RSVP etiquette: Why we are tentative to RSVP to events

If you’re old enough, you remember when RSVPs used to be straightforward. You got an invitation, you made a decision and you sent a response to advise accordingly. Today, despite technological advances in sending and capturing responses, this process has become anything but simple. The edges of RSVP etiquette are blurring and planners are feeling the ramifications.
RSVP etiquette
It is now common – even expected that there will be a large percentage of people who will not respond, and this number is growing year after year. The new normal for meeting organizers is to ‘build in’ time to follow up with non-responders by phone or e-mail.  The productivity loss is troubling, but even more so is the potential cost drain due to a resulting inaccurate guarantee or attrition.

More often, people are not indicating attendance, and this is due to two major trends: ambiguity in online registrations and emerging generational norms.

Online registrations – they’re great, however…

When the meeting registration process went online, we lost the clear distinction between the invitation and the registration. It used to be that the invitation provided information to the respondent and the registration collected information from the respondent upon indicating that they will attend.

Many registration systems are built to start with the registration step, where the attendee fills in the information only if they plan to attend – deleting the invitation if they decline. Sometimes they are instructed to RSVP to in a separate e-mail, which garners decent response from willing attendees. Those who don’t plan to attend will rarely email with a response. Information overloaded business professionals are receiving more invitations than ever, and the instructions for responding have become inconsistent. This is driving respondents into developing new habits – such as responding only if they plan to attend. Sheepishly, many will admit to not reading RSVP instructions.

Gen Y? Please reply!

In conversations, those over and those under the age of 35 reacted to the topic of RSVPs very differently. Those more advanced in age were appalled that people would not RSVP to an invitation. There was also a general feeling of disdain toward on-line invitations. “It feels like they don’t genuinely want my presence,” was common feeling.

On the other hand, generation Y has come of age with e-vites and Facebook invitations. Unsurprisingly they are turning to the internet to send wedding invitations (and proudly tout the cost savings and benefits of going paperless). The norm within their peer group is to respond only if attending. “Just showing up” is cool among friends. These experiences are following them into the workplace, and they are influencing everybody around them to be casual toward their responses to meeting invitations.

Now what?

I’m not, for a minute suggesting that we revert back to paper invitations – we couldn’t if we tried! Here are some suggestions on what need to recognize and start doing immediately:

  1. Recognize that the invitation and the registration are different things and plan for them accordingly.
  2. Communicate clearly the steps required for RSVP – spell it out. i.e. “please let us know either way whether or not you’d like to attend.” Repeat the steps in different places. People don’t read instructions anymore, so extra steps are necessary.
  3. Build a multi-step registration page. Give the respondent an option to fill in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to attendance before you go to the next page and collect their data.
  4. Personalize! Of those interviewed, everyone agreed that they are more likely to respond if they receive an invitation/registration addressed to them by somebody that they know than if they received an e-blast event invitation.
  5. Make non-responders accountable for no-shows (following up and asking why they didn’t respond).

We need to lead the way in creating awareness and accountability when it comes to RSVP etiquette. We can’t change the way things are but we can start the conversation. If the non-response rate continues at the current rate, the potential time and money losses are too great to ignore and delete.

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