Virtual Meetings

Until now, most presentations had one thing in common – physical presence. But virtual business is doing away with this bother. So stop rushing, the meeting’s at your desk.

Suspend disbelief for a moment if you’re reading this article while travelling to a business presentation.

Perhaps you’re on a train, in a taxi or stuck somewhere on the tube. Maybe you’re sitting in a company reception waiting for a meeting to start, checking the time and wishing you were anywhere but here.

A thought crosses your mind – teenagers, hardly out of puberty, are becoming dot-com millionaires every other week… There must be a gap in the market, the size you’d normally expect to see in an English penalty area, for an Internet start-up company specialising in business presentations over the Internet. Lastminutepresentations dot-com did I hear you say? Just hand me the number of that venture capitalist now.

With the meetings business worth an estimated £11bn a year and the content of the average business presentation about as dull as a British summer, everyone from the largest multinational to smallest multimedia company is developing the Internet as the medium for holding meetings and presentations.

British Telecom’s Internet-based service, Conference Call Presence, for example, is an e-business solution which could make us rethink the traditional concept of sitting in a room to attend face-to-face meetings or presentations.

Using the Internet to create a virtual meeting room, Conference Call Presence combines the Internet with an audioconference. The service lets you hold meetings and simultaneously share documents with up to 20 people anywhere in the world. All you need is a telephone and separate access to the Internet through a PC.

Once you’ve downloaded the free software, you can hold virtual meetings, make presentations and work collaboratively on the documents in real time – and nobody ever leaves their desk.

BT Conferencing general manager David Sales feels companies will increasingly use the Internet as a virtual meeting place. “We’re starting to witness the impact of IP (Internet Protocol) technology in the so-called traditional areas of business,” says Sales.

“Companies are realising there’s no reason why meetings and presentations need to take place in the same room or even continent. The benefits in terms of savings, in cost and time, will have a huge impact on the way we think about business meetings. The traditional meetings won’t disappear, but with IP-based conferencing, people will become more flexible and even create new mindsets in their approach to business presentations.”

There are, however, two major hurdles – one technical, one cultural – to overcome before cyber-presentations become a mass-market reality. Technically, the narrow-band (or public) network gets congested and bandwidth-hungry presentations have a nasty habit of crashing browsers. This can be embarrassing if you’re presenting to your most important customer and the screen freezes. Secondly, apart from the most committed Internet user, many people still have reservations about the Web, especially when it comes to matters of security.

Dream weaver

Yet, there’s never been anything like the Internet. It comes very close to fulfilling the business dream of interacting with customers on a worldwide scale. When the potential payback is so high, it’s worth investing money and employing top creative minds to exploit the best features of the medium – cross-pollinating ideas and merging different media to create formats that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

Indeed, with the trend towards globalisation and round-the-clock business activity – particularly in areas such as the financial services – video-streaming and other IP-based communications can make literally millions of pounds-worth of difference in a fraction of a second.

Take, for example, the volatile area of investor relations. When a company makes an announcement at a shareholders’ meeting in New York, even the body language of the chairman can have an immediate impact on the share price.

This can be a significant disadvantage if you don’t happen to be attending the presentation in person. That’s why the UK-based investment houses are rapidly subscribing to web-streaming services that feed to the fund manager’s desktop computer, allowing that person to “attend” the webcast presentation from the office and respond, literally, at the blink of an eye.

Private broadband network

London-based RAW Communications began offering the service in the UK less than three years ago and, in the first 12 months of operation, carried presentations by a third of FTSE-100 companies as well as many mid-cap firms. However, according to chief executive Ab Banerjee, the company needed to build a private broadband network to make the system work.

“Bandwidth will continue to be a major issue for at least another two years,” he believes.

Even if bandwidth is holding back its full potential, the Internet, along with other cultural totems such as MTV and 24-hour newsfeeds, has given us an insatiable desire for information and entertainment. We’ve developed an expectation that filters through to almost everything touching our daily lives – and that includes business presentations.

“Who uses slides anymore in presentations?” asks Nick Lamb, chief executive of Crown Business Communications. “Until recently it was the only option, but then presentation packages such as PowerPoint came along and changed all that. Now the Internet has provided interactivity as a feature, which adds another dimension to the business presentation. We can’t think of it as a new media application anymore – it’s all one medium.”

Lamb believes that with all the excitement surrounding the new technology, it’s easy to get carried away and overlook the basics – that is, mixing and matching simple ideas to come up with a strong proposition. “We’ve shown a number of clients that they can enhance a presentation by making them more interactive, asking questions and getting the audience to respond through key strokes on networked computers that feed into a central server,” he says.

“By doing that, they can really get information far more effectively than from a show of hands.”

Human limitations

Ian Haynes, strategic partner with Cimex Media, agrees that the explosion of presentation hardware and software in the past few years hasn’t always resulted in an improved end-product.

“Cheap, easy-to-use, near broadcast-quality digital video cameras are available but that doesn’t make you a good film maker,” he says. So while the familiar PowerPoint presentation may not be the most fashionable garment in the wardrobe, it still has its place – thanks to its ease of use and accessibility. What it lacks is that holiest of grails – interactivity.

“Macromedia Director is the most flexible tool for developing high quality, interactive presentations, although it does need someone with experience to develop a presentation,” says Haynes. However, the client can be supplied with a set of specially written software tools to customise and change content – useful if you need to tweak a presentation to your different audiences.

Lots of choice

What this highlights is that between the blue-sky visions of the Internet futurologists at one extreme and simple PowerPoint at the other, there is now a vast array of hardware, software and communication channels available to enhance a business presentation.

Digital communications are bringing about not only a media convergence but also a convergence of marketing communications, as the traditional roles of activity become increasingly blurred.

Presentations are increasingly moving out of the meeting room and onto the computer screen, using elements of direct mail, media advertising and PR.

New media company Ground Bass, for example, recently launched a presentation package called Brochure Interactive – a business card CD-ROM that holds the equivalent of 8.5 minutes of video. Fully interactive presentations can be included on the CD, seamlessly linking with the client company’s website.

When the cards are mailed out to customers, the client can track the response to the presentation once the customer has loaded it onto their browser. Every time they go back to access the presentation or visit the website, this information automatically feeds back to a centrally located server.

This way, the client company knows exactly how their customer is reacting to the information and can make changes to the campaign.

Excellent response rates

According to Dolores Sanders, marketing director at Ground Bass, the levels of customer response to Brochure Interactive would bring a very big grin to the face of a direct mail manager. “In focused campaigns, we’ve received up to 50 to 60 per cent response rates and 15 to 20 per cent initial response in non specific campaigns,” she claims.

It’s a widely held view that the Internet will have the biggest impact on communication since printing. But just as the Caxton Press resides in museums, it is likely we’ll look back nostalgically at presentations viewed on technology designed for transporting the human voice.

And of course, we’ll wonder how we ever managed to get by with just a PowerPoint presentation.

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