Online Conferences

How Utilizing Online/Phone Conferences Can Enhance Your Online Publishing or Retail Offering

In this report, we will focus specifically on online/telephone conferences. How can these conferences create extra value for your site visitors? What are the benefits for publishers and retailers? What is the best way to manage these conferences?

This report will answer these questions and pinpoint a number of essential practices for running successful online teleconferences.

Findings

1. Benefits

In January of this year, one of our test sites started offering online teleconferences on a regular, twice-per-month schedule. Prior to January, this site offered conferences on a periodic basis, no more than once per month. These conferences were available at no additional cost to members who paid a monthly fee.

Below are the membership numbers for this test site over a seven-month period.

CONFERENCE IMPACT ON SITE MEMBERSHIP
Month New Memberships Still active
after 90 Days
Retention Rate
SEP 03 30 10 37.03%
OCT 03 31 12 38.71%
NOV 03 25 12 48.00%
DEC 03 19 9 47.37%
JAN 04 64 30 46.86%
FEB 04 66 28 42.42%
MAR 04 52 28 53.85%

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: Beginning in January, the number of new memberships increased significantly. From September through December, the 90-day retention rate averaged 40.95%. In the first three months of 2004, the 90-day retention rate increased to 47.25%. (*1)

Because this test site launched no new marketing efforts in this period, we suspected that much of the growth (and all of the increased retention) was a product of the addition of these free teleconferences.

At MarketingExperiments.com, the addition of our interactive conferences for Lab-Pass Members has been very well received. The following piece of feedback is typical of the kinds of comments we have received:

“I’ve considered joining before, but your addition of the interactive conferences is what clinched the sale for me.”

We offer free conferences for our Lab-Pass Members, but we have also experimented with fee-based conferences. How can online/telephone conferences benefit your online publishing or retail operation? We have identified at least six ways:

  1. As illustrated above, offering free conferences as part of your paid site membership gives visitors an additional (quite valuable) incentive to join.
  2. If you charge for your conferences, they will create an additional (direct) revenue stream. But even without charging for the conferences themselves, they can create revenue in other ways. (Keep reading.)
  3. Conferences create new content in the form of recordings and transcriptions. This content can be offered to your members or repackaged and sold separately.
  4. For retailers, conferences can be used to capture emails and drive more product sales. At a camera store for example, the site owner might offer an online conference on digital wildlife photography. This conference would attract additional customers and would help establish the store as a source of expert information, not just a retail outlet.

    It creates a sense that your site is THE place to go for information on the topic. When your customers think about your product, they won’t just think about all the places to find it; they’ll also think of you as the authority on it. They can find the product, read about it, attended the conference, download the conference recording, and so on.

  5. You will receive feedback from conference participants. This feedback will often create the double benefit of inspiring new content and helping you improve your business. Real-time feedback is one of the most valuable benefits of hosting online conferences.
  6. KEY POINT: Your visitors or customers, by participating in your conferences, can become more engaged. Participation helps to build community. Community helps to build sustained sales.

2. Conference Management

We have created a simple timeline for conference invitation and registration management. These steps have yielded the highest conferences participation rates in our tests.

  1. 14-30 DAYS BEFORE THE CONFERENCE: Start publicizing the conference to your subscribers and website visitors. Begin taking reservations. Allow users to register via email or a form on your website. The easier it is to register, the more popular your conferences will be.
  2. SEND INSTRUCTIONS: Once someone has registered for your upcoming conference, send him or her instructions as soon as practically possible. Confirm the date and time and include all relevant phone and web information.
  3. 3-7 DAYS BEFORE THE CONFERENCE: If your conference is not already booked full, send another invitation to your subscribers. Consider offering an additional incentive to participate.
  4. THE DAY OF THE CONFERENCE: Send a reminder email to all those who have registered, and include the instructions one more time.

3. Conference Hosting

When shopping for a telephone host for your conferences, there are a number of guidelines to keep in mind.

  1. Identify your needs. How many participants do you expect and how often do you plan to hold conferences? Based on the answers to these questions, you may find that either paying per-minute fees or paying a flat monthly fee for unlimited calls will be better suited for your operation. Typically, services charging a flat monthly fee will limit your call participants to 40-50.

    Will your conferences be web-based, telephone-based, or both? This will dictate your choice of providers. You will have different things to consider when looking at doing a “webcast” version compared with a straight audio conference.

  2. Weigh features against price. Teleconferencing hosts that charge monthly fees range in price from less than $100 a month to well over $1000. The more expensive solutions often incorporate sophisticated phone-to-web synching that may be overkill for your needs. Built-in web conferencing abilities are nice, but you can replicate many of them with the features of a typical Web-hosting provider.

    The ability to record calls should be considered a must-have feature, for reasons discussed below.

    The ability to enter some kind of “lecture” mode that will mute all of the other lines is also quite useful.

  3. Emphasize flexibility. For example, if you can offer both toll-free and long-distance calling, you will not have to decide ahead of time if you want to assume this cost for your call participants.
  4. Look for scalability. As the popularity of your conferences grows, you do not want to be forced to migrate to a new platform, as many of your regular participants will appreciate the familiarity of your call system.

    Find out what happens when you exceed the caller limits of your platform. Are additional callers let in or blocked, and how much will you be charged for them?

  5. Finally, ease of use should be considered very important. If the moderation system cannot be controlled with a few simple key commands, you may want to look elsewhere.

In our resource review below, we have listed a number of service providers (although we have not had an opportunity to review all of them).

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4. Eleven Key Practices for Online Conference Success

Many of these insights come to us from Stephen Wynkoop from http://www.sswug.org/

  1. Schedule effective speakers. Speaking is, of course, a separate art from writing. Make sure your presenters have good public speaking abilities and enough expertise to field questions from participants.

    A regular host is also recommended. This will allow that person to introduce your material in a consistent format, and regular participants will come to appreciate the familiar personality.

  2. Rehearse your material before presenting it. Presentations of this kind are a unique “one-way” experience and you will receive very little immediate feedback. They differ greatly from in-person presentations where you can make eye contact, judge facial expressions, and so on.
  3. Schedule informative and timely topics that interest your audience.
  4. Utilize multiple invitation and reminder emails. Without going overboard and annoying your subscribers, give them multiple opportunities to sign up for your conferences. For those who have registered, send a reminder on the day of the call with log-in instructions and a link to your online notes.
  5. Provide clear instructions. Clear and simple dialing instructions are crucial. Without them, you will lose callers or have to expend extra time and effort to help them participate.
  6. Use online notes. Allow call participants to follow along with your presentation with a set of online notes. Blogging or discussion forum software is useful here, as it will allow participants to post questions or comments directly to the notes.

    Notes can range from a brief outline and a few tables illustrating statistics to a full-fledged PowerPoint presentation. Ask your participants what they find most useful.

  7. Consider supporting your teleconferences with a web-based discussion forum. This will allow participants to post questions, discuss the content you have presented, interact with each other, and suggest topics for future conferences.
  8. Consider using a toll-free phone system. Weigh the expense of paying for the calls yourself versus the value of having greater participation.

    KEY POINT: While we do find that more users will participate if they do not have to pay long-distance charges, most are more than happy to pay for the call if it is otherwise free and you are providing valuable information.

    On the other hand, if users are PAYING for your conference calls, they may EXPECT a toll-free number. However, if you offer the downloadable recording of the conference, this may become less of an issue.

  9. Monitor and encourage feedback. Provide an email address that you monitor throughout the call. This will enable you to help users who are having difficulties with your system. You could also solicit questions or comments via email so that participants don’t have to interrupt the call.
  10. Invite other experts. Allow them to mention their products or services WITHOUT turning your conference into a thinly veiled commercial.
  11. Offer increasing incentives to participate. If you can release more information about the value of your conference as the date approaches, your participation levels will increase. Focus on POSITIVE surprises such as special guest speakers, bonus content, and so on.

    One idea is to hold a drawing or some other kind of valuable giveaway for those that attend your conferences. In fact, by delaying the drawing until the end of the conference, you can also use this incentive to encourage participants to stay on the line for the whole call.

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This Research Brief has presented the benefits of hosting online conferences, has outlined the best methods of managing conferences and selecting providers, and has identified our eleven key practices for hosting successful conferences.

Below, we have provided a list of related reports and our review of the best Internet resources on this topic.

Notes

(*1) The 90-day retention rate in the range of 37-54% might seem low. However, these rates do take into account the attrition from members who signed up for a 14-day trial and canceled before the trial period ended. While overall retention dropped with the addition of the trial, overall revenue actually increased. Had we not included members who cancelled during the trial period, the retention numbers in the chart above would have been much higher.

Related MEC Reports:

Content Sales Tested:
http://meclabs.com/cgi-bin/pl/pl.cgi?mco

Offer Pricing Tested:
http://meclabs.com/cgi-bin/pl/pl.cgi?mop

Literature Review

As part of our research on this topic, we have prepared a review of the best Internet resources on this topic.

Rating System

These sites were rated for usefulness and clarity, but alas, the rating is purely subjective.

* = Decent ** = Good *** = Excellent **** = Indispensable

Services:

Note that our service listing is not comprehensive, nor have we tested each of these services. We recommend shopping around for the best pricing and service.

Google Listings for “Conferencing” ****
http://www.google.com/search?q=conferencing

AccuConference ***
http://www.accuconference.com/

Infinite Conferencing **
http://www.infiniteconferencing.com/

LiveMeeting **
http://main.placeware.com/

A+ Conferencing **
http://www.aplusconferencing.com/

Premiere Conferencing **
http://www.premconf.com/

Web Conferencing Central **
http://www.web-conferencing-central.com/

WebEx **
http://www.webex.com/

Conference Depot **
http://www.theconferencedepot.com/

BT Conferencing **
http://www.conferencing.bt.com/

Ferl **
http://ferl.becta.org.uk/

BuyConferencing **
http://www.buyconference.com/

Information:

BuyerZone – Teleconferencing Services ****
http://www.buyerzone.com/telecom_services/telecon_services/

Real-Time Conferencing Resources ***
http://www.thinkofit.com/webconf/realtime.htm

Online Community Report ***
http://onlinecommunityreport.com/

Online Community Resources ***
http://www.fullcirc.com/commresources.htm

Web Telephony and Conferencing ***
http://pcworld.com/resource/browse/0,cat,1370,sortIdx,1,00.asp

The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online **
http://www.rheingold.com/texts/artonlinehost.html

Building Online Communities for High-Profile Internet Sites **
http://www.isoc.org/inet98/proceedings/1b/1b_3.htm

Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community **
http://www.fullcirc.com/community/communityfacilitation.htm

Community Answers **
http://communityanswers.com/

Net Gain (Book) **
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0875847595/

Community Building for the Web (Book) **
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0201874849/

Making Online Forums Work for Community Networks *
http://www.thinkofit.com/webconf/afcnart.htm

About This Brief

Credits:

Editor — Flint McGlaughlin
Writer — Brian Alt
Contributor — Stephen Wynkoop
HTML Designer — Cliff Rainer

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