Should You Crowdsource Your Event’s Note-Taking?

The big collaborative office, driven by a backchannel of software like Slack, is becoming more of a thing than ever. What if we took that strategy with us to our annual meetings? It'd have a lot of benefits: For one thing, it could help us take better notes.

A big event—say, along the lines of this year’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, taking place in Salt Lake City starting on Saturday—is a hard thing to capture in a digital form.

There are a lot of moving parts to that event, from the parties, to the expo hall, to the learning labs, to the five-minute discussions in the hallways of the convention center. And, try as they might, social media and video cameras will continue to struggle to capture the visceral effect of walking into an event venue.

In particular, taking notes is really hard—especially if you’re trying to do it with a smartphone, as social media smart guy Alex Plaxen, who I profiled earlier this year, does.

I’ve long been a fan of the idea of using Twitter as both a note stream and an event backchannel, but I’ll be the first to admit such a concept has some limitations.

I’ve long been a fan of the idea of using Twitter as both a note stream and an event backchannel, but I’ll be the first to admit such a concept has some limitations.

For one thing, while tweets tend to last forever, they’re really hard to find after a few days. And second, the fact that Twitter is an open network means that there’s always room for unexpected disruptions or off-topic conversations. As anyone who has ever tweeted at a very popular event can tell you, if your event hashtag trends, it can get flooded by a wave of spam. And that’s no fun.

But are we at the point where more specialized note-taking tools are necessary? Beyond just event apps (though they certainly have value), but tools designed for collaboration within the event?

If so, there are plenty of options already floating around the ether, and you’re likely familiar with most of them. Here’s a roundup of some apps that could get your attendees taking notes, together:

Slack: If you’re willing to pay for the honor, Slack is surprisingly well-suited as a tool for gathering up the hivemind at an event—because it treats it as a well-organized chatroom, rather than a list of notes. While Slack is available for free, its standard paid plan makes it possible to use a number of service integrations and apps, as well as a way to save an unlimited number of messages, so that users can check it out later. As this Bizzabo list shows, the integrations offer a lot of potential for event planners, but that potential is equally high for end users. If used correctly, it could keep the event’s collective memory stored away for the future. Slack’s potential as a winner in the event space was sho, in particular, at Portland’s XOXO conference last September, where it was seen as a “breakout app.”

Etherpad: Something of a granddaddy of the collaborative editing space, it has directly or indirectly inspired many of the other items listed here. First released in 2008, the Javascript-based tool, which has been open-sourced since Google acquired the technology to add into its failed Google Wave experiment, has the inherent advantage of being something that can be self-hosted. In many ways, it’s not as slick as more modern options, but the lightweight nature of the platform keeps it attractive. But unlike all of the other options listed here, it does not have native mobile apps available. If your goal is to get people to work together, however, sometimes this kind of simplicity just works.

Google Docs: Google Docs is a hugely popular option, and one that has the benefit of already being favored for taking notes and writing documents in general. Clearly inspired by Microsoft Word, it nonetheless has gained popularity as an editor that can be edited by multiple people in real time. If you have an audience full of Word addicts, they will feel right at home adding their own notes. But, of course, there are limits—Google Docs, in the past, have been known to become immensely popular, at which point the file locks. So careful who you share that link with—you might find an immensely popular file on your hands.

Microsoft OneNote: With Evernote’s recent pricing issues, some analysts see Microsoft’s OneNote gaining Evernote’s former role as the market leader in the note-taking space, especially as it adds features that make it a robust option on tablets in particular. (In case you’re wondering, Evernote isn’t on this list because it doesn’t offer real-time collaboration capabilities, though it can be added on through third-party apps.) Like Google Docs, OneNote is a solid tool for real-time collaboration—but if you’re dealing with mostly an Office crowd, the long-term prospects of OneNote make it a very attractive option.

Quip: There’s a reason Salesforce paid a cool $750 million for this word-processing tool last week. The productivity app, which is best described as a combination of Slack and Word, was created by former Facebook Chief Technical Officer Bret Taylor, and it was effectively built as a modern rethinking of traditional word processors. As a result, it makes for a solid collaborative option, if on a slightly lower plane than some of its competitors.

Dropbox Paper: This app, which just went into open beta last week, has very attractive roots for this specific use case. Based on the codebase of the legendary HackPad, which Dropbox acquired in 2014, this tool, a little more so than Google Docs, is well-suited to editing by a larger group of people. Less inspired by traditional word processors than some of the other items here, it has robust versioning capabilities and the ability to natively embed tweets or other rich media options directly into documents. Because of its beta nature, it’s a little less mature than some of the other options here, but on the other hand, Dropbox is putting a lot of resources into it right now, which could make it a winner down the line. One odd downside to the tool, which the company will likely fix, is that it surprisingly isn’t very well-integrated with Dropbox at the moment. In fact, the still-active Hackpad has better integration than Paper does.

Because I’m a guy who likes an adventure, I’m going to be experimenting with Dropbox Paper as a note-taking tool at the ASAE Annual Meeting. I’ll report back to you guys about my findings, good and bad, but if you’d like to follow along, comment, or add a few notes of your own, here’s a link to the document.

I’ll be sharing the document on social media throughout the event, adding details about most of the sessions I attend. Whatever happens in that document stays in that document—and hopefully offers a great resource that you can check into after the fact.

Could crowdsourced notes redefine how we learn at conferences? I certainly don’t think they could hurt.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

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

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