one-hour online audio event targeting 200 participants. If you decided to use a web conference to reach this audience, a reasonable price might be 35¢ per minute (including operator assisted bridge and web conferencing platform) for a North American audience only. That brings your total cost to at least $4,200. The cost of enabling global participants to join the event can be significantly greater. Additional per participant fees may be incurred to access the archive.
Instead, you could webcast that same event for half of the cost. In fact, if double that number attended the webcast from anywhere in the world, the cost would probably not change due to the fixed-price nature of webcasting. Indeed under some circumstances, you could host a video webcast, which offers much superior quality, at the same price as the audio web conference!
In summary, when deciding between the webcasting and web conferencing, consider the following:
What is the nature of your audience? How dispersed are they, how many are there, and how much control do they have over their PCs? The greater the numbers and more dispersed they are, the more sense webcasting makes.
What level of production quality does your online event require? Do you require polish for an external audience? Do you want your brand implemented? I find web conferencing is great for sharing, collaborating and creating. Webcasting puts 'wow' into your events, showing those creations in their best light.
And finally how much do you want to spend? Many vendors offer both webcasting and web conferencing. They should be able to break down the numbers, so you can make an educated decision about which medium is best for your presentation.