Free online meeting tools: Join or host meetings from anywhere
Make the most of your remote work arrangements with the best web conferencing solutions.
Instantaneous video communication has been a staple of sci-fi for decades. Today, it’s very much a reality for millions of professionals around the world.
Can’t go to HQ for your team meeting? No problem! Today, hosting or participating in an online meeting is practically as seamless as it is on Star Trek. Years of effort to lay high-speed broadband connectivity to homes and offices, coupled with massive advancements in web conferencing tools, have made it, well, pretty easy to get started.
So if you want to become a master of online meetings, read on for plenty of useful information on starting and joining a variety of different online meetings.
How do online meetings work?
Audio conferences have been widely used in corporate environments for decades, and should be familiar to anyone who’s had to deal with external stakeholders or interact with offsite team members.
But don’t think of an audio conference as simply a group phone call. It’s a powerful method of communication that solves many workflow issues. You might have one group at one end of the call, and a different group at the other end, or you might have ten different people in 10 different places calling in to the conference line.
Now, audio conferencing with multiple participants tends to be mediated by specialized hardware and software. In a work-from-home setting, you’ll more likely interact with software-based audio conferencing tools, and there are a variety of free options available. (We’ll look into creating your own audio meeting and other types of meetings in the next section.)
Businesses have sporadically used video conferencing and video meetings for nearly two decades―about as long as high-speed internet connections have been widely available. But informal video chats really exploded in popularity after the widespread adoption of smartphones with powerful front-facing cameras.
All of these advancements led to consumer video conferencing apps. These tend to be limited to two (or a small number of) participants, since they often suffer from latency and connectivity issues, and are generally limited to smartphone screens.
However, business-focused video meeting apps have higher bandwidth throughput, meaning they allow far more participants and often provide a range of other beneficial features such as video recording, screen sharing, and participant management tools. We’ll look into the specifics of video conferencing in more detail later.
Text-based web conferencing apps
Both audio and video conferencing solutions will often include a window for instant messages―helpful for participants who might need a way to communicate if they lose audio-video connectivity, or if they don’t want to be visible or speak. It can also be an easier way to manage a question-and-answer period in meetings with few hosts and many participants.
There are also plenty of text-only chat and meeting apps available. Some integrate with audio and video conferencing apps, or may even include their own versions of these apps as part of their overall functionality.
Most people use text chat apps for sporadic updates, file sharing, and getting answers to urgent but uncomplicated questions. (Instant messages aren’t often used on their own to host virtual meetings, although it is possible.)
How do I create a meeting online?
To initiate a new online meeting, all you typically need to do is to create a new private channel or group in your communications app. Making the channel private keeps it accessible only to the people you need in the meeting. After you’ve created the channel, you’ll typically need to invite other participants so they can access it. And that’s it―once everyone has their invitations, you can start your meeting.
If you’re joining a text-based meeting, all you need to do is open the relevant desktop app or mobile app and join the right group or room in your organization’s dedicated conference space at the right time. If other participants are there, you should be able to see their names active in the room or group. After that, you just need to type out whatever you want to say.
You may want to run a speed test on your internet connection to make sure you can make proper use of the web conference service.
RingCentral Video, for example, lets you set IDs and passwords so that only people that you invite can access your meeting.
As a meeting host, you’ll manage the meeting through a dedicated conferencing app, but some conference calling services may allow you to create and manage meetings from good ol’ phone prompts.
How do I join an online meeting?
Just participating in an audio or video conference online normally doesn’t require you to create an account with the conferencing service. If you get a link, dial-in number, or a meeting ID, you can just use that to join the meeting.
Sometimes, you’ll need to download the app, but there are online meeting tools, like RingCentral, that don’t have this requirement.
If you have a phone number (and access code), all you’ll need is your own phone. If you’re given a link to access the meeting, you’ll probably need to download something, if you haven’t already.
What is the best free online meeting software?
What are you getting with free online meeting app and tools?
Most free online meeting services with video and audio capabilities will include:
- Audio and video conferencing for multiple people
- Screen sharing
- A dedicated number and/or access code for privacy
- Call recording and/or meeting analytics
But not all free online meeting services offer all of these features, and some may offer even more features than those listed here. Each free service is typically built for a specific use case. Some are built to host large numbers of callers in audio conferences.
Others have built impressively streamlined video streaming capabilities for their users. But some online meeting services are built with marketing in mind, and the “meetings” hosted on these online meeting platforms are often more like a webinar than a get-together in a conference room.
Advantages of free web conference tools
The clearest advantage to using free web conferences is that they’re free.
Many small businesses find that free web conferences provide everything they need to help employees keep up with each other and their managers. These free online meetings are typically easy to access, and many don’t even require you to log in or create an account to join a meeting.
However, businesses with higher headcounts may find free web conferencing tools lacking in the features they need to effectively deploy online meetings for many teams and departments at the same time.
What do you get from paid online meeting software compared to free solutions?
Most “free” online meeting services are simply the lowest-cost tier of more comprehensive conferencing solutions. Some of these services include other call-management capabilities, and may be part of a larger communications technology package an organization uses.
Paid online meeting software often includes all the features found in free text, audio, and video meeting tools, with plenty of other features on top. Here are some popular features in paid plans for online meeting services:
Advantages of paid online meeting tools
If you’re using paid online meeting services, you tend to not only get access to more tools and functionalities, you also tend to receive better support from service providers, too.
Larger organizations, and those with stricter recordkeeping requirements, will probably appreciate the recording and transcription capabilities that are usually offered on paid plans. This is especially important when legal compliance requires comprehensive records. Free virtual meeting platforms rarely save the audio and/or video of your meetings and are unlikely to provide any sort of transcript.
If you have an international workforce, you’ll benefit from the enhanced international functionality on the paid plans of most online meeting apps. This is often most important for conference calling to dedicated numbers, as international callers can wind up with some eye-popping bills if you’re using a phone plan for those meetings.
Many paid online meeting services are part of larger communications packages, which often provide faxing, voicemail, calendar appointments, and API integrations.
Paid online meeting plans should be able to interact with your organization’s other tools, whether that’s your Google Calendar, your CRM, your cloud storage service (some paid online meeting services include cloud storage), or even your website.
Disadvantages of free web conference tools compared to paid services
Free web conferencing software typically restricts the number of participants in a room, and often limits how long you can use the free room as well. Meanwhile, free video conferences often throttle your video quality to conserve bandwidth, so HD is likely out of the question.
Of course, latency is another issue, regardless of video and audio call quality. Your ability to host a free meeting online is also typically more limited than it would be with a paid service. You may not be able to create private meeting rooms, mute participants, or share your screen with viewers. You may also have to manage the meeting through a web browser on your PC, as many free online meeting services don’t have dedicated apps to create and manage meetings.