Adding visuals to a phone conference can make a big difference - perhaps by showing a document, software application or slides. Or maybe you want to conduct a more formal online seminar—sometimes called a Webinar. There are a number of affordable software packages that can help. We talked to five nonprofit professionals about the tools that have worked for them.
With telecommuting rising in popularity and the workforce becoming truly global, conference calls are now an accepted means of doing business. But sometimes a conference call just isn’t enough.
Sometimes you need to show visuals to go along with the conversation—maybe you want everyone to see the same document over the Web, in real time, in order to mark it up together or share calculations. Maybe you want to show your computer screen to demonstrate a particular application or Web site. Or maybe you even want to go a step further and conduct a more formal online seminar—sometimes called a Webinar—with tools that let you show slides or your computer screen, conduct polls or even let your participants talk to each other in virtual “breakout rooms.”
Tools that offer any of these functionalities are often referred to in aggregate as “online conferencing” applications. In this article, we take a look at what's available to help you share a more integrated experience with a remote group of participants. We talked to a number of nonprofit professionals about the tools that have worked for them in this area. While they’re not the only tools available—literally dozens of options exist—these tools might also work for you.
First off, if you simply want multiple people to see the same document at the same time, there are easier options than online conferencing. For instance,Google Docs  lets an unlimited number of people view and collaboratively edit a text document or spreadsheet online, in near-real time - and it's free. If you’re looking to share diagrams, Gliffy  lets you collaboratively create and view flowcharts, user interfaces and other diagrams online in real time. Gliffy is free for a limited use, advertisement-supported version.
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. Some tools require participants to download a small application the first time they're used, an important consideration if many different people of different technical skill levels will be participating.
The way each tool handles voice is a big differentiator. It’s certainly possible to simply use a separate phone line—either the same one you use for phone conferencing, or something likeFreeConferenceCall (which is free to the organizers, but requires participants to dial a long-distance number).
However, integrating audio into the meeting room can be useful. For example, this allows 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 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 IP 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. This option can also be issue-prone with less technically savvy participants, who often have difficulty troubleshooting problems with their computer speakers. And anyone who wants to speak will need a microphone connected to their computer, which is not yet a common item. In general, VOIP audio can work great for collaboration on small, ongoing teams, but is problematic for larger, one-time groups, like a seminar.
Simple desktop- and application-sharing tools have fewer features than full online seminar tools, but they’re often easier for participants to use. They offer a less-cluttered interface, making them a good choice for straightforward sharing. Presenters typically install the software on their computers, and share the information on their screens with others at a specific Internet address.
A number of the online seminar tools, below, also offer free versions with desktop sharing (including from Mac and Linux desktops) for a limited number of users. The interface may a bit more complex for presenters and participants than the tools in this category, but the functionality is the same.
Online seminar tools typically add features such as 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 to not only present to a group of people, but to facilitate interaction among them.
Online seminar tools are typically geared to support organizational seminars and meetings with relative simplicity, but there’s another type of system largely targeted at universities and others who conduct large-scale distance learning programs. These systems are not necessarily more expensive—especially for small scale implementations—but they’re more complex.
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. Each of these packages mentioned below also has a larger enterprise edition that can support large-scale implementations—for example, integrating with course- or learning-management systems, single sign-on support and advanced support for those with disabilities.
When selecting an online conference tool, as always, start with your needs. Do you just need something easy 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 reliable, powerful and advertisement-free.
If you need more unusual features, like video conferencing, voice and visual recordings or polls, start by ruling out the tools that don't support these needs. Most of the tools are affordable, often with month-to-month payment options, so you can try them out without too much risk.
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.
Web Conferencing Roundup 
A quick look at a number of less expensive online conferencing options
Screen Sharing Tools and Technology 
An in-depth comparison of features and software for desktop sharing
Getting to know Online Conferencing Tools 
A free recording of a TechSoup online seminar, in which Laura Quinn, the Director of Idealware, talks through the concepts outlined in this article.
Idealware Online Seminar: Getting Started with Online Conferencing and Seminar Tools 
This is a recording of an Idealware online seminar, in which we talk more in-depth about the features and tools covered in this article, with demos, screenshots, and lots of time for your questions. We’ll close with some tips and tricks about conducting training via the web. The recording is $20 per person. Or check out our seminar schedule  for a live seminar!
Thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help: