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Choosing a Video Conference Service: A Buyer's Guide

Choosing a Video Conference Service: A Buyer's Guide
Credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

In this article:

Video conferencing has become an indispensable tool for businesses, connecting employees and partners remotely in a way that telephone calls and emails cannot. The subtlety of nonverbal communication, as well as the tone of voice of the participants are all brought together seamlessly, helping to improve the clarity and meaningfulness of the conversation. In business, this can be the difference between a done deal and a missed opportunity.

Choosing the right video conferencing service for your business is an important decision. How many participants will regularly sit in on your calls? Do you need to integrate other applications, such as Google Docs, to share with other users? How often do you intend to utilize video conferences? All of these factors need to be considered before you make a decision; buying all of the bells and whistles could turn out to be a waste of money, but sticking with a free service might not provide all of the features you require.

To help you narrow down your choices, Business News Daily compiled the following guide to selecting a video conference service that's right for your needs. 

Already prepared to choose a video conference service? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

Before you consider selecting a video conference service, it's important to understand the value that video conference services bring to your business. First, video conferencing makes long-distance communication seem like an intimate conversation. Whether you're connecting with employees at a satellite location or trying to strike a deal with a potential partner, the added element of video conferencing can help get your message across in a clearer and more impactful manner. Consider the amount of nonverbal communication that slips through the cracks in a telephone call, or how intonation and mannerisms are entirely lost through email. Communication is more than just words, and video conferencing helps each participant get more out of the conversation.

As with any other purchase, it's important to know what you need to get out of your video conferencing service before you choose the one that's right for you. Different companies have different needs; for example, a large company might need to loop in dozens of participants at once, while a smaller company might only require one-on-one conferences. Here's what you should keep in mind, in addition to your budget, of course.

  • Number of participants: Consider how many participants are likely to sit in on these conferences regularly. Some services allow you to connect a handful of participants for free, so if you don't need to connect a lot of people, you might not need to pay much, if anything. Other services specialize in connecting a large number of users; some even allow unlimited users to join the conference. The range is wide, so knowing what you need before you start looking can save a lot of time and help you determine how much money you should consider spending.
  • Ease of use: It doesn't matter how many participants you're hosting if they can't figure out how to use the software, of course. Make sure you select a video conference service that's intuitive and easy to navigate. Otherwise, you might end up starting presentations without essential participants watching, or you might miss an opportunity to connect altogether. Don't let an unfriendly user interface be the only thing holding your business back.
  • Types of meetings: Some of the higher-end services allow you to launch different rooms depending on the type of meeting. Do you like to host open-forum Q&As where everybody can give feedback? Are you giving a presentation or lecture and prefer that other participants be muted? Know what kinds of meetings you typically host, or if you host a variety of meetings, look for a service that can accommodate all of your needs.
  • Mobile experience: The whole point of video conferencing is to be able to connect to people remotely, and sometimes, that means connecting from a mobile device. Much like with the user interface in general, you'll want to try out a video conference service on your mobile devices — both tablets and smartphones — to make sure any participants connecting through mobile will have an equally positive experience as those connecting via desktops.
  • Video/audio recording: Sometimes, it's helpful to save the highlights of a meeting for later. Ensuring your video conference service has video and audio recording capability is essential if you like to go back and replay meetings or conferences. If your participants aren't great at taking notes, maybe an online archive of past meetings would do them some good. You can also save snippets of meetings for introductory or training materials for new employees.
  • Screen sharing: Meetings and presentations can be enhanced greatly by making them more interactive, and screen sharing is a central component of keeping participants engaged. If you need to explain the finer points of a presentation or you need to show a remote employee how to access certain documents, screen sharing can help you do that more quickly.
  • Application integration: Many video conference platforms allow for the integration of third-party applications, such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Sharing software that you already own within a video conference system can help you import presentations and documents. Moreover, many services have note-taking capabilities, and some allow participants to get in on the action with notes of their own. Consider which applications you need to work within your conferencing system, and determine how much influence you want participants to have over a meeting.
  • Customer support: Last but far from least is the quality of a company's customer service. It's probably worth your while to give the customer service line a call before deciding to partner with a company so that you can get a feel for how they'll treat you. When something goes awry, you'll want a tech support line that responds quickly and accurately, and treats you with the seriousness and respect your business deserves.

Once you've determined your needs, it's valuable to browse available free trials and play around with the systems. Many video conference services offer free trials that last anywhere from a week to a month; some even offer free trials until a certain amount of data is used. There's no need to go in blind when companies offer so many test runs. Take advantage of the free trials, and make sure a service truly meets your needs and addresses your priorities satisfactorily before you buy. 

Before you move forward in your search for the right video conference service, here's some advice from industry experts on what to keep in mind and which questions to ask. Following these tips will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls businesses experience with video conferencing.

"Make hard choices. Think through what you want. There's always this desire to say in an organization, 'Well, everybody gets what they want,' but if everyone is using a different service, No. 1, it will increase costs to support and train them. No. 2 is interoperability, because [different services] might not work together. If you're going to use more than one tool, make darn sure they interoperate. There's a lot of proprietary stuff out there; don't buy services or products that restrict you, because it's especially a problem when somebody outside of your organization uses a different service." – Michael Helmbrecht, chief product and operations officer at Lifesize

"What do your usage requirements look like today, in six months from now or even in two years? You want to look for a solution that will be scalable to your business needs. Finding a solution with an open API [application programming interface] will allow you to possibly integrate video conferencing into other services you might one day use." – Tawny Labrum, director of marketing at MegaMeeting.com

"When you consider conferencing software providers, make sure they offer the level of customer service and tech support you need. What happens if you have a problem? Is someone available 24/7 to walk you through troubleshooting? Is training provided prior to your first web meeting?" – Dennis Collins, senior director of marketing at West Unified Communication Services

Video conferencing expanded human communications in a way the telephone did more than a century and a half earlier. In much the same way, emerging technologies today already hold the promise of enhancing and revolutionizing video conferencing as we understand it today. Particularly, incorporating augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) into video conferencing can make for a more immersive, impactful experience. [See Related Story: Virtual Reality Is Making Marketing and Training More Effective for Businesses]

"I think AR and VR have a lot of promise," Helmbrecht said. "Today they're in very specific applications, but I think the tech, especially on the wearable side, will develop. The next piece of bridging to AR and VR is just much richer content … and being more interactive while still having an immersive and engaging video experience."

Imagine standing in a virtual space with your business associates, discussing operations amid a sea of interactive charts, schematics and prototypes. AR and VR open up the world of video conferencing to the possibility of collaborating across vast geographical distances as if the participants were physically in the same room. That future is rapidly approaching as the technology develops; video conferencing is only going to become a more integral part of doing business in the digital age.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.