Asking Your Members for Guidance: The Story of the Paperless Conference
Omnipress produces educational meeting materials for more than 800 organizations every year, and we frequently hear our customers announce, “This year we’re going paperless for our conference! Let’s put all the handouts online.” Their goals are to cut down on costs or to “green up” their event by eliminating paper waste.
Seeking Member Input?
The first question we ask when our customers come to us with a desire to go paperless is… “Have you asked your members?” The answer is usually no. The decision to eliminate paper handouts at educational events is frequently made by the association staff, but it’s the attendees who feel the ramifications.
I attended a conference with a group we’ve been printing for since 2002, when we took their loose handouts and collected them into a neat binder that the attendees loved. Currently, the conference organizers no longer produce the binder and instead placed all the handouts online.
I was in the education sessions talking to people firsthand during the event, and you could sense the disappointment when they couldn’t find the handouts. The attendees wanted the valuable information they could look at and take notes on. One speaker even made copies of her handouts at her own expense. The attendees I talked to were confused about where they could get the information online, and they felt frustrated that they were out of the loop.
After the event, we talked to our client about the reactions from the show floor. The staff said they hadn’t heard any complaints, but they didn’t pose an actual question to the attendees about whether they wanted paper handouts, which means they don’t really know how people feel.
Now compare that with a group that always asks attendees about what they want. The Veterinary Emergency Critical Care Society carefully analyzes input from their attendees each year to determine what format the registrants want for their educational meeting material. Half their members want the information in book format, and the other half want CDs, and that’s the way the association will continue to produce their materials until their attendees tell them differently. This association’s simple survey leads to happy attendees and a confident staff.
Have a Relationship with Your Members
Understanding your attendees’ desires about whether they want handouts at an event is one thing, but if you’re going to have a meaningful relationship with your members, you need to ask them their opinions on decisions that they care about, and you need to make sure you’re accurately collecting the information. When associations execute on major decisions without asking for input, the results may not be what the crowd wanted and the decision now becomes more costly if they have to backpedal or change direction or revamp the whole program.
In the past year, the voices of social media leaders have been saying to stay connected and listen with tools like Google Alerts, Facebook, Twitter, Listservs, etc., but sometimes you just need to be direct and ask. Social media tools are a great way to stay in touch, but direct surveys or online voting should not be ignored.
I think the challenge for associations is that they see surveying the opinions of their members as a monumental task, and it shouldn’t be. An online voting system is easy to set up and monitor, and when it’s a secure, high-integrity system, your members can have faith that they’re really being listened to. Investing in and using a tool to capture their direct input is definitely less expensive than paying for a costly mistake.
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Debunking the Myths of the "Paperless Conference"
What does a "paperless conference" really mean? Is it actually possible? This white paper outlines the unlikelihood of completely abandoning paper at conferences. It also offers case studies and ideas for reducing paper consumption while still pleasing your attendees.