Digital vs. paper: Which will win the battle of meetings communication?

digital app

By Phil Rappoport

Could the fun and age-old “selection game” of Rock-Paper-Scissors become “App-Paper-Scissors?” Which one would top the other in a one-on-one duel by meeting professionals and their delegates? Can the app and a pair of scissors turn paper into shreds, or will paper still have a place?

Judging by the surge of mobile app usage in the meetings and events industry over the past five years, one would think that apps are clearly in the driver’s seat and paper is being phased out.

Industry surveys back up the dramatic rise. According to the Event App Bible 2017, published by Event MB, 76 per cent of event professionals intend to provide an event app for their delegates within the next 12 months.

Making the switch

So, what reasons do meeting professionals have for providing an app and reducing the amount paper generated for a meeting?

  1. Sustainability and the entire recycling movement promotes a healthier environment. Many organizations feel that reducing or eliminating paper is a reflection of their core values.
  2. The cost savings when compared to design, printing, collating, and shipping paper materials.
  3. The lack of utility when a meeting agenda changes.
  4. The convenience of a pocket-friendly app versus the paper program as a reference tool: Will it be used frequently or will it sit on a bookshelf (or worse, be discarded)?
  5. An app clearly can deliver more engagement through conversations and multimedia than a print guide.

But not everyone is quick to dismiss paper and printed program materials.

Some meeting organizers feel that a print program is the truest tangible record of a meeting taking place; it’s something you get when you arrive, you can leaf through it at your leisure, and you can write in it, such as in the margins or on printed PowerPoint presentations or abstracts.

Advertiser advantage

For event sponsors, a full-page ad in a program is a lot larger than a full-page ad on an app, in which type size and copy length are hard to come by. Event sponsors and advertisers have revered traditional print programs, because it’s a large-scale way of having their brands associated with the conference. Conversely meeting organizers have already created a predictable ad-revenue “machine” with their printed program. They’ve grown accustomed to selling ad space in print and haven’t ventured into the digital realm incorporating apps.

When weighing digital versus print, some meeting planners have arrived at their conclusions.

“We use a mobile app for about five of our events (per year),” says Emily DeYoung, Senior Director of Educational Events for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) in Washington, D.C. “Depending on app adoption we have started to evolve our print program. In two of our five conferences we have done away with the print program and give attendees a one-page schedule at a glance.”

Reducing costs

digital Jennifer McNally, CEO of Communication Counts, a Virginia-based meeting planning agency, believes that cost definitely has a role. “Over the past five to 10 years, I have seen the need for multiple print pieces for each meeting reduced when we include a meeting app as well,” says McNally. “The two can work in tandem, but you need to be smart about your print budget.”

When both the app and print programs are used for the same conference, planners offer their views on how and why they can co-exist.

“In the conferences where we still have both, it has more to do with the audience,” says DeYoung. “Only one of the conferences that has both has a comprehensive, full-color printed program. The other events have less expensive and more simple conference programs. The makeup of our audience (mostly Baby Boomers) is the primary reason we still have the program for that event but we do also like the staying power of a physical notebook.”

Still room for both?

Samantha Chow, events coordinator for Toronto-based Managing Matters, points to a comfortable co-existence without having to choose one over the other.

“In cases where we have introduced an event app, we have chosen to keep the print program also,” says Chow. “In order to keep from changing things too much, we offer them both, and delegates can choose what they prefer, especially in the first years of the app. It’s not necessarily a cost savings, but we find the response is better from delegates if they have a choice. This does allow for more sponsorship options, as we can offer splash pages and rotating banners in the app and a page or a half page in the print program.”

Yet others have taken a harder look at paper, and have found ways to simplify what they print and even when they make a print piece available.

“We provide very little in the way of printed material now with the advent of our app,” says Donna Jarvis-Miller who serves as Director, Membership and Events for the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) in Washington. “We transitioned by printing the program book for the first year and have moved to a simple agenda-at-a-glance (AAAG) schedule which we copy in-house prior to going to the meeting for those members who still wish to have something tactile. We do produce a legal conference which requires a document with the full speaker bio and session description. We create a PDF ‘program’ that contains exactly what they need and email it to attendees, post-conference.”

McNally also found success with an at-a-glance print piece and tied it to an essential conference item.

“I have seen some cost savings because we eliminated one item every meeting needs: a separate badge holder!” says McNally. “The product we use combines a badge holder, which nearly all meetings need, with an agenda at-a-glance. Attendees have loved the combo product. Since attendees wear the product, they are less apt to forget their printed agendas in their hotel room, and I try to include additional information not on the app in the printed material to differentiate it.”

Generation gap

A generational preference is clearly visible, says McNally. “Generally, the older demographics prefer having something tangible they can write on and that gives them room locations. Having the app allows for up-to-date schedule changes, which also eliminates the copious amounts of printed papers at the information/registration desk. I can send out timed notifications via the app so people are aware of where they need to be at any given time.”

What about sponsorship revenue? Can an app attract sponsors and wean them from the print they’ve become accustomed to? Many savvy planners point to the statistics that an app provider can deliver, such as page views, clicks, and engagement between exhibitors and delegates. Print programs essentially deliver circulation, and unless there’s a special offer that’s only mentioned in a print ad, or if an ad is on the inside or back cover, it’s difficult to tell if an ad was ever read.

“Our sponsors have adapted well to having their brand in electronic form,” says Jarvis-Miller. “We have one company who underwrites the app and renews before the next year without hesitation. We still do recognition on-site with signage and in sessions.”

In talking with planners, some organizations and associations have turned the app from a cost centre into a profit centre. An app can accommodate multiple — and even rotating — sponsors with a variety of ad types, such as banners at the top of menus or full-page ads.

So how does a meeting planner go about making a decision regarding digital vs. print?

Understanding your audience

CASE’s DeYoung points to a well-thought-out conversation among the organization and its delegates. “Understand your audience and the right pace of change for your group,” she says. “It’s going to be different for everyone. Be patient with the process and include as many people as is appropriate on your team. Having that input at the beginning may allow you to distribute the app workload similar to other promotional items. In our case, when we did away with the print program, which is typically produced by our marketing department, we did not transfer the app production to our marketing team, adding work to our events team. That’s a challenging situation I’m still working to rectify.”

Meeting planners who have had to weigh the app vs. print comparison agree on an essential rule: Know the audience and understand the sector.

Chow’s agency looks at demographics and psychographics. “Are they tech savvy? Are they reluctant to change? If the app is popular, then it’s a fantastic sponsorship opportunity and a great way to encourage more engagement from attendees.”

Jarvis-Miller acknowledges that a sector that depends heavily on paper will have a more difficult time transitioning. “Meet them in the middle by providing a simple AAAG (At-A-Glance Guide) which gives them the time, session name and room.  Don’t be afraid to share the cost savings and how you are parlaying the savings into the education programs or other networking opportunities for them. After all, you are spending their dues and it shows you are being fiscally responsible with their investment in their association.”

With the rise of the app, there are still plenty of examples of apps and paper programs still co-existing side by side. And both can agree: Beware of the scissors!

About the author

Phil Rappoport is vice president, sales and marketing for the AgendaPop Mobile Event App, which supports conferences around the world. He can be reached at [email protected].

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