In February, CIBC World Markets's one-day publishing conference coincided with a day of sharp declines in the stock market. That unfortunate twist of fate meant that half of the 150 scheduled attendees were no-shows. Conference organizers, who had scheduled a roster of prestigious speakers aimed at showcasing the investment bank's depth of experience and expertise in the industry, found their message missed half its targets.

The incident spurred CIBC World Markets, the New York-based investment banking subsidiary of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, to try a solution that is becoming increasingly popular in corporate circles: streaming media. In May the investment bank began testing technology for "Webcasting" its conferences, and today registrants who are unable to attend conferences can replay event sessions on-demand from their computers.

"It's a way to have a tool to safeguard yourself against extenuating circumstances," says Belinda Horton, an associate in CIBC World Markets's conference planning department.

But for CIBC World Markets and other users, convenience is only half the benefit of streaming media. Companies seeking to court their clients, affiliates and partners with the latest technology use it to send content-rich messages in an easy to use medium.

"A lot of communication is non-verbal. It enhances the communication if you can see the person who's talking," says Bruce Peterson, relationship manager for Safeco Life and Investments, a division of Safeco Corp., Seattle, which oversees the company's mutual funds, life and variable insurance products.

The company uses streaming media to present the financial intermediaries who sell its product, including brokers, dealers, insurance agents and registered investment advisors, with videos of the company's portfolio managers talking about their investing philosophies.

In essence, streaming media is a technique for transferring data so it can be processed as a steady and continuous data flow, allowing the client browser or plug-in to start displaying the data before the entire file has been transmitted. In layman's terms that means that rather than waiting half an hour for a data-heavy file such as audio or video to download and then playing it back, a user can watch and listen to a video as his computer is receiving it. Technology is available to use streaming media for live broadcasts or on-demand playbacks. Sanjay Srivastava, vice president of enterprise business with Akamai Technologies Inc., Cambridge, MA, a streaming media vendor that acquired competitor Intervu earlier this year, calls the technology a blend of the rich media that people are used to from television and of the interactivity enabled by the Internet.

As a digital technology, streaming media has distinct advantages over analog technologies such as phone conference calls, Srivastava argues. For example, Akamai's applications allow a presentation to be indexed so users can jump to the section they want to see instead of having to view everything chronologically. Advanced features even enable users to run a search for a word or phrase, much as you would on the Internet. As a digital medium, the selected word could be found and tagged, allowing a user to begin viewing at the point where the word is first mentioned. The technology can also help presenters learn more about their audience, such as when each listener logged on and off the presentation.

"You can look at survey windows that ask if this presentation is of interest. I can modify my presentation to meet those needs," Srivastava says.

Technology companies are the fastest adopter of the technology, says Srivastava, but he puts the financial industry among the top five sectors in the rate of adoption of streaming media.

While figures on this adoption rate are scarce, Lawrence Orans, senior analyst at Gartner, Stamford, CT, notes a rise in interest from the financial sector, particularly from investment banks. "I've seen them use it as a way of getting air time for their equity analysts. They try to get them on the major shows, like Wall Street Week and CNN financial shows, but there is limited air time and a lot of competition. More and more we're seeing brokerages doing streaming."

The signs of growth in streaming media as a whole are clearer. In June, the Streaming Media East 2000 conference, organized by Streamingmedia.com, San Francisco, drew more than 10,000 attendees. High profile Webcasts, such as the Victoria's Secret Web fashion show on May 18, are also drawing attention to the medium. The show drew 2 million viewers, double last year's numbers. Gartner predicts that by 2004, 80% of state and local governments will use the Internet to deliver continuous Web coverage of legislative or interactive town meetings and that 90% of global enterprises will be using Webcasting to broadcast live events such as shareholder meetings, quarterly financial announcements and addresses from their chief executive officer.

For his colleagues in the financial industry, Peterson of Safeco Life and Investments predicts the biggest challenge of moving to this type of communication will be shifting the corporate communications philosophy away from print. "We had a mindset already focused on video as a medium. The challenge is not the technology per se, but the mindset of thinking about doing video for the first time," he says.

Peterson describes the learning curve that his staff had to climb to grasp the technology as sharp but short. For his company's production team, there were a few fairly minor differences to consider to make the switch to the new medium.

"For example, in a typical video there are 30 frames per second and online there are 15. It's not readily obvious to the eye but you recognize it when producing," Peterson says. The most time-consuming piece of producing streaming video remains the same creative processes that exists in other mediums, he adds. "The time issue is what is your message and how do you want to convey it."

Technologically, the next obstacle to the continued growth of the medium is bandwidth. Peterson says that broadband online service is imminent. "The bandwidth revolution is moving in our direction, and we are not going to wait until we read about it in the Wall Street Journal."

Echoing this view, Ivan Parron, president and founder of Ritmoteca.com, Hialeah, FL, a site devoted to presenting audio and video of Latino music over the Web, responded to a questions about bandwidth challenges at the Streaming Media East 2000 conference with the question, "Think about who five years ago would have said, "Why do we need a Web site?'"

Indeed, a report from Kinetic Strategies, Phoenix, a research firm focusing on the broadband Internet market, estimates there will be 15.9 million installed cable modem customers in North America by year-end 2003, up from 1.8 million at the end of 1999.

Many of today's users in the financial industry are initially bypassing the bandwidth problem by using the technology to target technologically advanced clients. Peterson notes that while Safeco Life and Investment support people who log on with slower modems through audio-only presentations, "We assume that most of the investment professionals that it is reaching have the latest technology available."

And in some cases, showing financial clients you are equipped with technology that is not yet widely available can be an advantage in itself, notes Horton, of CIBC World Markets. "Being able to say we are working with the latest technology...It's worth it just for the one sentence, 'We are Webcasting.'"

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