Many associations and nonprofits have arrived at the question: do we go fully digital with our events?
Everyone comes to this decision point from a different motivation (here are a few of our favorites):
- Perhaps you're still registering attendees through a form submitted by fax and when you shared this at the latest industry event gathering, you got this face.
- Maybe your organization is still printing every agenda out (plus a glossy program guide and a four color tradeshow map) for your in-person events and meetings and it is costing you tremendously in time, money, and stress for that final print or shipping deadline (and the sadness that follows when you receive those inevitable changes that happen immediately after the deadlines have passed).
- Or you're manually arranging networking, private meetings, or your hosted buyer program through a spreadsheet and wanting to sleep without seeing cells in your dreams.
- Your board wants to be more green and go paperless to save the environment for their grandchildren.
- Or maybe your membership has turned over from Boomers to Millenials and can't believe you don't have an app for that.
No matter the reason, making the leap from print to digital can be a compelling option beckoning your board and staff. However, this isn't the kind of change you should undertake as a snap decision.
We asked some of our favorite association event planners and marketers what they wished they would have known before they made the leap so that you can be best armed as you consider the journey to the digital side:
1) Establish a baseline for your current events logistics, marketing, and communications strategy
Answer these questions first:
Why and how do you use print in the overall scope of your event(s) and how effective is it?
Why and how do you market now to your prospective attendees and how effective is it?
Why and how do you communicate logistical event information to your prospective and actual attendees now and how effective is it?
Now, answer these next two questions:
Do we do it this way because we've always done it that way?
Or, is there something in our overall organizational strategy that demands or asks us to do like that?
Why do you need this information?
Anytime your association or company makes a change, you disrupt the experience your audience is expecting. Additionally, you disrupt the way your staff, volunteers, and suppliers execute. And as with all change, sometimes the disruption is welcome. Sometimes, not so much. However, you'll experience more success when you gain an understanding everyone's current expectations live and use those insights as you take action, especially when it relates to events (typically one of the largest non-dues revenue drivers for the organization).
Carrie, an association manager at a healthcare organization in Chicago, shared that you can't really make a thoughtful decision to move into the future without first understanding where you've been. "Snap decisions without history will sink this kind of association transformation. Because events are more than just events. They help us engage and educate members and prospective members, as well as serving as a reminder and an immediate opportunity to renew their membership. If you throw an unexpected wrench in that member expectation of reality, you risk disrupting more than your events execution, marketing, and communication. It gets ugly. Fast."
You also can't fight fires after the transformation as effectively. If you institute an all digital solution and start seeing decreases in revenue, attendance, engagement, membership etc. having a starting baseline made up of hard quantitive and softer qualitative results gives you a better view of what is possibly the reason for the decreased results. It may not answer all of your questions. However, it will help you better identify patterns, which turns your team into strategic fire-fighters concentrating on the flashpoint rather than a team who is dumping water on a whole city block.
When you go through this type of needs assessment, it will also likely uncover many of the biases your leadership might have around technology transformation. This is crucial because change happens from the top. And if they aren't on board, your job in leading this digital event transformation just got a whole lot harder.
Other discovery questions that help establish a baseline
Other questions you can ask to assess where you're starting with this journey are (but definitely not limited to):
- Where does your organization’s current strategy sit as far as “touching” your membership and community for events, marketing and communications (frequency, channel, engagement ROI, etc)
- How are you completing membership recruitment and renewals?
- Where does your staff’s comfort level sit in working with new and shiny tools?
- How do we (staff, board, attendees) feel about trying new things?
- What is the current organizational tolerance towards risk and patience for giving something new enough time to work (even when people complain)?
2) What insights do you have on your participant or customer habits?
The first part of this exercise revealed information on why you, the organization, staff, and board, do the things. The second part of this exercise assesses the habits of your how your attendees actually interact and how they tell you they interact with the things. You have to have both data sets to truly solve for your most effective digital X.
How do you get this information?
How to get data on how your attendees and prospective attendees actually interact with your organization:
Go to the historical data from your member or development marketing and communications and see how your tribe has been responding and engaging with your organization. What percentage falls into primarily responsive to email, to SMS, to social, to the website, to direct mail, to phone calls, to face to face, etc.? If your organization is truly mostly print, contact another similarly sized association or nonprofit in your industry that gives you averages for their digital response rates to round out your print metrics.
How to get data on how your attendees and prospective attendees want to believe they interact:
If you do an annual event or membership survey, take the opportunity to ask specific questions about how they want to get their information (magazine, website, app, newsletters, emails, etc). Also ask, how are they currently consuming information (do they online shop versus hit the mall up, do they read the news on paper, on their desktop, or ). The responses should give you some basic insights on what their habits are, as well as their ideal reality.
Also ask, how are they currently consuming information. The responses should give you some basic insights on what their habits are, as well as their ideal habits.
For example, Jane likes to tell people that she reads 2 newspapers back to front delivered to her door and three more by tablet on the train to work. The reality is that she reads the occasional article on Facebook, only dives deeper if intrigued by TheDailySkimm and does the crossword in the Sunday printed paper. You can make a lot of inferences about Jane's habits, one conclusion which is that she's likely ready for digital. You can then also round out her cultural expectations based on her responses to a question like: do you prefer a mobile event app versus a larger printed program guide.
Again, the answers you get back won’t tell you everything. However, they will provide more data to help make a decision on whether or not your strategic intentions will at least align with where your audience is living and playing. It will also help you better understand what expectations you'll have to communicate well as you transform from print to digital.
3) Do a total cost comparison
If your strategy is in place and your tribe seems to be open to the idea, next look to the total cost of doing digital business. And it’s not just hard money you're spending to purchase the technology tools.
Be clear cut about all the hard costs needed to make the transformation as well as options for all of the tools and systems you’ll need to support you and your team during the transition, figuring in additionally any recommended investments for training, deployment, and ongoing maintenance. Next, account for the soft costs that might not be apparent up front like communicating the change to your audience, as well as forecasting for any potential lost revenue as you make the transformation, and finally, forecast the cost savings you'll gain by making the transformation from print to digital.
A side note about total cost: be cautious of going with the lowest priced solutions or those companies who offer you the lowest dollar deals as an initial pricing package. Many times, the slightly higher packages allow for a dedicated account manager, better customer support, and responsive customer service. It matters when you need it and gives you peace of mind even if you never do.
Ways to Maximize Cost Savings Through Bundling Costs or Working With Sponsors to Offset Costs
Karen, an education conference planner from Virginia, shares "We’ve negotiated signing bonuses as well as found sponsors who provided complimentary iPads to help promote our mobile app usage in the exhibit hall after we stopped printing the program guide. Additionally, we found that there are also some of the digital magazine publishers who build in bulk discounts, especially if you’re pairing it with any remaining print (we still need a small onsite newsletter) you might still be doing."
Pro tip: Take advantage of bundle packages that offer discounts, but be wary of complex multi-year contracts. You and your technology vendors need to have open and flexible minds that allow you to work through the digital transformation together. And it might take one to three years to be successful. A good technology sales rep will level with you to figure out how to keep your C-Suite from freaking out as you work out the kinks. He/she will also set realistic expectations about what is, what can be, and what can't be.
Approach current sponsors to help underwrite this new transformation. But again, be realistic in the expectations about what is, what can be, and what can't be so everyone gets the ROI they're signing on for.
For events, the Internet is an important cost consideration too
But going back to the spending of the money: if you’re thinking of going from print to digital with an event you manage, don’t forget to figure in the cost of wifi.
If your program or event is completely dependent on the internet gods, you need to have a backup plan in case the venue network can’t effectively handle the multiple users, heavy traffic, and multiple days of usage. If you run an event where you anticipate users with more than two devices (e.g. a laptop and a cell phone) and especially if you run a big show (more than 2ooo plus registrants or with a large exhibit hall with more than fifteen 10x10 booths), get a network manager to watch the bandwidth and help troubleshoot issues onsite. You’ll also likely need to budget for more dedicated hard lines for your other things that drink the internet like water (lots of video or virtual reality in your exhibitor hall.)
Ventilate departmental silos to ensure you've not missed any cost centers
If you’re transforming your print pieces, like your magazine, conference guides, or books, think through your staff time as well that you might be increasing (like who’s going to add all of those hot links to your clickable links in the online program guide or manage the back end of your event app) that your outsourced graphic design team usually just took care of. Or how mobile responsiveness might play a role in usability, or if you want increased interactivity, how much will cost to add good video or audio?
Lastly, we've said it before but it's worth saying one more time: moving from print to digital means you're making an investment that just the initial purchases. Technology changes faster than ever (seriously, I just bought the Apple iPhone 6 and now there’s an Apple iPhone 8) and your event happens at least every year. Think through initial purchase, maintenance, customization, and upgrades. Be a pessimist and also think through, what happens if it doesn’t work, what’s our backup plan?
4) Research, Recommendations, and RFPs
Do Your Research
Whew! You've made it through the cost analysis phase, which is usually one of the toughest. Now, it's time to check out your options and make your digital purchases. Do not skip the research step, even if your CEO, ED, or conference chair is absolutely certain that they've found the one tool is the best fit. This just isn't a truth yet. There isn't one ring to rule them all. Especially for associations, where technology tools are fragmented.
Start with your end in sight, and research according to the outcomes you're seeking for your event and attendee experience and how it will all tie in with your organizational strategy and existing tech stack. By taking the time to find the best set of technology solutions, you'll end up with options for a workable, scalable technology stack you can grow and mature with.
Pro tip: don't make the research a one or two person adventure. Have any staff who might use the technology tools participate in this process as well including a member or two to weigh in. This isn't consensus management. It's stakeholder management. You're not asking for permission; you're asking for insights to validate all of the initial research you did at the beginning of this journey and identifying any final barriers you need to overcome before moving forward with your digital transformation.
Where to do the research
Your event is unique but your attendee and event management needs are likely not. There are hundreds of technology tools available now that can support you in whatever fashion you and your team require. Use the internet, use your professional development network, or use your own industry association's annual event and hit up the tradeshow floor to watch a demo.
Your research is complete. You've completed discovery, a demo, requirements gathering, and are moving into contracting. Before you sign anything, go ask at least two people who've used the tools you're considering. The technology vendors who are trying to win your business should be able to provide references. But...here is where the MPI, PCMA, ASAE, or other industry message boards and personal networks shine.
Ask your friends, colleagues, and people whose online presence you admire who they used to get the real scoop.
Put Together Your Event App RFP
Your RFP process can be done before or after you do a discovery call with event app sales teams. Or, check out TechSoup’s great advice on how to run an RFP process.
To write one, remember, it doesn't need to be 10 pages long. A lot of what goes into what you'll need, the discovery call will help unearth. Put your must haves and your event information in. We've put together a sample RFP (please feel free to copy or customize), which you can use as much of or as little of depending on needs. It should help you outline the hard cold pros and cons of a tool.
5) Get everyone on board internally, clue the membership and attendee list in, and then over-communicate about your choice
I know. I’m always harping about communication, but really, when you’re changing things up, you can’t talk about it enough. People fear what they don’t understand. You have to make them feel as safe as possible to ask questions, poke holes, complain, emote, and celebrate.
For your internal stakeholders like your board, volunteers, staff, committee members, etc:
This means outlining a clear plan for training people on how to use the new tools, then talking about the changes and how it’s going to be amazing (and look, there’s training!) and then talking some more. Oh, and then actually following through on the training.
For external stakeholders like attendees, members, supplier partners, etc.:
Put information out in multiple ways and with multiple spokespeople, influencers, and friends of the event endorsing and demonstrating how much they like the new. Depending on the age range of your customer base, membership, AND/OR your leadership (because if they make this face when asked how it’s going, you might have some trouble), apps and online programs don’t feel as comfortable. Create generationally appropriate attendee adoption and onboarding campaigns where you need to bring them on board in a positive way.
Hayley, a Dallas-based association communications manager, shares that when they made the transition from printed materials to an event app, over-communication was incredibly important. "We started planning the communication at least 10 weeks before our event and then started talking to everyone 6 weeks before the event. We used multiple channels (our blog, newsletter, emails, SMS, social, and members) to get the word out. And we made sure to make mention of the change at least twice a week in an integrated way so that our attendees felt like it was the status quo that aided their onsite engagement rather than this disruption from the event experience."
5) Give it time
Change takes time. And depending on how wedded your association or nonprofit is to print, it can feel like it's taking forever. The best advice we can give is to hold on and keep the faith. And help your leadership keep the faith too.
The uncomfortable truth is that moving from print to digital can take up to two to three years to really make the full adoption if it’s technology tools only used at an annual event. Exposure of the new technology tools at multiple events more frequently can accelerate your timeline, but you still shouldn’t rush it or have unrealistic expectations that everything will fall into place overnight.
Set timelines to check in on progress, adoption, and general happiness. Give people a place to complain, empathize, and practice. And be patient.
Going completely digital is hot, but remember, as with any change, it has to fit for your people. Take the time to figure out your best plan of attack and you’ll be well rewarded in the long term.