Free online conference a “big help” to small Canadian businesses

How may I use social networking to promote my business? What’s the latest on bugs pestering Vista users? Where can I get free software to help me market my product? Does a printer really need a driver?

From queries about freeware, to questions on balancing business legers, to tips on how to harmonizing work and family demands, some Canadian small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners are finding getting the answers they need from the Small Business Summit (SBS).

The SBS is a no-fee online conference hosted by Microsoft Corp.

The event, which runs on the company’s Office Live Internet-based service, includes several presentation modules from topic experts who provide tips and advice aimed at SMB operators.

Viewers watched the streaming video presentations on their computers and sent questions to presenters via an instant messaging utility.

The annual three-day event – that’s now in its third year – ends today.

However, programs are archived for on-demand broadcast at the Microsoft SMB site.

“The service is really useful especially for business-focused operators who have very little time to get updated on technology that could help their company,” said Janeen Joyce, proprietor of Fashion Assist, a Toronto-based fashion consultancy outfit.

Joyce, who tried out the service this week, was very enthusiastic about some of the things she learned – such as tips on how she could use blogging and social networking tools to boost her company’s marketing campaign.

Another segment that sparked her interest dealt with low-cost, high-yield marketing techniques based on the book Duct Tape Marketing by author John Jantsch.

The fashion consultant also said SBS eased her fears about technology by presenting tech topics in a friendly and easy to understand manner. “Non-tech savvy people won’t be afraid to ask the embarrassing questions,”

For instance, Joyce noted she has been putting off switching to Vista from Windows XP because of reports of numerous bugs in the new operating system.

She said a presenter explained that many such problems could be traced to hardware products such as printers that have not been configured by their manufacturers to run on Vista.

Learning work-life balance was an important takeaway for Stuart Crawford, owner of IT Matters, a systems integrator firm based in Calgary.

Crawford, who started attending SBS conferences three years ago, said the modules helped him realized that he was missing out on enjoying life with his wife and two teenaged sons.

“I was basically working nearly 16 hours a day. Now I am down to between eight and 10 hours and my wife and I always set aside two nights a week to disconnect from work and spend time with the kids.”

He said the change enabled him to recharge and add another hour to his sleep.

The Calgary-based systems integrator has numerous SMB clients. He directs them to the SBS site as an additional “customer touch point.”

The online service is also an effective tool for marketing Microsoft products, according to one Canadian technology analyst.

“The event can serve as one big marketing demo where SMB owners can experience using Office Live,” said Warren Shiau of Toronto-based research firm Strategic Counsel.

But marketing is only one component of the event which serves as a learning and collaborative environment for SMB owners seeking information, he said.

“The event offers a free venue that busy and budget-constrained users can access without having to leave their businesses,” said Shiau.

He said Web-based collaboration tools are increasingly being used by large enterprises to share information among its personnel and deliver product information or marketing materials to customers.

“Online meetings and video conferences are happening everyday. Here is one tool that SMB owners can also use to cut loose the barriers of physical location.”

Another technology analyst said setting up the infrastructure to produce online conferences may be too expensive for SMBs but there are numerous companies that offer hosted services.

Apart from Microsoft’s Office Live, SMB operators can also consider video conferencing services from Cisco/WEBX, Citrix’s GoTOMeeting or the relatively new IBM/Lotus Unyte Web conferencing service, said Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst for infrastructure at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

“Hosted services remove the complexity of maintaining an in-house infrastructure and are available in packages that suit most SMB budgets,” said Angl.

Hosted collaboration services are ideal for bringing individuals from outside the organization into a company meeting because access can easily be configured to cater to different security considerations, he added.

Web conferencing tools are used to support various corporate online training programs, meetings and sales process, said Angl.

“There are very little technical issues since the tools are browser based and are mainly plug-and-play,” he said.

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