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7/18/2003
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Tech Guide: Putting Enterprise Webcasts To Work

No longer a novelty, videocasting has taken off in businesses, proving its value for staff and customer meetings, training, and other new applications. Here's what you need to know to explore this emerging field.

Webcasts consist of just about any combination of digital media--audio, video, chat-style text communication, online polling, Web links, graphics, and slides in different formats, such as Microsoft PowerPoint slides, Excel spreadsheets, and Visio graphics. On a computer screen, various media may be displayed in four separate windows. For example, the upper left window displays video, the upper right displays a slide presentation, the lower left displays online polling questions, and the lower right displays Web links.

In some instances, the people producing a Webcast may choose to omit video, relying instead on audio and PowerPoint slides to make a presentation, thus eliminating the large streams of data needed to transmit video images. Many radio stations transmit their programs over the Internet solely using audio, calling them Webcasts. However, Webcasts really encompass a full range of features offered by digital technology.

Video and audio must be encoded and compressed in digital form for transmission over the Internet. The two most popular formats for digital encoding and playing are Microsoft's Windows Media and the Real system from RealNetworks Inc. These formats are highly compressed for delivering the best possible sound and picture over a limited bandwidth connection. To receive the compressed data over the Internet, PCs require a software-based player, which interprets and plays the data appropriately. Consequently, the most popular players are Microsoft's Windows Media player and the RealOne player by RealNetworks. Using these technologies, a Webcast may be received by any PC connected to the Internet, anywhere in the world. Video and audio files tend to be large files, so most Webcasters recommend that participants use high-speed Internet connections.

Typically, Webcasts are created, or produced, by corporate users in their own studios, which may be an elaborate video production facility, replete with professional-grade cameras, lights, and sets, or as simple as an office cubicle outfitted with a workstation, Web camera, and microphone. Special software is used for editing and encoding the presentation.

Once produced, a link to the Webcast may be posted on a Web site, allowing it to be transmitted, or streamed, to viewers via a central streaming server. Broadcasting a Webcast requires that the corporation have its own high-bandwidth connection to the Internet that's fat enough to send out multiple streams to an audience. Each viewer requires a separate stream of data, all of which eats bandwidth. Supplying this kind of bandwidth can be costly. Companies may rent bandwidth from various service providers such as Akamai Technologies Inc. and Digital Island, who will provide a high-speed multiple Internet backbone connection.

Keys To An Effective Webcast
Here are some guidelines for creating an effective presentation:

  • Assign production responsibilities to people with experience in editing video. Big companies typically assign the responsibility for producing Webcasts to in-house media departments or communications units who normally are responsible for video productions. In many ways, producing an effective Webcast is similar to creating a television show.
  • Choose a good speaker. Take advantage of both video and audio capabilities by presenting someone who can speak clearly while looking composed for the camera. Speakers need to know they may be asked to respond to questions or explain surveys conducted online.
  • Design PowerPoint slides for a small screen. Sometimes a font size or a graphic which are appropriate on a large screen in an auditorium are too small to see clearly in a Webcast. Keep slides simple and focused.
  • Plan ways to respond to online questions and comments. Webcasts can easily generate an overwhelming number of responses, which may require somebody off-screen who can choose the best comments for the speaker to address, or who may directly respond to questions or will save them for use later.
  • Make maximum use of Webcast reporting tools. Carefully determine ahead of time what information you are seeking about the audience, and why. Is the purpose to generate sales leads, to gather market intelligence, or to solicit feedback about new products? Various data may be collected at various points in a Webcast, such as in the registration process, in the surveys, and during the Webcast itself.

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