Expert Commentary

Web Conferencing and the Insurance Industry

Web conferencing, including online meetings and Webinars, has been gaining in popularity over the past few years. These tools have been touted as a way to reduce travel time and expenses by allowing companies to interact with internal and external parties via a Web-based connection. In this article I look at the different uses for this technology and the key issues to consider in buying and using the technology.


Agent & Broker Technology Issues
April 2008

Web conferencing is a broad category which includes online meetings, Webinars, Web-based training, and online support. Most of these different tools use the same basic functionality but have been adapted for a particular use. The essence of the technology is the sharing of information via a Web browser. One party is able to present documents or applications to a receiving party via the Web. The presenter controls what the recipient sees. Sharing is usually achieved by the audience being given access to see the information on the presenter or host's computer. The extent of sharing can be limited to a particular document, such as a Power Point presentation, or to a software application the presenter is running. It can often be extended to the entire desktop enabling a remote user to troubleshoot technical problems.

Most Web conferencing technologies allow control of the session to be passed to different users. This allows people in multiple locations to work seamlessly in presenting information at Web meetings or Webinars.

Online Meetings

Online meetings are characterized by two-way communication between the meeting participants. As a result, all participants usually have the same level of functionality. Control of the information can be passed to any participant. All participants typically also have full audio capabilities. Most Web conferencing technologies include a video capability allowing at least the presenter to be visible to the other participants. Video requires the use of a Webcam by the presenter.

This is the basic use of Web conferencing technology. It works best where there are smaller numbers of people involved as you would get in a typical meeting setting. This allows participation by all people attending the meeting. The benefits of online meetings lie in creating a middle ground between an in-person meeting and an audio-only conference call.

Online meetings will never remove the need for in-person meetings, particularly in a relationship-driven business such as insurance. Instead, they are most likely to enhance the level of interaction that can be achieved outside of the in-person meeting. They should be viewed as a tool to improve conference calls rather than to replace meetings. If they ultimately reduce the number of unnecessary or marginal meetings, so much the better, but that shouldn't be the primary aim.

Online meetings can be particularly useful for interactive or “working” meetings, either internally or with outside parties. The ability to collaborate on documents and even white board via the Web can be very powerful. Without the online meeting, this collaboration could only be achieved by physically bringing everyone together. The online meeting allows the collaboration to happen more frequently, almost instantaneously, and at minimal expense.

Webinars

A Webinar is intended for larger audiences, similar to an offline seminar or conference. The majority of the communication is one way, from the presenter to the audience. Attendees have reduced functionality compared to the presenter(s). Typically they cannot be given control of the presentation and are muted for audio. Questions and answers in a Webinar are typed online.

Webinars can be tremendously powerful marketing and educational tools. There is no comparable offline alternative. A traditional seminar imposes time and travel costs on the attendees. Industry conferences also involve travel and time commitments without the ability to control who is invited. The Webinar allows a company to simultaneously reach its clients and prospects in their own working environments, wherever they are. Making a recording available allows them to attend on their own time. With no travel time involved, Webinars are less disruptive for attendees than the offline alternative.

Training and Support

Training modules accommodate both instructor-led classes delivered via the Internet and self-paced courses. Most standard online meeting capabilities will allow a user to deliver training courses online, including recording the class for attendees to take at their leisure. Training modules will provide more custom tools to structure and deliver training courses online.

Support modules use the ability to provide remote access to a user's desktop for technical support purposes. Specific modules in these areas include ticketing of support requests with escalation procedures.

The Players

There are many vendors for Web conferencing, ranging from free solutions aimed at the individual user, to enterprise solutions for the large organization. Any potential buyer of Web conferencing services should conduct their own review of the available products. The following are four of the leading players, each of whom is backed by a leading publicly owned technology company.

  • Webex: This company was founded in 1996 and was one of the first entrants into the Web conferencing market. It has become the dominant player in the industry to the extent that the Webex name is often used to refer to Web conferencing in general. Webex estimates its share of the market at 64 percent. The company was acquired by Cisco Systems in May 2007.

    Webex's core product is Meeting Center, which is used for online meetings. Other modules include Event Center for Webinars, Training Center for educational courses, Sales Center specifically geared to sales and prospecting activities, and Support Center for technical support. All of the modules are variations of the core Meeting Center product. In addition to the enterprise package, Webex offers a lower-end solution called MeetMeNow which is designed for individual users.

    Users have the option to share documents, applications, or their entire desktop with Webex solutions. Attendees can only see the documents or applications which the presenter has chosen to share, regardless of where the presenter navigates.

  • GoToMeeting: This is the online meeting product of Citrix Online, a division of Citrix Systems. It also has companion products for Webinars (GoToWebinar) and remote support (GoToAssist). GoToMeeting builds off Citrix's strong position in providing remote systems access. This expertise has been applied in providing access for its Web conferencing product. Users share their desktop with attendees and control what is visible based on the documents and applications which they view.

    The GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar products are packaged in a convenient all-inclusive subscription price based on 15 attendees to online meetings and up to 1,000 for Webinars. Citrix Online also offers a corporate version with multiple online meeting hosts with Webinar functionality included.

  • Live Meeting: A hosted Web conference service provided by Microsoft, this firm also offers a server application, Office Communications Server, which can be deployed on a company's own servers. The professional edition of Live Meeting includes an Events capability to cover Webinars as well as online meetings. The standard edition covers meetings with up to 15 attendees, while the professional edition extends meetings for up to 1,250 attendees, including for Webinars.

  • Acrobat Connect: This product is part of the Adobe family and was first launched as Macromedia Breeze. It uses Adobe Flash Player as the medium to display shared content rather than an applet download. As Adobe Flash Player is already installed on most browsers, it can overcome problems in downloading software needed for the Web conference. Acrobat Connect uses a fixed personal URL for the meeting room, meaning the room is always available at the same location. Other solutions assign a different URL for each meeting.

    Acrobat Connect is offered to individual users with a maximum of 15 attendees. Acrobat Connect Professional is an enterprise edition which extends the product for Web conferencing and multiple internal users. The professional edition is offered as both a server license application and a hosted service on either a monthly or annual subscription plan.

The prices of these products are fairly consistent. Monthly subscription fees for the online meeting capabilities are typically in the range of $25-$40 per user and include 10-15 attendees in meetings. Enterprise solutions including Webinar capabilities typically start at $375 per month and include 5-10 user licenses. Most products are also available on a pay-per-use basis, with charges based on the total number of minutes of use across all participants.

Issues To Consider

Before investing in Webinar technology, there are several issues to contemplate, including the following.

  • Use: Like other technology acquisitions, prospective buyers should have a clear idea of the intended use. If you are looking for a Webinar solution, then you will need a solution that can handle those events. A standard online meeting solution will not handle the needs for Webinars. Conversely, the standard functionality for online meetings may be sufficient to cover occasional training and sales use without the need to buy specific additional modules in these areas.

  • Downloads: Although Web conferencing vendors claim that participants only require a browser and Internet connection to access the meetings, most require download of a small piece of software or applet. Some organizations prevent users downloading any software, including applets, to individual computers. This can create problems for participants accessing meetings or Webinars. The more accepted the Web conferencing software, the fewer problems are likely to be encountered in preventing download of the applet.

  • Audio: Teleconferencing costs can add significantly to the costs of online meetings and Webinars. They also vary considerably between different vendors. Many will charge a fee per user minute for integrated audio, even for toll calls. There is no need to use the service offered with the Web conferencing program, but there are advantages to having the audio integrated into the Web conferencing, particularly for Webinars. Some vendors also offer integrated VoIP and/or broadcast audio options which greatly reduce the need for teleconferencing.

  • Recording: The ability to make recordings available for later viewing is a major benefit of Webinars. The ease of recording varies between vendors. Some require that the recording is made off a participant's computer or through the use of a DynaMetric box to record from the phone. Both of these approaches can lead to poor recording quality. Vendors who allow central recording off their servers can create a better or more reliable recording of meetings and Webinars. Some vendors will also allow for the storage of recordings on their servers under the hosted enterprise service.

  • Reliability: With many of your clients and prospects tuning into your Webinars, it is imperative that nothing goes wrong with the hosted Web conferencing service. All the major vendors promote very high reliability rates, but you may also be dependent on the Internet connection for the host of the Webinar. Companies should understand what happens if connectivity is lost for the host and develop contingency plans to address that situation.

  • Preparation and Training: You need to be comfortable with the technology. The strength of Web conferencing is its ability to reach a broad audience. That can be a problem (and very stressful) if things go wrong. Users need to be trained in the technology and prepared for meetings. Webinars should be rehearsed to review content and avoid technical problems with presenters accessing and using the technology.

Conclusion

Web conferencing is a growing technology and is likely to continue to grow. The commitment of companies such as Microsoft, Cisco, Citrix, and Adobe to this technology is evidence of its potential. The insurance industry, as a relationship business, has not been an early adopter but it is increasingly using Web conferencing. There are plenty of areas for further use. Tech-savvy service providers could embrace the technology to differentiate themselves in both their marketing activities and dealings with clients and business partners.


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