A new generation of web conferencing apps has brought freedom and flexibility to small businesses. No longer confined to the office, they are using the technology to brainstorm, collaborate, and meet with clients in different locations – all while achieving greater efficiencies in terms of time and cost.
Many of the latest apps can be accessed via the cameras, microphones and speakers built into laptops and mobile devices, saving on the costs of expensive video and audio equipment.
Web conferencing has also become more affordable, with many of the established providers offering free services. These are limited by the number of participants allowed to join a single meeting; potentially a problem for larger businesses, but often ideal for smaller firms.
This is one of the most popular web conferencing systems used by businesses of all sizes. In addition to its premium versions, GoToMeeting offers a free web meeting account, with access to a full set of tools, including screen-sharing tools for business presentations, and support for three participants in a single meeting. There are no limits on the number of meetings that can be hosted via GoToMeeting’s free plan, or on the length of the meetings.
Brighton-based startup Crunchboards specialises in cloud based accounting software and has used GoToMeeting to underpin its global expansion and ensure seamless international collaboration.
Co-founder Hannah McIntyre says: “Citrix GoToMeeting is completely integral to our business; we would never have seen such growth without it. Working remotely can have its challenges, and with our development team in Brighton, sales team in London and customers in around 40 countries, updates can sometimes be lost in translation. This gives us the option to collaborate more closely as a team and offer a personalised service.”
Due to its SaaS (software as a service) subscription model Citrix GoToMeeting is also highly scalable and can therefore grow with the business.
Another well-known name in the web conferencing space, WebEx provides businesses with a means of meeting, collaborating and sharing content online. Like GoToMeeting, WebEx offers two premium versions as well as a free version that allows three people per meeting.
Greg Buchanan, technical director at BitSol Systems, says: “We are a small IT support business with clients all over the globe, so we quite literally cannot do business without web conferencing. We will fly out to our clients to install systems, but then ongoing support is all done from our HQ in Manchester.”
The company uses WebEx with their clients, using it to do IT demonstrations and provide support to clients, whether they are in another part of Manchester or in Accra.
“The remote access function of WebEx is absolutely vital for our job role,” says Buchanan.
Bought by Microsoft in 2011, Skype has been a popular choice for online voice and video communication for many years, and is popular with freelance professionals and sole traders.
Digital marketing consultant Joe Daniels uses Skype to speak with prospective clients for a free consultation.
He says: “I find it useful that I can speak to people around the country as if they’re face to face with me, without having to actually travel. It also means my clients can come from anywhere, even another continent, and I can still talk to them. The drawbacks are really only there when the connection is bad and it cuts out or there’s a lag.”
Earlier this year Microsoft’s business communications platform Lync was rebranded as Skype for Business, and launched with a new user interface and features.
This is the system that BitSol Systems uses most frequently because it has options to suit every situation, whether there is a need for face-to-face, voice calling or instant messaging.
Buchanan says: “Skype also offers screen sharing for presentations, and another massive benefit is that the messaging function is searchable via Outlook, as it is integrated with MS Office.”
For simple video chat, Google’s free version of its group-conferencing solution, which allows up to 10 other users to communicate in real time via webcam, microphone or text, works fine. It can be used on a laptop or downloaded as an app for use with Apple iOS or Android devices. Features include screen sharing and a YouTube app that enable video playback for everyone in the chat.
One of the new apps gaining a following among the small business community is the free conference calling service WHYPAY? Developed by Manchester-based Nexbridge Communications, WHYPAY? has reported that demand for its services has doubled this year. New charges introduced by Ofcom for service numbers have left many companies facing extra costs for conference calling services. WHYPAY? uses an 03 number and is therefore able to provide a free service that is not affected by the charges.
Another free conferencing option enjoying growing popularity in SME circles is join.me. Its premier version recently won the V3 Award for ‘Best Mobile App for Business’.
Cristi Hegranes, executive director at the Global Press Institute uses join.me to connect and collaborate with colleagues all over the world.
He says: “We are producing news across 27 different countries and a big cornerstone of our mission is ethics and accuracy. The ability for reporters and editors to go through a document word for word, really helps us live our mission of accuracy.”
For Chris Langlois, global technical training manager at Zero Motorcycles the new app has streamlined the virtual meeting process.
He says: “Employees, sales agents, distributors and customers get a more convenient, reliable and simple solution through join.me. Using the Outlook plugin, we’ve greatly reduced the number of missed meetings and streamlined the scheduling process. Similarly, integration with salesforce.com saves the sales team valuable time with instant meetings.”
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