Tips for Hosting a Webcast Face-to-Face Meeting (the hybrid)
In Fall 2009, we hosted our first webcast at the Portland SPDG Regional Meeting. We offered an online option to offsite participants who were unable to travel to the face-to-face meeting due to budget restrictions. We used the internet to broadcast live audio and visual transmission face-to-face to the virtual group. Our goal in hosting the webcast was to make sure the online participants for this hybrid meeting (face-to-face-webcast) were actively engaged in the sessions.
Necessary technology equipment and staff for hosting a webcast
Over the course of a few weeks, our webcast planning team (David Merves, Daphne Worsham, Jennifer Coffey and I) brainstormed and developed a plan for executing the webcast. The first question we asked ourselves is what equipment will we need? All of us had ample experience hosting online meetings from our offices, but none of us had facilitated a webcast in which the live feed was pushed out from a hotel conference room with presenters, facilitators and 32 face-to-face participants. We turned to our partners, the TACC, who had experience hosting these events, to help us come up with our equipment list. Here’s what we ended up using:
- A screen casting program or online meeting host. We used Ilinc, but there are many more programs available such as the free program, DimDim.
- Sound System with Integrated Teleconference Interface. Our meeting hotel was equipped with the Gentner Hybrid Telephone Interface. The AV technician also brought a sound system to manage the audio output for both online and offsite participants.
- Break-out Room Teleconference Speaker Phone. For small break-out discussion groups we used a dedicated teleconference speaker phone in our alternate meeting room space. Because we did not rent the phone equipment from the hotel and brought our own speaker phone, we had to verify the hotel teleconference jack was compatible with our unit (i.e., digital or analog).
- 5 laptops: one for the presenter visual feed, one to record the webcast, one for note-taking, one for moderating online participant activity, and one for backup – in case a laptop crashes (which happened to us!)
- 2-3 wireless microphones: one for the presenter and two to pass around to participants for discussion and questions.
- A Mobile phone. This phone is used by the virtual moderator for trouble-shooting login issues.
- An Overhead projector for on-site participant viewing.
- Internet Speed – T1 Line. A T-1 line is a MUST to limit the delays to the audio and visual feeds. If necessary, pay extra to have a T1 connection installed for your meeting. We were fortunate that our meeting hotel had recently installed this connection speed.
We knew from the onset what we were attempting to do would require a cast of characters to pull off a successful session for both online and onsite participants. Below are the five team roles necessary to facilitate our 1.5 day conference:
- Face-to-face facilitator: the individual who moderates the needs of the face-to-face participants.
- Virtual proxy or advocate/moderator: the person who moderates the needs of the online participants via the chat room. S/he will act as proxy and ask questions, provide responses to the onsite group.
- Sound technician: an individual skilled in using the sound system. In our case, we contracted with the hotel’s AV vendor, Think AV. We paid for 12 hours of the sound technician’s (Brian’s) time.
- Webcast/online recorder: the individual to record the meeting in segments.
- Tech support for presenters to moderate the presenter visual feed.
Understanding and Managing the Online Participant Experience
Online meetings are in real time. Two-way communication occurs via instant messaging applications and audio between a participant and the host or group (in this case the face-to-face group). Online participants are able to share content and visuals from their computers, watch and listen to other participant presentations, and ask questions and make comments.
All this being said, anyone who has attended at least one online meeting understands the virtual environment will never replicate the face-to-face experience. It can come close at times, but certainly, the online experience is less accessible. Sound quality can be poor due to background noise, and visuals can be delayed from 5 seconds to 5 + minutes due to slow Internet connections. These less then optimal visual and audio feeds can be frustrating to the participant and result in attendees losing interest.
Additionally, because online participants are not seen by the onsite participants, presenters, and facilitators, these virtual attendees can feel marginalized or lose interest if they are not engaged at regular intervals (i.e., asked questions directly, reviewing their instant messaging comments, etc.).
A Must – Appoint a Virtual Proxy/Moderator
To address the issues that occur for online viewers, we appointed one person to support them – the virtual proxy/moderator. This person was responsible for moderating the needs of the online participants via instant messaging (we used our online meeting room chat pod). If virtual attendees had trouble hearing, they could send a message to our online moderator (David), who in turn would inform the sound technician (Brian) to adjust the volume. Additionally, during presenter Q&A sessions, the virtual proxy would be the voice for the online group if they posed questions within the chat room.
Check-in with Online Participants at Regular Intervals
Sitting in front of a computer display for hours at a time to listen to off-site presenters is challenging. It’s easy to get distracted, to check email, and to multi-task. A strategy to keep folks engaged is to check-in with them periodically. This can easily be done during Q&A sessions. Ask the online group specifically if they have questions. And/or during discussion periods, address people by name if you know they have something to add.
Add Teleconference Lines for Break-out Discussion Groups
We scheduled several break-out discussion sessions for our participants. To make this happen we set up a dedicated conference line for these conversations. Online participants, who were attending a conversation that would occur in an alternate meeting room, were required to log off the ‘large group’ teleconference line and dial-in using an alternate line. It’s important that you appoint an individual in the face-to-face break-out room to dial-in to this second conference line and have a computer available to view the online meeting chat room.
Practicing with the Participants
After hosting over 50 online meetings and webinar sessions, I’ve learned some critical points in hosting web meetings. First, online participants are more engaged when they understand how to use the online meeting room space. The best way to get comfortable with the environment is to play with it. For our purposes, we scheduled three sessions for online participants to practice using the features of Ilinc.
Developing a Script or Process Agenda
With any meeting it’s essential to plan the process agenda. When planning this webcast meeting, we created a script for all the facilitators. There is a lot to remember such as, when to start and stop recording, when to activate a conference line, when to call on the online group, and who’s responsible for doing what and when. After finalizing the script we emailed the document to online participants a few days prior to the session so they too would know the timing of events and would have all the relevant information at their finger tips — facilitator contact information, meeting login information, and break-out discussion room teleconference lines. [Sample Process Agenda]
What We Learned
A lot of effort and good thinking went into hosting the event and overall we were pleased with the positive comments shared by our online viewers. We did learn some things that would improve their experience. First of all, we learned from post-event feedback that asking distant viewers to attend for more than four hours a day is too much. They found it difficult to stay focused. Next time, we will make adjustments with how we structure the sessions. Perhaps mixing up presentations with discussion group sessions at regular intervals would be a strategy to increase variety and interest.
A second issue for a few online participants was the inability to connect our ILINC meeting room space. For example, one participant’s state internal internet security system/firewalls blocked her connection and she needed some time to resolve the issue. Next time, we will recommend that all online attendees check their systems a day prior to the conference to ensure their systems can access the web-based room.
Something we didn’t do this year was practice with presenters ahead of time and provide instructions for addressing the needs of the online group. We were fortunate to have two skilled presenters, who did an excellent job adjusting for the needs of the online group, however, there were some issues that arose. The online group couldn’t see when the presenter pointed to something displayed on the projector screen nor could they hear well when the microphone was not positioned close to the presenter’s mouth. Making adjustments to ensure pointers are seen and audio is heard, will require the presenter to limit using arm gestures when speaking and to use the pointer function on the laptop versus the projector screen.
If you would like details on costs, contact author Audrey Desjarlais at email@example.com.