A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools
Updated January 2015
Adding visuals to a phone conference can make a big difference in your audience’s engagement level. Sharing a document, software application, or slides helps your audience follow along more closely and get more information then they would just by listening. If you want to conduct a more formal online seminar—sometimes called a webinar—there are a number of affordable software packages that can help you communicate more effectively. We talked to five nonprofit professionals about the tools that have worked for them.
Telecommuting is here to stay. Nonprofits are increasingly embracing the value of staff members working from home or remote offices. As a result, conference calls are an essential means of doing business—but sometimes they just don’t provide the appropriate venue for your needs.
For example, you may want to guide or enhance the conversation by using visuals. It is often useful to share the same document over the web, in real time, so that everyone can see exactly what you’re discussing and you can mark up or share calculations together. Or maybe you want to share your computer screen to demonstrate a particular application or website. Virtual “face-to-face” staff meetings can also be used to reinforce an organizational identity or build camaraderie. And if you want to go a step further and conduct a more formal online seminar there are tools that let you display slides or your computer screen, conduct polls, or even let participants talk to each other in virtual “breakout rooms.”
Tools that offer any of these features are often referred to in aggregate as “online conferencing” applications. In this article, we look at the different tools currently available to help you share a more integrated experience with a remote group of participants. To that end, we talked to a number of nonprofit professionals about the tools that have worked for them in this area. While these are not the only tools available—literally dozens of options exist—they are widely used and might also work for your needs.
Do You Need Online Conferencing?
If you simply want multiple people to see the same document at the same time, there are easier, more-affordable options than online conferencing tools. For example, Google Drive lets an unlimited number of people view and collaboratively edit text documents or spreadsheets online, in near-real time—and it's free. If you’re looking to share diagrams, Gliffy lets a group create and view flowcharts, user interfaces, and other diagrams live online. Gliffy offers a free, limited use, ad-supported version in addition to fully-featured paid versions that do not include advertisements.
What Do Online Conferencing Tools Do?
The basic function of online conferencing tools is to provide an online “meeting room.” Typically, a moderator creates the “room” and participants enter via a particular web address. Note that some tools require first-time users to download a small application, an important consideration if many people of different technical skill levels will be participating. Generally, other features and functions include the following:
Desktop Sharing. This basic feature lets participants see exactly what’s on the presenter’s screen—everything from simple documents to PowerPoint presentations and software demonstrations. Note that a number of conferencing tools can only show the desktop of Windows computers, or only those using Internet Explorer browsers, so if you need to show desktops for Mac, Linux, Firefox, or Chrome users, you will have to look closely for tools that support those specific platforms or browsers.
Desktop Remote Control. A step beyond desktop sharing, some applications let you grant control of your desktop to someone else, who can then open and work with the applications on your computer. The most common example is technical support that performs remote maintenance on your machine.
Website Co-Browsing. This specialized functionality lets two users on different computers control a shared browser instance. If your conferencing needs are limited to showing or sharing a website, this method is likely to create a better view for the participants and requires less bandwidth than sharing your desktop.
Text Chat. This basic feature lets participants and presenters “talk” to each other via typed messages during presentations. Some tools let all participants see messages, while others allow for private one-on-one messaging among participants. More advanced tools even provide for “breakout rooms” where multiple participants can chat privately.
Slide or Other Document Sharing. While desktop sharing lets you show slides or documents from your computer, you may still need to toggle between your desktop and the meeting room. More advanced online seminar tools let you upload your slides or other documents into the conference to avoid this hassle.
Temporary Presenter Capability. It can often be useful, especially in a classroom setting, to allow participants to show their own desktops, advance slides, or demo another application by promoting them temporarily to a presenter role.
Emoticons and Polls. Remote meetings have their challenges. With participants in different locations, how do you keep a seminar lively, or even know how content is being received? One way to inject a little fun into your webinar is to allow participants to display “emoticons”—little pictures that represent common phrases or sentiments, such “slow down,” “speak louder,” or “laughter.” Similarly, the ability to do quick polls to gauge participants’ options can help keep them engaged.
Video Conferencing. More advanced tools may let presenters broadcast video of themselves while they’re talking. Some tools even allow participants to broadcast themselves, assuming they have web cams and appropriate hardware.
Handling Audio Conferencing
The way each tool handles voice is a big differentiator. It’s certainly possible to use a separate phone line—either the same one you use for phone conferencing, or something like FreeConferenceCall, which is free to organizers but requires participants to dial a long-distance number.
However, audio that is integrated with the meeting room can be useful. For example, most tools allow you to see how many people are on the phone, mute and unmute phone lines from the meeting interface, and record audio and visual elements together. Some tools provide support for either a toll-based or toll-free conference line—typically for an additional fee of between $0.05 to $0.10 per person per minute.
Other tools provide support for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) audio. Rather than a phone line, participants hear the audio coming out of their computer speakers. While inexpensive, and often free, users report more difficulty with sound quality and drop-offs. VoIP is also prone to other technical issues. Less technically savvy participants may struggle with troubleshooting problems and may prefer using a landline.
In addition, everyone who wants to speak will need microphones connected to their computers. While modern laptops typically have microphones built in, using both the microphone and speakers without headphones or a headset may result in feedback. In general, VoIP audio can work great for collaboration on small, ongoing teams, but for larger one-time groups such as seminars, it may degrade audio quality and put extra burdens on participants.
Free Online Conferencing
If all you need is a no-frills video conference, consider Skype and Google Hangouts. Both provide conferencing and chat between multiple computers for free. Google Hangouts allows up to 10 participants, while Skype now allows up to 25 for free. In addition, Hangouts allows users to share Google Drive documents, making collaboration easier than with Skype.
While both tools are free, they do come with their limitations. A Google account is required to use Hangouts. For many organizations, this may mean using a personal email account to join a meeting or creating an extra account. Skype typically needs to be downloaded and installed in order to join calls, but this is changing. Skype recently announced Skype for Web, which allows users to make calls through their browser without installing anything (much like how Hangouts currently works). Additionally, because of how data from your calls or chats is handled by their respective companies, neither platform is likely to be appropriate for use in a confidential setting—for example, conversations with patients.
Neither platform seems to have consistently better call quality. Reliability can vary widely based on connection speed, available bandwidth, and other, less-tangible factors. For better call quality in meetings with either tool, consider going beyond your computer’s built-in webcam or microphone—especially if you plan on having multiple people in the room. An external USB microphone will make it easier for everyone in the room to be heard. An external webcam will likely have a wider-angle lens and be able to capture more people in the frame than the built-in camera on a laptop. External speakers, or headphones, can also improve audio quality by reducing the feedback—or “echo”—that laptops are prone to.
The tool that works best for your organization will depend more on your own hardware and internet connection than anything else. Ultimately, your decision will likely be limited by what tool your participants prefer or already use. For more reliable or professional-looking online conferencing, you’ll definitely need to look at the more feature-rich, paid platforms discussed below.
Desktop and Application Sharing Software
Simple desktop- and application-sharing tools have fewer features than full online seminar tools, but are often easier for participants to use. They offer a less-cluttered interface, making them a good choice for straightforward sharing or collaborating with people outside your organization. Presenters typically install the software on their computers and share information on their screens with others at a specific internet address. This class of tools is also used extensively in tech-support situations where the host typically allows participants to share control of his or her desktop—for example, to let someone fix an issue on the computer or demonstrate how to do something without being in the same room.
In general, these tools will tend to have higher call quality and fewer connection problems than free platforms like Google Hangouts or Skype. However, they don’t tend to allow you to easily record a meeting. If you need a more formal presentation setting, or more robust collaboration features such as chat or polls, you may want to consider the online seminar tools discussed later.
The most commonly used of these tools include the following:
- ScreenStream. Free for anyone to use, ScreenStream lets Windows PC presenters share their desktops with participants on PCs, Macs, or Linux-based systems who view the desktop through a browser.
- Glance. While not free—costs start at about $149.00 per year for screen-sharing with up to five participants—Glance is a widely used, reliable, and particularly simple screen-sharing application. Presenters must install a piece of software, which then allows them to share PC or Mac desktops with participants using browsers on PCs, Macs, or Linux systems.
- Join.me. A newer option from LogMeIn, join.me provides free web meetings with desktop-sharing and VoIP audio conferencing in a clean interface for up to 10 participants. Participants can also attend meetings using free apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android. For ad-free meetings and more advanced features like annotations and multiple presenters, join.me Pro starts at around $180 per year for one user, up to 250 participants, and the ability to record meetings with up to 5GB of online storage.
- TeamViewer. While focused more on desktop-support situations, TeamViewer allows presenters to share PC or Mac desktops with participants on PCs or Macs. Both presenters and viewers must download and install an application, making it more appropriate for internal teams than public or external meetings. A free version of the tool is available for private use otherwise it starts at $749 for up to 15 participants and unlimited hosts.
Other tools in this space that are worth considering are Mikogo and YuuGuu. Both are similar in features and price to Join.me. In addition, a number of the online seminar tools listed in the next section also offer free versions with desktop sharing (including Mac and Linux desktops) for a limited number of users. The interface may be a bit more complex than the tools in this category, but the functionality is the same.
Online Seminar Tools
Online seminar tools typically add chat, slide sharing, the ability to promote participants to presenters, and integrated voice conferencing into the basic desktop and application features. They’re designed to allow organizations not only to present to a group of people, but to facilitate interaction among them. Most tools in this area will also allow you to record your meetings, which can be useful to webinar participants, and can be valuable to you if you need an internal reference on the proceedings of a presentation or meeting.
With these additional features, online seminar tools also tend to have more complicated interfaces for presenters and will usually need you to install something on your computer in order to provide those features. As a result, they’re much more useful for one-way presentations created by people familiar with the tool, than for collaborative meetings with people from outside the organization. If you just want to be able to share screens and collaborate with people outside your organization, you may be better off with one of the lower-cost and easier-to-use desktop sharing tools discussed above.
- Yugma. Yugma provides desktop sharing, chat, and whiteboarding. It also supports VoIP conferencing, and can even integrate seminars with Skype calls. Presenters can use PCs, Macs, or Linux-based machines, and participants can use almost any system or browser by downloading a Java applet. A free, limited-functionality version only allows two-person calls, while more feature-rich versions for 20 or more attendees start at about $100 per year.
- GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar. GoToMeeting is a more-expensive, well established tool, starting at $468 per year for up to 25 people. The features are comparable to Yugma—it supports either phone or VoIP conferencing, but not whiteboarding or video conferencing—with full support for Windows PCs and limited support for Macs. Participants can use nearly any system or browser by downloading a Java applet. The GoToWebinar version supports up to 1,000 participants, adds poll-taking and integrated voice and visual recordings, and starts at $948 per year.
- Adobe Connect. Adobe’s take on video conferencing and online seminars is polished and professional. It offers desktop sharing, whiteboarding, emoticons, video conferencing, and VoIP conferencing. Presenters can use Macs or PCs, and participants can use any browser that runs Flash. Pricing starts at $45 per host, per month, for up to 25 attendees. For occasional use, A Pay-Per-Use plan is also offered at 32 cents per minute per user. For more participants and features, you’ll need Adobe Connect for eLearning (see below).
- ReadyTalk. ReadyTalk is reliable and widely used by nonprofits. It offers strong toll or toll-free (domestic and international) voice conferencing solutions at additional cost, voice and visual recording features that integrate fully with the web solutions, and now VoIP conferencing. However, it offers no support for whiteboarding or video conferencing. Pricing for ReadyTalk starts at $49 per month for up to 25 web participants, or $99 per month for up to 150 web participants. Nonprofits can get ReadyTalk web conferencing tools at a discount through TechSoup Stock (http://www.techsoup.org/readytalk).
- WebEx. WebEx by Cisco—often chosen by businesses—provides desktop and document sharing as well as whiteboarding, and includes access to a free mobile app that allows participants to join a meeting from a tablet or smartphone. Participants can call in to presentations or meetings either through VoIP or a toll-free line. Pricing for WebEx is multi-tiered, depending on specific features or uses, and starts at $24 per month for one host license and up to eight participants per meeting. For up to 100 participants, pricing starts at $89 per month.
Other tools to consider in this area include ClickWebinar and BigBlueButton. ClickWebinar starts at $480 per year for up to 50 participants, four presenters, and up to four hours of recording time. BigBlueButton is a free, open source platform designed for universities that provides many classroom-focused utilities in addition to typical webinar functionality.
In addition, you may consider an eLearning environment if you need larger meeting sizes or more-interactive features. They typically offer the same sophisticated features as online seminar packages, plus support for breakout groups, online content libraries, online quizzes and exams, and more. These systems are not necessarily more expensive—especially for small-scale implementations—but they’re more complex, and larger enterprise editions can support large-scale implementations. For example, integrating with Course Management Systems or Learning Management Systems, single sign-on support, and advanced support for those with disabilities are all possible with many eLearning tools. Both Adobe Connect and WebEx offer feature-rich eLearning editions of their conferencing solutions.
Selecting the Right Package
When selecting an online conference tool, start with your needs. Do you just need something simple for a single upcoming meeting? If so, one of the free desktop-sharing or online seminar tools might suffice. If you need a robust, reliable solution to support an online seminar or training program, however, you’ll want to invest in a solution that will be powerful and advertisement-free.
If you need more advanced features like whiteboards, voice and visual recordings, or polls, start by ruling out the tools that don't support these needs. If you have the time, it may be worth trying out a few tools to find the right fit—most are fairly affordable with month-to-month subscriptions, and some include a free trial.
As the workplace expands without regard for distance, or even walls, don't let location dictate the limits of your presentations or conferences. You can't always bring the participants to you, but with the right software, you may no longer need to.
For More Information
Web Conferencing News Radar. Kolabora maintains this helpful and up-to-date ticker of news and tips for online and video conferencing, as well as other collaboration topics.
Cheap and Cheerful Video Conferencing. In this Idealware guest blog post, Lauren Haynes, IT Manager for the Ounce of Prevention Fund in Chicago, talks about the “cheap and cheerful” video conferencing setup her organization threw together.
Online Meeting Guide: Software and Strategy. From Make Use Of, a handy overview of the advantages and disadvantages of online conferencing, as well as a rundown of free and paid conferencing tools.
Five Best Web-Based Video Chat Services. From Lifehacker, a list of the five best web services for video chat, as picked by the readers.
Thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help for the original and updated articles:
Crystal Schimpf, Kixal (2014)
Eric Leland, FivePaths (2014)
Joshua Peskay, RoundTable Technology (2014)
Julia Smith, Interfaith Youth Core (2014)
Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, National Speakers Association (2013 and 2014)
Michelle Murrain, nonprofit web developer (www.murrain.net) (2008 and 2013)
Kami Griffiths, TechSoup (2008)
Holly Ross, Drupal Associaton (2008)
Yann Toledano, YTC (2008)