Webcasting Made Simple

On-demand webcasting is an increasingly important marketing tool. Instead of making live presentations, you can refer customers, prospects, partners or students to a Web site where they can view your Webcast whenever they want at the pace they want. It could be streaming video, animation or a narrated slide show. Webcasting can eliminate travel, and it ensures that your audience sees a polished, word-perfect presentation.

Most small businesses don’t have the skills or resources either to produce Webcasts or host them on the Web, but Canadian start-up Clearengine.com has a new online solution that makes Webcasting very simple and cost effective. Clearengine offers an automated online process for creating narrated Flash-based slide presentations from PowerPoint files. It also hosts and manages access to clients presentations. Prices start at $28 a month.

Clearengine officially launched the product in late May. It has already sold to early-adopters such as Glen Carter, president of Glen Carter Media Inc., a media training firm in Calgary, Canada. Carter, a former TV news anchor, had just started his company and was looking for innovative ways to promote it. A friend told him about Clearengine.

“What I needed to do was get my name and face out there as a media trainer,” Carter says. “Calgary is a difficult market to crack. I saw Clearengine as a tool I could use to spread my message.”

He has already referred a few prospective clients to his on-demand Webcast at Clearengine. One was impressed enough to immediately begin negotiating price and scheduling. “So it works,” Carter says. “Getting that kind of response early on indicates how useful this kind of service can be.”

Carter’s company trains business executives on how to handle interview situations — how to develop a “message track,” how to stay on track in interviews and how to avoid putting your foot in your mouth. Carter’s Clearengine presentation is a 13-minute narrated slide show that reviews his qualifications, explains the need for media training and outlines the services his firm can provide.

How It Works
The Clearengine publishing process is simple. “It’s one reason it appealed to me — because it’s so easy to use,” Carter says.

Most people start by creating a slide presentation on their computer using PowerPoint (or Word, Excel or Adobe Acrobat) and writing out a script with comments to accompany each slide.

Even small businesses typically have PowerPoint skills, although Carter admits he sought help to develop his PowerPoint show. Once you’ve created the presentation and written a script, you go to the Clearengine site, log in, and click the New Presentation button to launch a wizard that walks you through the process step-by-step.

The first step is to upload the PowerPoint presentation to the Clearengine site. This can take some time, especially if it includes lots of images and animations. Next, you select the attributes for your presentation — basic layout and background and text colors. Clearengine uses this visual template when it converts your PowerPoint presentation to Flash. Flash, the Web animation technology from Macromedia, produces files that take up less room on the host server and also works smoothly over Internet connections.

At this point, or anytime later, you can change the slide order, add an author photo and/or biography, password protect your presentation or insert a registration page that forces viewers to enter information about themselves before they see the presentation. You can also add Web links to slides or document attachments, and choose to make script text or notes available to viewers.

Voice in the Machine
Now you’re ready for the really novel part of the process, adding narration. To do this, you phone a Clearengine telephone number in response to an on-screen prompt and punch in the pass code given on the screen. Then in response to a combination of audio prompts over the phone and text prompts on the browser screen, you record your narration for each slide in turn. It may sound like a slightly clumsy and involved process, but in fact, it works smoothly.

After recording narration for one slide, you press the pound key to save it. Then you can press touch-tone keys to hear what you’ve recorded, re-record or move on to the next slide or back to the previous one.

“The first time I did it, being a broadcaster, I did two or three takes on each slide,” Carter says. “Had I zipped through it the way you could, it would have taken a lot less time. As it was, it took 40 to 45 minutes with re-doing some slides. It’s really very simple.”

The phone interface simplifies the process and eliminates barriers for users who don’t have any other way of digitally recording their voices, but audio quality — because it’s recorded over a phone line — is not very good. We’re hoping Clearengine will eventually give users the option of recording their narration as MP3 files using a microphone attached to their PCs. The MP3s could then be uploaded along with the slides.

Follow Along — Clearengine clear, step-by-step instructions walk you through the process of creating your webcast.

Publish the Final Product
The last step is publishing the presentation. Note: you need the latest version of the Flash player installed on your system to do this, and you need to turn off pop-up blocking in your browser.

Once you’ve published it, the next thing you’ll see is your Clearengine account page, showing a list of your presentations. Clicking the URL button for the new presentation launches a dialog from which you can e-mail the URL to anyone you want. They receive an e-mail from Clearengine with a clickable link that takes them directly to your show.

Clearengine presentations display full-screen. A top banner displays your logo, and a Properties tab on the left side of the screen displays the author’s photo, audio controls and a list of the slides. The slides themselves display in the main window to the right. Below that you’ll find Start, Back, Next and Finish buttons for controlling the slide show, and clickable tabs at the top let you access file attachments and slide notes or launching a window that allows viewers to send e-mailed questions to the author.

Every time someone views any of your presentations, Clearengine sends you an e-mail notification. It also tracks the number of views and viewing dates for each presentation and lets you download the tracking data.

Room for Improvement
Clearengine is still a new product, and there are a few little glitches at its Web site. Clicking on the Start Webcast button for Carter’s presentation — which is linked from the Clearengine home page — intermittently generated an error message. In the step-by-step publishing process, pages repeatedly popped up unnecessary security alerts. And once you’ve logged in to your account, there are no links to return you to the Clearengine corporate site.

Bottom Line
Still, Clearengine has a nifty idea here and has generally executed it well. For small businesses that want to experiment with Webcasting, this is the pain-free, low-cost way to do it. You can even try the product for seven days at no charge. Basic service costs $28 a month, which includes 15 presentation minutes of storage and 1,500 views per month. Professional service ($59) provides 30 presentation minutes and Business service ($119) includes 60 minutes.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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