The Secret Benefits of Ditching Paper at Events

The talk of making events paperless has been a long-running drum beat with mixed results. But in the age of the event app, there's a case to be made for that actually happening—with all the perks that come with such a strategy.

The printed guides of the past don’t have to define your event’s future.

And I mean that in more ways than one—the ink is no longer set in place, the extra tree-stock no longer filling up swag bags or recycling bins at the convention center, and the schedule doesn’t necessarily have to be as set in stone as it once was.

We may be reaching the era where “paperless” doesn’t necessarily mean “paper-shifting.” In 2007, ASAE’s Megan Denhardt, CAE, highlighted the association’s early efforts to go paperless at conferences, and found it wasn’t exactly a sunny experience—full of printing stations, lacking wireless access, and with people more comfortable with pen and paper than a laptop.

“Some attendees felt the financial responsibility was put on them to do their own printing at their offices in advance of arriving, which was a source of frustration,” she explained at the time. “We handled these frustrations by reiterating that all handouts are available online and the individual can save all of them to his/her computer without printing anything.”

Denhardt’s blog post, as well as other association professional comments on the issue, provided lots of fodder for a 2008 Omnipress whitepaper [PDF] on the topic that took the stance that, essentially, paperless meetings weren’t ready for prime time and that attendees should get a choice. In other words, ditching the books and worksheets entirely was a pipe dream.

Can Paperless Work Now?

But a lot has happened since 2008—the printing stations aren’t exactly much of an issue anymore. Instead of just laptops, most of us also have tablets and smartphones. And now, we don’t even have to invest in thumb drives; Dropbox will do the task just fine, thank you very much.

So the question is, can associations jump in with both feet on this paperless-event thing? If we do, it could open up a world of opportunities.

That was a key takeaway I found from a stop on EventMobi’s Innovate roadshow in Washington, DC, last week. The company, which produces mobile apps for conferences both inside and outside the association space, highlighted the potential for not only building event apps intuitively, but updating them on the fly.

And doing an update on the fly doesn’t necessarily mean diving knee-deep in some confusing code. The platform offers a WYSIWYG editor that can allow for updates as the event needs it—meaning that the app is nearly as easy to create as it is to use.

“The goal of the content manager here was to make everything as simple and obvious as possible,” explained EventMobi Account Manager Austin Schafer.

In cases of an emergency, this simplicity can particularly come in handy.

Rhea Steele, the director of IT and operations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, had just such an emergency arise for her organization last year, when severe weather issues in Atlanta nearly caused an event to get cancelled—with some people unable to travel and others stuck in Atlanta. Steele noted that, using EventMobi, event organizers were able to quickly shift their strategy along with the weather.

“They were able to completely restructure the program, figure out what type of attendees were coming, who was already onsite, and figure out how they were going to have this meeting,” she said during the Innovate event.

You definitely can’t do that with a printed manual.

On top of all this, there’s room to better understand exactly how users are engaging with the app—if they’re taking notes, if they’re creating schedules in the app, and whether they’re using it exactly as much as they say they are.

And the app even allows for Q&A sessions, where attendees submit questions and their peers vote on them during the session—taking out the sometimes-cumbersome interaction metric of a guy moving a microphone around the room.

EventMobi isn’t the only player in this space—similar platforms—including QuickMobile, DoubleDutch, and Eventsential—have also surfaced in recent years, all with the goal of replacing a pile of paper with a single app. Heck, even OmniPress has an app platform now.

App Considerations

It may feel like a lot to keep up with, but ultimately, the point to be made here is that you definitely won’t be struggling for options as you consider whether trying the event app approach makes sense for your organization’s needs.

If you’re looking to take the plunge into a 100 percent paperless event, here’s a little advice before you dive in:

Start slow. QuickMobile’s CEO, Craig Brennan, recently told TTGMice that he saw paper going away entirely in five years—an understandably bullish take from the CEO of a company that makes event apps. But he suggested that organizations looking to make the shift do so in stages. “For the first time, our customers may use app and paper together, but the second time they may cut out 60 to 80 percent of paper use, and by the third time they will go completely without paper,” Brennan said.

Know your audience. If your audience isn’t tech-savvy, it may be hard to sell them on the idea of dropping the pen and paper, no matter how cool the app is. And while paper is an investment, so too are apps—the starting price point for EventMobi, for example, is $999, with higher prices for higher service levels. You’re not just ditching paper, remember; you’re replacing one investment with another, so it’s important to know whether it will “take” with your attendees.

Consider privacy. It’s not all fun and roses when it comes to event apps—like social networks themselves, they introduce new considerations for privacy that didn’t exist before. “There’s potential for abuse here,” author Adrian Segar wrote in a blog post last year. “An app developer can copy all the information that you expose to them and keep it forever, even if you de-authorize the app from access to the network later.” Say what you will about paper, but generally it can’t track you.

You may not have to man a bunch of print stations anymore, but that’s no excuse not to think all this stuff through.

So what’s your take? Have you used an event app at your recent events, and do you think it could be a practical way to go paperless? Let us know in the comments below.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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