If you're a small business owner, chances are good that you're using technology in some way, whether with a website, e-mail, or something as rudimentary as a cell phone. But chances are just as good that you could be using technology more -- and more productively -- without spending a lot of money or adding a tech whiz to your payroll.Take webconferencing, for example. Do you use any tools or applications that allow you to collaborate online with employees, partners, or customers? If the answer is no, you might want to look at some of your options. There are quite a few offerings that could help boost your productivity. This week, I'm going to introduce you to two of them.
The first, called iMeet, gives users their own "meeting room" on the web. Just type in your personalized URL and you're there. The same goes for anyone with whom you share that web address. Plan to be away at a trade show but want to powwow with your sales exec and "drop off" a report for one of your partners? The sales exec can meet with you in your online room anytime, and you can e-mail the report to that room for the partner to download at their convenience.
IMeet integrates audio, video, and web conferencing in a single platform. To hook into the audio of a meeting, a participant can dial in using a VoIP connection, ask iMeet to call them, or dial into a conference line and enter a passcode. During a meeting, each participant (up to 15) appears in a box, or cube, via live video, a static photo, or an avatar (a la Wii). If there are a number of participants, it's easy to keep track of who's talking: The border of the speaker's cube glows green. Participants can "raise their hands" to ask a question by clicking on the question mark icon at the bottom of their cube. They can also adjust the volume of fellow participants' voices and communicate directly with another participant by sending an instant message.
PGi, the company behind iMeet, paid close attention not only to the functionality of the meeting room but also to its look and feel. The room's background is customizable, and businesses can insert their logos into that environment where they see fit.
"There tends to be some productivity drain during online [conferences], because the participants may not feel as accountable as they would in a face-to-face meeting. They can hide behind their computer screens and use their mute button when they don't want to be heard," says Sean O'Brien, senior vice president of strategy and communications at PGi. "We worked with anthropologists and sociologists to find out how to keep people engaged during an online meeting, and what we found is that the environment needs to be visually rich. Incorporating some movement into the background helps draw a user's eye to the screen." (A bird flits across the screen in one of the iMeet templates; a satellite makes a slow trek across the sky in another.)
O'Brien says the first five minutes of any meeting are among the most critical. With iMeet, PGi tries to capture the essence of some of those initial exchanges. Clicking on a participant's cube "unfolds" it, revealing three panes. The left one is a business card "snapshot," of sorts, listing the person's name, title, and contact info. (Click an icon to download the participant's e-card.) The middle pane features a brief bio, and the right side offers access to the participant's social media pages and links. Click on the Facebook icon to visit the person's Facebook page, on the Flickr icon to view their photos, etc.
"The first few minutes of a meeting -- that's when people shake hands, introduce each other, trade business cards, and talk about what they did over the weekend," O'Brien says. "This is when trust is established and the meeting is moved forward. With iMeet, we're aiming to drive that human connection online."
As for file sharing, iMeet has revolutionized that too, O'Brien says. Users can e-mail files to their meeting rooms instead of browsing their hard drives for files during a meeting. With the click of an icon, participants can download a file, and users can share video content on demand, whether a YouTube clip or footage from their own personal collection.
On the heels of an overwhelming response to the iMeet beta, PGi is rolling out a "soft launch" of the application this month in Atlanta; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco. That means users will get to try iMeet for free before deciding whether to sign up for a monthly subscription. The conferencing solution will be generally available in North America in January 2011.
While pricing info is currently under wraps, O'Brien says iMeet will give businesses of any size an affordable, easy (and fun) way to collaborate online.
Stay tuned for my next blog. I'll tell you about more videoconferencing technology that's being unveiled this fall.