Stop printing conference materials…no, wait. Maybe put them online and just offer stapled handouts. Here’s an idea: Record every breakout session and sell them to members after the meeting – Too risky!

Video didn’t kill radio. It complemented it. The web (and social web) haven’t killed print, but the format in which you provide attendees their educational materials (technical papers, abstracts, session handouts, etc.) has become more complex than ever. Go too far in one direction and you risk irritating older members and weakening your on-site education. Don’t evolve your association to the web and you look like a dinosaur.

Here’s how we’ve seen the educational materials (or learning tools) evolve since the 80s.

Are you keeping up with the Association-Jones’?

1980s | Print, Print, Print!

Conference materials were primarily in the form of a bound printed book or binder. Sometimes these were multi-volume technical papers or just long abstracts. The content was rich, but proceedings materials were bulky and inconsistently formatted.

1990s | Introducing Floppy Disks and CD-ROMs

Much like the 1980s, printed conference materials were still in heavy production with the growing popularity of three-ring conference binders. Except now, technology kicked in with 3.5 inch floppy disks and PDF files. Yes, even the digital versions were clunky, but they were still “digital.” They offered search capabilities across content, cost savings (especially for high page count, high quantity materials) and less bulk for attendees.

Scanning and OCRing technical papers were the primary ways to turn paper into digital. Using high-speed scanners and conversion software, search-ability was 95%. As we approached 2000, MS Office documents were becoming a major means of supplying content, and converting from Word to PDF was very common.

In the mid-1990s, conference CD-ROMs were introduced. Amen! With both print and digital delivery solutions, conference organizers were unsure of which to provide attendees, so for many years, attendees frequently received both. These digital offerings had a simple menu and a few options to navigate to technical papers. In addition, the powerful Adobe search provided users a fast way to find content.

2000s | Growing Online Popularity

In the late 1990s into 2005, conference CDs were the hot commodity. Some groups started putting all their technical papers and speaker presentations on CD-ROM, and only printed a program book for conferences. Some associations took to the CD for creating multi-year archives of conference materials dating back 5 to even 20 years.

Putting conference handouts online was a passion for meeting industry professionals, but the reality was resistant attendees and a lack of bandwidth and Wi-Fi connectivity at events.

In 2003, PowerPoint presentations began to erode the integrity of the written paper. Regarding educational meeting content, bullets and slides versus written-out paragraphs weakened the integrity of the conference giveaway. A slideshow without the talk wasn’t as valuable. The good news was authors were supplying digital files, and content had more color, depth and smaller file sizes, (sometimes) making it good for the faster web.

By 2006, large bound content was printed far less, and customized seminar and course content continued to be printed.

Around 2007, flash drives entered the market, competing against CD-ROMs. Even though they were more expensive, flash drives were “new and cool” and reusable to attendees, which added value and increased sponsorship opportunities. Regardless, everyone wanted to “go green,” and attendees began to see paperless conference themes with recycled paper and conference content on CD-ROMs and flash drives, with only a printed program or conference learning journal for note-taking.

2010-Present | Conference Handouts in Print, Digital and Online

Today, we’re still seeing a mix of content delivery, from print to digital to online. Associations have more of a grasp on a content strategy. The buzz of a green paperless meeting is turning into offering what makes the right sense at the right cost. Often, attendees will be offered content delivery choices upon registration. Some associations are leveraging social media websites like Twitter and LinkedIn or Online Event Communities for attendees to engage with each other and associations’ educational content.

More associations are now looking at different delivery methods in order to give conference attendees and members access to educational content anywhere, anytime and anyhow.

Online Conference Libraries, aka online archives of conference handouts and proceedings, are on the rise. Associations are quickly figuring out that putting their content in these centralized hubs allows their association to be discovered by search engines like Google in the abyss of the world wide web. The sites’ easy search tools allow users to find the exact conference materials they’re looking for, whether the annual conference was five years ago or two days ago. What’s more is associations can often charge for access to content or limit access to conference attendees or members.

But conference attendees don’t just want online access to conference handouts and proceedings. They want access on their iPads, Kindles and smartphones, as well. Trying to read PDF files is great on a desktop computer, but it doesn’t work so well on smaller reading devices like your iPhone. As a result, conference materials are starting to be produced in mobile-friendly eBook format. Converting conference content into ePub or Mobi doesn’t just make it easier for attendees to read your conference program—it allows them to change the font size, highlight and personalize it for their own unique reading experience.

Life just isn’t so simple anymore when the number of content delivery alternatives continues to increase.

This may not be your exact timeline, but it’s an aggregate. Where does your organization fit in? What’s going to be next?