Meetings

3 Questions to Ask if You're Ready For a Paperless Conference

By / Sep 6, 2018 (Image Source/Photodisc/Getty Images Plus)

Going paperless has lots of advantages, but look before you leap. If you think now’s the right time to say goodbye to paper at one of your association’s upcoming conferences, consider these three questions.

When I first started working here at Associations Now, we did our magazine proofing on paper and with red pen. Every page of the issue was printed out, editors marked up the pages, and then we walked a folder of edited pages over to our design team for updates. Once those corrections were made, the issue printed out again, and we typically went through that process at least two more times before pages received final approval.

Believe me when I say it was a lot of paper!

A few years later, we ditched the paper and adopted a digital proofing process. Sure, it took some getting used to, but now I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

You know where else associations tend to use a lot of paper? In their conference marketing and onsite activities.

A typical annual meeting could include several printed elements, including direct-mail pieces that promote the meeting, onsite attendee guides and expo hall maps, room signage, conference newspapers, and so forth.

While some of these are likely to never be on the chopping block, whether that’s due to the revenue that’s attached to them or their importance in getting people to register, there’s sure to be a time where someone will ask, “Is it time to go paperless?”

Here are some questions to ask if you think your association is ready to reduce the amount of paper at its conferences:

Why now? If not everyone is convinced that going paperless is right for your event, it’s time to make a case. Reach out to previous attendees, speakers, and other segments of your membership, and ask them if they’d be on board with a more digital approach. This can be done using a simple online survey or polling tool. If your community supports the idea, present these findings to the internal decision-makers who may be on the fence. Also, include the financial benefits that come with going digital, such as eliminated printing and shipping fees, along with reduced staff hours dedicated to these projects.

Are you offering attendees other reasonable options? This goes without saying, but if you’re getting rid of your 150-page onsite guide, you must have other ways for attendees to get the information they’d typically refer to the guide for. A mobile-friendly conference website or conference app are obvious choices. When the American Society for Surgery of the Hand went paperless at its annual meeting a few years ago, it made sure its free meeting app worked on pretty much every device. It also had a web-based version that attendees could use on their laptops or tablets. If attendees didn’t own one of these devices, they could rent an iPad for the meeting for less than $100. Once onsite, staff were available for “tech-ups” to answer questions and help attendees master the meeting app. Plus, ASSH offered free WiFi throughout the convention center.

Another way to entice attendees to go paperless is to tell them how they’ll be more productive and organized by doing so. For example, many apps incorporate session slides and give attendees the ability to take notes, which eliminates the need to flip back and forth between different programs or notebooks and reorganize takeaways postconference.

Are you also ready to embrace a paperless strategy? That’s right, going paperless isn’t just about your attendees. After all, if you expect your attendees to get on board, you also need to be consistent in your adoption. While printed name badges aren’t going anywhere, ditch paper session evaluation forms, and if the venue offers digital signage options, make use of that technology.

If you know you can’t get rid of paper just yet, you may want to go the route of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. While ACSP’s long-term goal is to eliminate its printed program, for the next few years, attendees can pay $10 and receive one onsite. To entice its attendees to go paperless, the conference app will remain free of charge, and WiFi will be provided.

Has your association gone paperless at its conferences? Tell us how it went in the comments.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now. More »

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