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SURF THIS: Two sites meet demands of meeting planners

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Jim Cota

E-mail is a great communication tool. But sometimes, it simply falls flat on its face.

It doesn’t convey emotion well without riddling your messages with little smiley faces to connote a joke, or sarcasm. (As a side note, I feel compelled to tell you that if you’re considering using sarcasm in e-mail, don’t. Sarcasm and e-mail don’t mix, they aren’t friends, and nothing good can come from putting them together.)

Perhaps the second-most-frustrating aspect of e-mail is when you’re trying to schedule a meeting with someone, especially multiple someones.

It starts innocently enough: a quick missive that you’re available to meet next week, maybe between 1 and 4 on Monday or anytime on Wednesday. The next thing you know, three weeks and 57 e-mails have been traded and you’re no closer to getting a date set. In many cases, the phone is the best bet for meeting scheduling, but that ignores one of the main benefits of e-mail: the ability to answer when you want.

I’ve used several good tools over the years for solving this problem. Two have become the standard bearers: TimeBridge and Tungle. Each approaches the problem a little differently, so you might find you prefer one or the other.

Here are the basics:

With TimeBridge (www.timebridge.com), you create an account, create a new meeting, designate five days and times that you’re available, and send the message out to everyone you’d like to attend.

Friends, co-workers, prospects, clients ... each of them will receive the invitation via e-mail with “Reply Now” button included. The button returns them to the TimeBridge site, where they can see all the proposed days and times, including the responses that have come in from others who have been invited. Each person picks all the times that work for them, designate which are the “Best” and which don’t work at all. TimeBridge compiles all the results and, using the responses, selects the best time for everyone and sends out the final meeting confirmation.

Overall, the website is simple to use and presents all the options clearly and concisely. Everyone—even those using it for the first time—will easily understand how it works and what they’re supposed to do. It also doesn’t require that attendees create an account, only meeting organizers, which is nice for those who may use it only occasionally.

Of course, once you’ve replied to a meeting, you have the option of creating an account so you’ll be able to organize your own in the future. 

Since I started using TimeBridge, new features have been added to round out the product offering. With one of the free accounts, you can sync the events with your calendar; share your availability with others in advance to streamline scheduling; create a public “MeetWithMe” page; create a meeting room with an agenda, action items and notes to keep things moving; and integrate with other third-party apps like Google Maps and Evernote.

The paid version ($14/month) offers live technical support, text-message meeting reminders, and unlimited phone and web conferencing.

TimeBridge’s MeetWithMe pages allow you to make your schedule public, so people trying to schedule something with you can see your availability ahead of time. This can be a handy way to streamline the process, but since it’s based on your availability as determined by items on your calendar, you might find you’re getting asked for meetings at times you’d rather not.

Another scheduling service, Tungle (www.tungle.me), also allows you to schedule events similar to the way TimeBridge does, but it handles these public calendars slightly differently.

In addition to syncing your calendar to display when you’re available, Tungle allows you to block out specific chunks of time to keep your schedule open. For example, in addition to your other meetings, you might want to keep Monday mornings free. Tungle allows you to block out this time without having it on your calendar. (Tungle also shows times you’re available, whereas TimeBridge shows the times you’re busy—not a big distinction, but you might find one more agreeable than the other.)

To see how this works, you can see my calendar on both services: tungle.me/jimcota and meetwith.me/jimcota.

Both of these work pretty well, but at this point I find myself leaning toward TimeBridge. There are others, of course, and you might find one of these more to your liking, so check out Doodle (www.doodle.com) and ScheduleOnce, (www.scheduleonce.com) and let me know what you think.•

__________

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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