It feels less and less politically correct to point this out, but the pride we take in making a wholesale migration from print to electronic communications is often misplaced. It often represents more of a justification to cut costs and become more efficient at the expense of effective communications.
The conversion that began with newsletters has progressively continued into other communications. On ASAE's listservs, some associations have asked for advice on how to go with an "online-only program booklet" which meant dispensing with the traditional printed preliminary program. In recent candid discussions with associations in an ASAE Super Swap on conference marketing, it was clear that going all electronic was a mistake in terms of its impact on registration figures.
Working the math later, from what I heard at the time, it appeared that the association "saved" $20,000 on a mail campaign and saved themselves about 100 $500 registrations at their average cost. This is a negative return of -$30,000 but the impact typically doesn't stop there if the mail did for their conference what mail typically does for events—increasing legitimacy, tangibility, and awareness among individuals who are probably not in the market this year to attend—but would be in future years especially if the association can cultivate them as prospective attendees in out years.
I am probably showing my dinosaur qualities by speaking out on behalf of snail mail, but intuitively most of us know that a portion of our audience will always prefer mail. This means that moving wholesale into electronic, rather than stopping halfway through the transition to make best use of both forms of communication, can be a mistake that disenfranchises part of our audience. Associations rarely lead their audience but this is one example where it may not be serving the members, or the association bottom line, terribly well.
Even surveying the current membership a few years after making a transition and finding most members now prefer electronic doesn't validate the decision. Members who answer surveys often indicate preferences that closely reflect our current practices, as we "train" them to some extent. And those who valued the print and stopped receiving it will leave to an inordinate degree. Better to we don't
As is often the case, I don't form strong opinions without some corroborative data. We have conducted two surveys among associations regarding their marketing program and attendance levels, and we have also done case studies of specific organizations for competitive analysis.
Those who have made the all-electronic switch seem to consistently experience decreased long-term attendance (overall and relative to total membership), over and above the recent impact of the economy and its effect on business travel habits.
Many associations DO have a solid core of perennial attendees who will attend or decide not to attend consciously, early in the process because they have the knowledge and initiative to look into it. These seem to be the prospects we often have in mind when we make the switch. Unfortunately, beyond the contingent who attend with minimal contact, there is typically a large cohort of prospective attendees who are on the fence about attending, and who may stay there if the marketing program doesn't give them enough information to become completely aware of the program, speakers, and overall opportunity that is persuasive enough to convince them to spend their time and money with you.
Unfortunately, even many of us who keep some mail often undermine its effectiveness. A classic case is the short postcard format. These appear to pull poorly relative to other longer & larger print formats—they help drive some web traffic, but they don't do much to close the sale. There is still something about a program book/brochure format that makes it more effective--easier to convey the entire program at one convenient glance, easier to share with the boss to secure permission to attend and expense reimbursement, etc. For any complex product with many features (such as a conference), a catalog still plays a necessary role in the mix. A digital book is a nice addition to the marketing arsenal, but to rely on it to take up the slack of a printed item is something to test carefully and move into only if the long-term economics are positive.