This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.
Planning a free event? It can be difficult to justify paying a lot of money for online registration software. But trying to get by with email or online invitation tools like Evite can leave you frustrated. Don't worry — you have options. We talked to nine nonprofit technology experts in this article updated from 2006 about useful, affordable options for collecting RSVPs for free events.
Back in 1922, etiquette expert Emily Post decreed that: "Acceptances or regrets are always written. An engraved form to be filled in is vulgar." Ms. Post could not have predicted the myriad ways the Internet and email would change interpersonal communications, but it seems unlikely she'd approve of an online RSVP form.
Maybe she'd reconsider if she knew such forms could be a convenient and low-cost option for planning and organizing networking events, training sessions, or workshops.
A number of online software tools can help organizations collect estimated headcounts, gather information from attendees, send them follow-up emails, enter them into a database, and more. Most of these are aimed at events that charge substantial fees and are priced accordingly. But why pay several hundred dollars to collect attendee information for a free training or other event?
We asked nine nonprofit technology specialists what free or affordable RSVP software they recommend and compiled their suggestions. These aren't the only good registration options available, but they've proven to work well for our experts and could be a good fit for your organization, too.
When thinking about free events, two obvious options come to most people's minds: simple email RSVPs and online invitation and registration tools like Evite. Either option might work perfectly well for your basic needs, but there are downsides to both.
Email seems like a breeze — you simply request that people email back with an RSVP — but this process can quickly turn into a lot of work if you want to do more than gather a headcount or if you expect a large number of attendees. To create a list of attendees or add registrants to your database, someone will need to enter the information by hand. And capturing more than just a name and email address will likely entail a messy process of back-and-forth emails asking for more information.
A registration tool can save time and headache. Consider at least creating a dedicated email address, which makes it easier to see who's responded. Ask for information in a numbered format (for example, "please provide 1. your name, and 2. the name of your organization") to improve your chances of getting the information you need.
This free RSVP website is familiar to most people. It provides easy-to-use tools to help send customizable graphic invites, track simple "yes," "no" or "maybe" responses, and keep track of who has not yet viewed the invitation. Evite now offers a free iPhone app that lets you manage invitations on the go. This perfectly functional tool is more appropriate for social events than professional ones due to the visible branding and third-party advertising. Because it lists the names of all the people who have said they would attend, there's also not much privacy. And with large groups of invitees, it can be frustrating that there is no easy way to download the attendee list.
This alternative to Evite offers both free and paid options. It distributes invitations over multiple channels, including email, text message, and instant messaging.
Several free or inexpensive tools provide more useful features for professional events, such as branded registration pages and downloads of attendee information.
Eventbrite offers straightforward, useful registration functionality. Even the tool's premium service is free, as long as your event is, too. Otherwise, your fee is based on your ticket prices, though Eventbrite offers a discount to qualified nonprofits and charities. You can tailor registration pages with basic colors and a logo, email registrants, export information, and enter event attendees in a constituent relationship management database.
Yahoo's Upcoming is similar to Evite, and allows invitees to publicly note whether they will be attending but feels less corporate and more homegrown. It also offers additional community features, like the ability to add comments to events, see which events your friends are attending, and view events via RSS feed. Upcoming integrates with iCalendar and is free for all events.
Facebook Events is an increasingly popular option as more organizations reach out through the social networking site. The free, easy-to-use RSVP tool is relatively straightforward. Its step-by-step process creates a page for your event where administrators can add pictures and attendees can write on the Wall. Event administrators can also send out reminder messages through Facebook, but there's no way to see or download email addresses for those who registered.
Its strength lies in its networked aspect — you can choose to let the people you invite to invite other people, allowing your RSVPs to spread widely. Non-Facebook users can also be invited by email and can view the event page and RSVP. But the culture of Facebook is such that some people will click the button to say they're attending just to show their support for the event —whether they intend to come or not. This makes Facebook a better fit for promoting events than for actually measuring how many are likely to come.
Various web form tools can provide a straightforward and customizable means of collecting RSVPs. They easily integrate with your existing CRM or other database to keep records of the people attending your free events. Web form tools like the following can also be used for many tasks other than RSVPs and invitations, making them somewhat more versatile:
In addition, survey tools like SurveyMonkey or FluidSurveys can work to collect RSVP data. Many commonly used web CMS tools like Drupal, Joomla, WordPress, and Plone provide similar functions.
If you offer a number of free events, or a mix of paid and free events, consider investing in a highly polished registration tool that will support more complex functionality. These tools typically offer registration forms that merge seamlessly with your website. And they provide options to collect other info — like meal preferences or registrants' session preferences — as well as sophisticated reporting and export features, methods to limit attendance, mass-email functionality, and the ability to print name tags. They usually charge $1 to $4 per registrant, but it can be more.
If you are looking for these types of advanced features and are ready to invest money to get them, take a look at Idealware's A Few Good Event Registration Tools article.
Before you sign up for a service, consider whether you need the more advanced features or whether you'd prefer to keep things simple and free. Which features are important for you? Does the registration form need to match your website? Do you need to be able to download attendee information and import it to a database?
Decide if your budget prohibits a more expensive tool or if the more advanced functionality — like the like ability to limit attendance, collect meal preferences, or print name tags — is more important than saving money. Then make the choice that best meets your criteria.
As for deciding whether to side with Emily Post and request handwritten responses instead? We'll leave that one to you.
Thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help for both the original article and the update:
Image: Concept representing email, envelope, vector illustration, Shutterstock
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