The Basics of Online Event Planning
Holding a holiday concert? Planning a New Year’s bash? Squeezing in a last-minute, year-end house party as a fundraiser for your favorite cause? Online event planning might save you some of the hassle that normally comes with putting together an event for your organization or cause. Whether you’re in the planning, preparation, implementation or post-event stage of the game, there is no getting away from the necessity of using e-tools for your event.
You can’t do it all ... at least not alone. Use e-mail and online meeting spaces to put the plans for your event together. Sites such as http://www.topica.com, http://www.egroups.com and http://www.yahoo.com all allow you to set up a mailing list for FREE. It takes only a few minutes: All the members of your event committee can register to receive and send e-mails via one central address. Members also have the choice of receiving e-mails one by one or as a “digest” at the end of the day. This can allow busy committee members to help out with planning from wherever they choose.
Online meeting spaces such as http://www.webex.com and http://www.ccimeet.com allow users to pay for a “conference” space online. These can be regular subscriptions that offer unlimited services or can be on a pay-per-use basis. Of course, if you don’t mind the possibility of other observers, you can start an interest group with one of the free services such as http://www.msn.com or http://www.yahoo.com.
Make sure your meeting has a schedule, agenda and moderator to keep people on track. Instructions regarding how to access the meeting and the agenda should be sent out a day in advance. Notes from the meeting can be posted online after the fact so people can follow up with action items. It may take a few tries to get online meetings going smoothly, so I would suggest this only for people who have a geographically diverse committee or a lot of preparation time.
This step is probably where you’ll save the most time and energy working online. Start out by putting your invitation on a Web site that people can access freely. Using graphics and color is easy with sites such as http://www.evite.com and http://www.invitedepot.com that help you design e-invitations. These services also are particularly helpful because they’ll track who has received and responded to an invite. You can even send a reminder e-mail to your list at the click of a mouse.
A few tips about e-invitations …
* Send out a couple of rounds of emails -- one as a save-the-date notice and one as a reminder just before the event. Evite and other services offer this “reminder” function. There are always Internet glitches or people who don’t understand how to access their e-Invites, so a follow-up can’t hurt.
* Make sure every e-invite has all the details in it (who, what, when, where, why and RSVP information).
* If you’re inviting a large group of people who aren’t necessarily close to your organization, make sure you offer a way for people to unsubscribe from your list.
Another useful aspect of online event planning is online payment options. Depending on the capability of your Web site, the deductibility of a ticket to your event and your budget, your organization can easily secure online ticketing services or offer them on your own Web site.
Take a look at the sites of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (http://www.afpnet.org) and the World Affairs Council of Northern California (http://www.itsyourworld.org) for some good examples of organizations that use ongoing, online event ticketing. Keep in mind that you might need to acquire merchant vender certification to run credit card processing from your Web site. It’s much easier to ask another company to do this for you. There are many options in this regard.
As you can imagine, most events do not occur online. Planning ahead to extract all the data you need from your online vendors and sites will save you from scrambling to do so at the last minute. Closing online registration or payment a day or so before your event will allow you to have time to download and format lists, payment schedules and details that guests have entered online.
Following this line of reasoning, you’ll need to devise methods for last-minute registration and to make an accurate guess as to your attendance level. The latter of the two will always be difficult if you allow guests to purchase tickets at the door. In addition, not all correspondence needs to be conducted via e-mail. Consider processing final registration via the telephone, if you are concerned about a last-minute rush to RSVP.
So, your event has gone smoothly, and the size of the crowd indicates that you have successfully navigated online event planning. Be sure to follow up by contacting online vendors about any missing or inaccurate ticket sales information, extracting your data from any online locations, and posting event highlights/thank-you’s online. The e-mail addresses of those who attended can be valuable for future online solicitations or event announcements. A follow-up e-mail could include a link to your online event highlights, as well as advertise for any upcoming or repeat events. Remember to include people who may have inquired about the event but didn’t actually attend -- they might be even more likely to take a look at what they missed! Photo galleries, video and audio feed can add a nice touch to your highlights and usually are easy to load -- if you’ve taken digital photos or video. Lots of e-card vendors (http://www.bluemountain.com or http://vietnameses.com/ecard.htm) will allow you to send cards for free or for little cost, and often offer you the chance to upload your own graphics or photos.
Although your first time using online tools for event planning might add extra work to the process, there is no doubt time saved in the long-run. The ease of sharing information and bringing new people into your organization will make the initial time and financial investment invaluable as you plan future events.
Amie Latterman is outreach director for Child Family Health International & co-chair for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.