Exclusive: Zoho’s Showtime app battles boring presentations

zoho showtime slide sept 2014
Image: Mark Hachman

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An audience busily typing into their laptops as you give your presentation may be the most engaged, fascinated audience you’ll ever have. Or they may be busily surfing cat videos. How do you tell? Zoho’s Showtime app knows.

“A listener’s attention span drops,” explained Sridhar Vembu, the chief executive of Zoho. “Everyone has their smartphones, and laptops, and are checking their email... Presentations became boring because people are just not paying as much attention as they used to.”

Showtime, which Vembu demonstrated at the company’s recent user conference, is a way to take the concept of audience engagement and bring it to the real world—making presentations an effective communication medium.

zoho showtime edit 1

This early build of Showtime wasn’t fancy, but it made all of the slides available to viewers as the presentation rolled on. Note the “question” button down in the corner.

Showtime spans both desktop and iOS/Android apps. The mobile apps (which will officially launch in a few weeks) serve as a means for the presenter to control the presentation and receive feedback, while the desktop app shows the presentation to the audience and allows them to type comments and ask questions. If audience members leave the page, that lack of attention is (anonymously) collected by the ShowTime service and recorded as an incentive to make that slide more interesting in future presentations.

Showtime encourages a presentation to become more of a conversation, executives explained. “It really alters the way in which you present,” said Raju Vegesna, the chief evangelist for Zoho. 

zoho showtime iOS appMARK HACHMAN

A shot of the iOS version of the Zoho Showtime app, with a mock question from the audience.

Vegesna actually demonstrated Showtime presentation using the Showtime app. Zoho provided a website where audience members logged in. As Vembu and Vegesna moved through the presentation, viewers were given access to each new slide as it appeared, and they could browse through older ones.

Each slide contained a question button, and users could also “like” a slide as a simple way to send feedback. (Right now, there is no option to “dislike” slides. Zoho executives said that they had “philosophical objections” to such a feature.) Per-slide polls will be added in the future, Vegesna said. 

At the end of the presentation, Showtime offers the option to archive it online. Showtime also gives feedback: graphs that track the presentation from start to finish, measuring the amount of time the presenter and the audience spends on each slide and the number of “likes” given. Additional metrics include the number of questions asked and answered, and the percentage of the audience that was actually engaged.

Zoho Showtime analyticsMARK HACHMAN

The Zoho ShowTime analytics page. Note the actual engagement and “time spent” numbers.

The Zoho team said they plan to include the ability to record audio, so that all the components of the presentation can be stored online. The ability to support multiple presenters is another feature that’s due soon, they said. 

Not a presentation, but a conversation

With about 8 million to 10 million users, Zoho’s a smaller player in the online productivity space. But the company publishes over 30 productivity and collaboration applications, from office suites like Zoho Writer, Show, and Sheet; CRM and Invoice apps; plus collaboration tools like Mail and Projects. Showtime, which works with Zoho’s Show presentation app, is the latest addition.

Zoho has tried to differentiate itself from the competition with capabilities others have passed over. Microsoft’s PowerPoint may be the presentation market leader by far, but a number of online productivity providers have carved out their own niches, among them Google Docs, Prezi, and SlideRocket. SlideRocket, purchased by VMware in 2011, probably comes the closest to Zoho, with its own per-slide commenting and analytics.

Not all of the components that Showtime offered are revolutionary. Remote presentation and videoconferencing packages like Cisco’s WebEx allow users to “raise their hands” and ask questions, and there are several ways to record a screencast and then archive it online. Still, the integration between desktop and mobile apps, and the intriguing, detailed analytics, could be of real use to those who make promotional pitches or sales presentations for a living.

What Zoho showed was an early version of what the company hopes to ship in a few weeks, with more pomp and polish behind it. Showtime will be offered as part of the Zoho Docs subscription plan, which is actually free unless users opt into more advanced features, such as password-protected file sharing. Zoho also charges separate fees for other app bundles. It Zoho Books invoice app, for example, costs $24 per month per organization. When Zoho Showtime does launch, it’ll be worth checking out.

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