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They’re more useful than you may realize.

Online meetings through solutions like Webex and GoToMeeting have been around for nearly 20 years, and not a whole lot has changed over that time. Today, as before, they allow people to collaborate in real time over the internet via audio or video conferencing and screen or document sharing. But despite their relative longevity, stability and usefulness, I find that online meetings are still extremely underutilized.

Not that I don’t understand the importance of in person meetings — interpersonal relationships are surely the key to many business deals; rather I have come to appreciate the vast superiority of online meetings in certain, not uncommon, circumstances.

Of course, the obvious benefit of online meetings is to reduce travel time or expense. Another common use is to allow one person to present to a large (or very large), distributed group of people. I won’t dwell on these cases, as I think the differences between online and in-person meetings are readily apparent.

What is less apparent is how much better the online experience is for everyone involved whenever the meeting involves reviewing a document, website, application or anything else on a screen or paper: Everyone is comfortable at their own desk with a perfect view of exactly what the presenter wants him or her to see. No craning your neck to look around a desk, no straining your eyes to read the numbers in a spreadsheet on a projector, no loss of attention from participants reading ahead.

My desk and monitors are specifically designed for sharing my computer screens with one or two people in my office, and still I often find that Webex just works better. In the extreme case, even if I’m meeting with just one person who sits 20 feet away, I would argue that for screen-centric meetings each person sitting at his or her own desk using his own computer is better than both people trying to share the same screen. And when the meeting involves more than a few people with one or more traveling to another location and everyone viewing something on a screen or printout, it’s not even close. Online is miles better.

Now, sure, there are exceptions. If you’re building or solidifying a relationship or if emotional response is likely to be important in the meeting, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. (Incidentally, both of these apply to sales-related meetings, which is when I think online meetings tend to be overused).

My approach is to separate the social meetings from the document/screen review meetings. Have lunch one day and review an application prototype or drill into a spreadsheet over Webex the next.


Online Meeting Options

If hosting online meetings is new to you but you’re ready to get started, I have one main piece of advice: Stick to the popular options.

Cisco Webex has been the market leader for a long time, which greatly increases the chances that whoever you’re trying to meet with already has the Webex software installed.

Citrix GotoMeeting has a substantial market share, and Microsoft Skype for Business is up and coming. If you ever think you might host an online meeting with external parties (whose software you can’t directly control), I would stick to one of those three.

The surest way to lose all enthusiasm for online meetings is to hit a few snags getting everyone connected, and using common solutions reduces the changes of that happening. In any case, the price of the market leading options has come down to the point that it’s just not worth using a less common solution to save a few bucks.