A buyer's guide that includes tips and advice for choosing a video conferencing system.
As its reliability and ease of use have increased, so, too, have the number of organizations relying on video conferencing. Whether it's to bring remote teams together or to meet with clients and customers, video conferencing is allowing organizations to have face-to-face meetings that were not possible before.
The cost of these services has also played a role in its increased adoption. Previously, the cost and complexity of video conference systems made them best suited for larger organizations. Today's systems, however, are simple to install, easy to use and relatively cheap, which has opened up their use to businesses of all sizes.
As more people work remotely, video conferencing helps teams collaborate in ways that conference calls just can't match. For example, with a video conference you can see physical gestures and facial expressions, plus you have the ability to share screens.
New simplicity in video conferencing has also opened the door for increased use. Instead of mainly hosting large group meetings, these systems can easily be used for a one-on-one video chats as well.
Choosing the right video conferencing service for your business is important, and asking the right questions matters. How many participants will regularly sit in on your calls? Do you need to integrate other applications, such as Microsoft Outlook or Salesforce? How often do you intend to schedule video conferences?
You need to consider all of these factors before you decide. A platform with dozens of features could turn out to be a waste of money, but a free video conferencing service might not provide the features you require.
If you're looking for video conferencing services in 2020, here's everything you need to know about what these solutions offer and how to choose one. Already know what you're looking for? Visit our best picks page to see which ones we recommend.
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What Is a Video Conferencing Service?
Video conferencing services allow you to meet and collaborate with others via an HD video feed. Unlike a phone call, video conferencing allows you to see those with whom you are meeting, just as if you were in the same room.
Video conferencing services can be accessed from numerous places, including internet-connected computers and smartphones. Depending on your business's needs, you can also set up video conferencing in a specific location, like a conference room. With this option, cameras are set up to show the entire room, and microphones amplify those who are speaking.
Video conferencing services give hosts total control of a meeting. Hosts decide who can talk, who can be on video and who can share their screen. For example, if someone attending the meeting is giving a presentation, the host can allow them to share their screen so everyone on the call can see a PowerPoint presentation.
For those who are unable to attend a meeting via video, these services give people the option to join by phone. And while the individual won't see what is going on, they will at least be able to hear what everyone is saying.
Cost of Video Conference Services
Most video conferencing services charge on a per-host basis. This means that if you want multiple employees to host their own meetings, they each need a user license. With multiple user licenses, multiple employees can host video conference calls at the same time. With this cost structure, you only pay for each host. There is no cost for others to join a meeting.
Most providers offer several service tiers that vary based on pricing, the number of participants you can host in a meeting and the included features. Some services offer a completely free plan. These plans typically limit the number of participants and cap how long video calls can last.
For paid plans using a per-host model, costs range anywhere from $5 to $50 per host, per month. In addition, some plans require a minimum number of user licenses.
Instead of charging per host, some services base their pricing structure on the number of participants on a video conference. For example, you might pay $145 per month for the ability to host video conferences with up to 500 people. This cost structure is designed for companies that host webinars.
Many conferencing services offer free trials that last anywhere from a week to a month; some offer free trials up until a certain amount of data is used. There's no need to sign up and pay for service you've never used 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.
How to Choose the Right Video Conference Service
As with any other purchase, it's important to know what you need from your video conferencing system before you choose one. For example, a large company might need to loop in dozens of users at once, while a smaller company might only require one-on-one conferences.
Here's what you should keep in mind when searching for a solution:
Number of participants: Consider the number of participants who are likely to regularly sit in on your conferences. With some services, you can connect with a handful of participants for free, so if you don't need to connect with a lot of people, you might not pay much (or anything at all). Other services specialize in connecting large numbers of users. The range is wide, so knowing what you need before you start looking can save a lot of time.
Video feeds: While many video conferencing services boast their meetings can host hundreds, if not thousands, of participants at one time, they typically limit the number of video streams; however, others do not. It will serve you well to find out how or if the service limits feeds before you buy. You also want to make sure the video quality is top notch.
Ease of use: Don't let a confusing user interface hold your business back. Otherwise, you'll start presentations without essential participants watching, or your meetings will be characterized by long delays and interruptions as people struggle to turn their video feeds and mics on or off, or share their screen.
Types of meetings: With some high-end services, you can launch different rooms depending on the type of meeting you're holding. Do you host open-forum Q&As where everybody can give feedback? Are you giving a presentation or lecture and prefer that participants be muted? Know what kinds of meetings you'll typically host, and if you host a variety of meetings, look for a service that accommodates all your needs.
Mobile experience: The whole point of video conferencing is to connect to people remotely, and sometimes that means connecting from mobile devices. Try out a video conference service on both tablets and smartphones to make sure participants have an equally positive experience on these devices as those connecting via desktops or conference room setups.
Recording: Sometimes, it's helpful to save the highlights of a meeting for later. Video recording capability is essential if you need to go back and review conferences. Additionally, an online archive of past meetings can be helpful. For example, you could save snippets of meetings for introductory or training materials for new employees. Pay attention to how much recording space you'll have available. Many services store the recordings in the cloud and limit the storage space of each user.
Screen sharing: Screen sharing keeps participants engaged and makes a meeting more interactive. If you need to explain the finer points of a presentation or show a remote employee how to access certain documents, screen sharing can help you do it more effectively.
Room systems: Depending on your needs, you might want to set up a conference room that can be used specifically for video conferencing. Be sure to check whether the service can integrate with your meeting room setup. Sometimes this requires using another vendor to equip the room with proper audio and video equipment. Other times, the video conferencing service itself can provide all of the necessary equipment for an added cost.
Application integration: Many video conference solutions allow you to integrate third-party applications, such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Joining software that you already own with a video conference system can help you import presentations and documents. Moreover, many services have note-taking capabilities, and some allow participants to add notes of their own. Consider which applications you'll use with your conferencing system and how much influence you want participants to have over a meeting. Another integration to consider is your calendar or email client. Some video conferencing services provide plugins for programs like Google Calendar and Outlook. This allows you to quickly and easily schedule meetings.
Smart meetings: Some video conferencing platforms have integrated artificial intelligence (AI) to increase meeting productivity. For example, some meetings will automatically take notes for everyone and send a summary after the conference has ended. Smart technology may also automatically assign action item tasks to participants. All of these added features are designed to keep participants more engaged in what is going on, instead of scrambling to take notes.
- Customer support: Don't overlook the quality of a company's customer service. It's worth your time to call the customer service line of the companies you're considering to get a feel for how they'll treat you. When something goes awry, you want a tech support line that responds quickly and accurately, with representatives who treat you with the seriousness and respect your business deserves.
What Does the Future Hold?
Video conferencing's effect on human communications is nearly comparable to the effect of the telephone more than a century and a half earlier. And emerging technologies will continue to enhance cloud-based video conferencing as we understand it, as it continues to become a more integral part of doing business in the digital age.
Augmented reality and virtual reality open up the possibility of collaborating across vast geographical distances as if the participants were physically in the same room. Imagine standing in a virtual space with your business associates, discussing operations amid a sea of interactive charts, schematics and prototypes. That future is rapidly approaching as the technology evolves, and it will make for a more immersive, impactful experience.
AI will likely also add to the video conferencing experience in the future. In an article he wrote for Yale Insights, Scott Wharton, vice president and general manager for the video collaboration group at Logitech, said they are developing technology that will benefit meeting rooms with multiple cameras.
"We're working on some technology where computer vision and AI can automatically frame the shot," Wharton wrote. "Even if you have 20 people in a room, just like humans are smart enough to know where the action is, AI can figure out to choose the person who stands up and walks to the whiteboard."
If you think a video conference service is right for you, read our best picks page, which includes our top choices for various types of businesses, our reasoning for selecting each one, and a comprehensive list of reputable video conference services.
Additional Reporting by Adam Uzialko.