Webinars: The New Age Speak-Easy

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Webinars are gaining momentum and generating more leads.

by  Carly Lombardo

Imagine this scenario: More than 300 people gather to learn about the newest upgrade to their accounting software and they haven’t had to spend hundreds of dollars traveling to attend the class. In fact, they’re still at their desks in front of their computers.

Partner Insights

As Internet usage continues to thrive and many still worry about the economy, accounting vendors and resellers’ clients and prospects are taking advantage of online classes. Webinars—seminars conducted via the Web—are everywhere, it seems.

No wonder. Seminars, one of the staples of the sales business, aren’t drawing attendees as they used to. In the last 10 months, getting clients and prospects to live events has been a challenge for Tectura, a Phoenix-based Microsoft and Exact Software reseller with an increasingly national presence.

Face-to-Face Advice

Irving, Texas-based H.D. Vest offers two types of online activities to its financial planning advisors.
The first instructs participants around the country who access the information via their computers and telephones.
Advisors can see the software as Vest demos it, and ask questions.
Vest started holding these presentations approximately a year ago. Carrie Walden, learning and development consultant for Vest, says, "We were unsure what the response would be, but now we've held 231 classes with 1,800 participants, which averages about eight people per class, and we just keep adding classes." Right now classes are offered about eight times per week and last 90 minutes. Topics covered include getting started with HDVLink, setting up MyHDVest.com, navigating VestPlan Solutions, VPS-Debt, Education, Retirement, and Insurance modules, contact manager, and account setup and processing. "This allows us to get information to our advisors quicker. When we have new applications or conversions coming out, we always increase the number of Webinars," says Walden.
Vest also interacts with both advisors and H.D. Vest specialists through video conferencing client meetings. The Online Video Enabling Service Technology, or OnVest program, was designed to help advisors approach clients with more complex investment planning strategies. By utilizing this system, the advisor can present investment concepts with the help of an H.D. Vest expert. OnVest specialists can assist advisors with client presentations, fact-finding, exploration of options, detailed technical explanations, and finalization and closings. Advisors can present clients with insurance cases, retirement plans, and estate planning concepts, feebased planning solutions, and investment strategies. For example, an advisor may do very little with insurance, but has a client who needs long-term care or other insurance. The advisor and client will meet over a video conference with one of Vest's insurance specialists to examine product features.

  “We can’t get people’s behinds in the seats. Whether it’s due to economic drivers or seasonal reasons, online events are drawing more attention,” says Chandra Petrzelka, national marketing director for Tectura.

Tectura is leveraging Webinars in the following ways:

● Hosting Webinars to get the company’s message out. These are usually focused on Microsoft’s product information and vision. “This allows us to take our message and span it across the U.S., and it gets information in front of prospects faster,” says Petrzelka.

● One-on-one prospect-facing Webinars. Tectura has project teams spread throughout the U.S., and these sessions enable them to come together with clients.

● Internal-training Webinars. Tectura has 15 widely dispersed offices. Webinars help in the conduct of sales and product training. For example, when the firm rolled out Microsoft CRM internally, it used a Webinar to train the staff.

The firm holds one major national prospecting Webinar, several one-on-ones, and approximately four smaller internal sessions per quarter. Attendance has ranged from 60 to 300 people each. “People used to believe that participants in Webinars weren’t serious buyers or strong leads, but we’ve found we’re closing more leads through Webinars than in our live events,” says Petrzelka.

Tectura’s experience illustrates what many accounting resellers and vendors such as Best, Intuit, Accpac, and AccountantsWorld are finding to be true—interactive Webinars are engaging, and provide hands-on tips that help their clients and staff reach and maintain goals for business.

“We started conducting Webinars because our accountants wanted information before their clients got it, and Webinars are a perfect fit for this,” says Trae Harris, Intuit training specialist.

Taylor Macdonald, Best’s senior vice president for business partners, agrees. “Webinars are becoming the norm because you can’t get to every city with live seminars. And our partners are finding Webinars invaluable because they reach a geographical client base they wouldn’t have been able to reach.”

Webinar Technology

The Wainhouse Research Group expects the overall conferencing market to grow by 22 percent to $9.8 billion in 2006, but underneath this umbrella figure, some services will grow much faster.

Web conferencing services are forecast to have the highest growth rate at 42 percent. The ability to reach from one to more than 100 people anywhere, anytime, can be achieved from the desktop with these meetings, which combine audio, file transfer, streaming video, and application sharing.

Although most Webinar technologies are similar, there are several that accounting vendors and resellers are utilizing.

First and foremost, Microsoft purchased Mountain View, Calif.-based Placeware in 2003 and revamped the company’s Conference Center to offer Live Meeting, an online collaboration and Web conferencing tool within the Microsoft Office System.

Live Meeting allows customers to attend a meeting on the Internet, and actively participate. A big draw is the application-sharing feature, which allows customers to share their Windows-based applications with other people in the meeting. There is no need to install servers in order to share content and applications.

Also popular is the San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx Communications, which holds nearly 64 percent of the market share in online meetings and Web conferencing services. WebEx offers a suite of online meetings, including the WebEx Meeting Center for online meeting services, and the WebEx Training Center, a virtual classroom that delivers interactive online training.

Tucson, Ariz.-based Linktivity offers WebDemo, in-house server software that provides tools to conduct Web-based interactive meetings. WebDemo allows users to hold a meeting; conduct a training session; perform a sales presentation; demonstrate software live: view, annotate, or edit documents; share applications; and conduct a Web tour. Using WebDemo, Columbus, Ohio-based Delphia Consulting, a Best reseller, presents a series of Webinars on topics related to human resources management, accounting, and system and network administration. In fact, Delphia is a WebDemo reseller. “WebDemo allows us to make the Web conferencing look like our company. It doesn’t look like an off-the-shelf product,” says Dave Curry, Delphia’s marketing manager.

The New Ringy Dingy

Benefits are abundant when it comes to online classes and training. Vendors and resellers would agree that Webinars provide partners and clients with these advantages.

● Live communications through two-way audio conferencing;

● Shorter “bursts” of learning on subjects that can be immediately applied to business;

● No travel expenses or travel time away from business;

● Subjects covered in one or two-hour sessions; and

● Visual video streaming right on the PC.

“Webinars save money and travel time, but the bottom line is they enrich what in the past would have been covered in a phone call,” says Best’s Macdonald.

Susan Sheridan, senior vice president of marketing for Accpac International, agrees: “Webinars are replacing the phone. They’re the new ringy dingy, and at some point in the sales cycle, customers are expecting a Webinar.”

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Accpac offers many different types of Webinars for its resellers and ISVs. Accpac product managers and strategic sales experts hold daily Webinars. These sessions are sales-focused, and help resellers demonstrate Accpac products. Products featured include Accpac eCRM, the HR Series, Pro Series, and Business Analysis Suite. In addition, resellers can enroll prospects, and some choose to attend with their prospects. Sheridan provides this example: “There are many accounting resellers who are not comfortable with CRM, but they have clients who are interested. If they sign clients up for a Webinar, which allows the prospect to see the product, the reseller may just get client’s business, where before they would have put off doing a demo.”

Web Conferencing Vendors

AccountantsWorld
Hauppauge, N.Y.
(888) 999-1366
www.accountantsworld.com

Linktivity
Tucson, Ariz.
(800) 809-1245
www.converging-technologies.com

Microsoft
Redmond, Wash.
(888) 526-6170
www.placeware.com

Web Conferencing Central
Newport Beach, Calif.
(949) 631-0274
www.Web-conferencing-central.com

WebEx Communications
San Jose, Calif.
(408) 435-7000
www.Webex.com

Accpac also offers education-focused Webinars for resellers. These cover Accpac’s accounting applications and are offered in an online training format. The response to online training has been better than expected. More than 80 percent of Accpac’s educational product training is done online via Accpac University. “Traditionally, resellers would have to spend a week away from their offices, losing valuable billing hours. Now, they attend classes for a couple of hours in the day and can be making money the rest of the time,” says Sheridan. Several educational classes are offered daily at a cost of $169 per session. Each session is approximately two hours long.

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