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When Real-World Meetings Go Virtual

I often participate in webinars about web events, and one of the most common questions I get is "When can't a webinar replace an in-person meeting?" The answer is, "rarely," but there's a catch: This week, Alcatel-Lucent hosted an all-day virtual analyst conference. Cisco did something similar last fall, and other vendors are contemplating or planning their own virtual get-togethers for 2009 and beyond. The main goal, of course, is savings, in time and money. There's also an element of practice-what-you-preach. (How often have you been at a UC-related conference in the past few years when someone hasn't wondered aloud why the conference is being held at all, given the technology under discussion?).

Despite the fact that by all accounts, Alcatel-Lucent's event was engaging and useful, it didn't take long for the tweets and Facebook updates to fly: "It's too hard to focus on an online event, when e-mail, office apps and other distractions beckon." (Disclosure: I couldn't attend the event as I was doing my own presentation at Siemens' Open Minds day for customers in Santa Clara.) Obviously, it can be difficult to stay focused even when attending meetings in person, especially when the meeting room has working Wi-Fi (sometimes I wonder whether meeting hosts disable hotel hot spots; if they do, I can't say I blame them). But it's much tougher to stay engaged when you're sitting alone at your desk rather than in a room full of colleagues and clients, many of whom are paying attention to whether you are paying attention.

A webinar shouldn't last more than an hour. An all-day online event clearly breaks that rule. So, if you want to replace an in-person event with a virtual one, the first thing you need to do is re-jigger how the event is structured. Don't simply throw a days' worth of sessions online; instead, space them out over time, offering perhaps one a week for several weeks in a series. Your audience is much more likely to stay tuned in for an hour every week for six weeks than for six hours over the course of a day.

If you can offer multiple episodes of live session (and not just a recorded version on demand), so much the better-you can now accommodate more people in more time zones, and with more scheduling conflicts, for engaging question and answer and information exchanges. Will everyone attend all the sessions? Probably not-but they'll prioritize the ones they're really interested in, and actually pay attention when they're there.

Companies can do other things, too, to make web events easier to follow, and more successful, including altering content to be more interactive from the start and using a web conferencing tool that tracks engagement levels and feedback. Frequent work/bathroom breaks, good use of messaging and chat, and highly focused presentations help, too. We all want to decrease the time we spend traveling, cut costs and increase productivity. But we must all pay attention to how we make the transition from real-world to virtual-world events.