When it came time for Alcan Inc.'s annual meeting in Montreal last month, employees who had been travelling around the company's operations worldwide, including China and Toronto -- both SARS hotspots -- were encouraged not to attend.
These employees, many of whom are also shareholders, didn't have to show up in person to participate in the event.
Instead, they were able to see and hear it all live by logging onto a computer and using Webcasting technology.
"Through Webcasting, they were still able to be there," says Joseph Singerman, Alcan's director of media relations.
"The risk was very, very small but this was an extra precaution."
This is the third year running that shareholders have been able to use the technology to screen the event at arm's length through the Internet.
And Alcan is just one of a growing number of Canadian companies using Webcasting technology in a variety of ways to reach wide audiences.
Transmitting annual meetings and quarterly earnings reports for the investment community, as Alcan does, is a major use, especially since the passage of new securities regulations in the United States that are requiring fair disclosure.
"Canadian companies, even those not trading in the U.S., have adopted the spirit of the U.S. regulation," says James Brett, co-owner of Online Broadcasting Corp. (OBC), a service provider in Toronto.
In fact, more than 70 per cent of public companies in Canada now use the technology, says Mr. Brett, although fewer than 20 per cent of private ones do.
Webcasting is also being used to transmit industry conferences, carry out e-learning and internal training sessions and launch product launches and media releases.
First used to transmit audio only in the mid-1990s, the technology quickly expanded to include presentation material, such as PowerPoint slides and video. Audio transmissions are still the main format but video broadcasts are growing in popularity, says Nicole Guillot, manager of Webcast services at Canada NewsWire in Toronto, another major service provider.
Last year, Canada NewsWire aired 820 events, representing 60-per-cent growth over 2001.
Of that number, about one-quarter cent were video Webcasts, which typically cost between $7,000 and $20,000, depending on the number of cameras used and extras wanted, such as bilingual transmission and interactive question and answer sessions.
Canada NewsWire charges about $200 for a basic, one-hour live audio session for 100 people.
Sun Life Financial Services of Canada Inc. in Toronto often uses Webcasting for in-house audio conferences when there is a large group of employees participating.
It's cheaper to transmit over the Web than through traditional teleconferencing, says Cheryl Ficker, manager of Sun Life's corporate communications.
Sun Life started with audio Webcasts of its quarterly meetings in 2000 and, since last year, has added video and PowerPoint presentations as well.
Why bother with video when audio transmission, even with a prepackaged slide presentation, is so cheap?
"It puts a face to the voice and dramatically increases the engagement with the speaker," Ms. Ficker says.
Mr. Brett says that seeing company leaders gives investors a chance to size them up, and can instil more confidence in the company as a result, provided the executive performs well on camera. OBC will arrange for on-air training, if needed.
Part of the appeal to companies is that they don't have to invest in any new technology, including servers, software and video cameras, says Mr. Brett.
OBC handles the transmission in total, digitizing the video and audio signals and streaming them via its server over the Internet.
The company only needs to update its Web site, with a link provided by OBC, for participants to click into the transmission. Special software, such as Windows Media, is required to see and hear the Webcast, but that can be downloaded for free.
Despite the ease of the process, there can still be glitches.
The quality of the transmission depends in part on a number of technical factors, including the presence of firewalls and the bandwidth at the receiving end, says Ms. Ficker.
"There can be delays, depending on the Internet connection and the user's computer. We get complaints that everyone in the office is watching the Webcast and the bandwidth is all filled up, or they have the wrong software. But it's a nascent technology still. People can't expect it to be like television," Mr. Brett says.
The Delta Meadowvale Resort and Conference Centre in Mississauga has seen an upsurge of inquiries about Webcasting after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. It has arranged the service for large conferences three or four times a year since then, says Don MacDiarmid, director of catering and conference services.
Mr. MacDiarmid has heard complaints from some participants who have tried to e-mail in a question during one of the interactive sessions.
"They get frustrated when there are a lot of questions coming in and they can't get an answer right away," Mr. MacDiarmid says.
In most cases that include a question-and-answer session, participants who post a question will receive an answer via e-mail later on, says Mr. Brett.
Although Webcasting is still in a relatively early phase, Mr. MacDiarmid believes it will catch on in a larger way once conference organizers see the potential financial rewards.
"There's a huge fundraising opportunity if you charge a fee to the viewer. If you get several thousand people around the world paying $40 to see a keynote speech, that's a substantial profit," says Mr. MacDiarmid.
In the entertainment field, pay-per-view Webcasting is already taking place.
Sports teams, for instance, charge a fee for viewers to log onto special screenings of events and behind-the-scenes views. such as ringside at a fight or a pit tour during an auto race, says Mr. Brett.
"But there would be a lot of resistance to paying even $5 in the business world," he adds.
Companies typically archive their live Webcasts and make them available, free of charge, on their Web sites for months after the event.
There are other ways that companies can benefit from the technology, says Mr. Brett.
Hits to a Webcast can be monitored to get a picture of the audience, including the peak hours of interest, duration of stay and geographical location of participants, he says.
"That's very valuable information in assessing how effective you are in getting your message across," Mr. Brett says.
And that's just the beginning. Ms. Guillot says there are all kinds of potential uses for the technology, especially as a selling tool for various products.
"You could have a rock star like Madonna, for instance, talking about her latest album, even taking questions, and then a purchase form for it at the bottom of the page," says Ms. Guillot.
"It's so exciting," Ms. Guillot adds. "Every time I'm talking to a company about Webcasting now, the lightbulbs are going off."
© The Globe and Mail
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