Like most technologies, registration software keeps pace with an ever-changing market by evolving and innovating.
The handful of providers that pioneered online sign up solutions at the turn of the century today compete with scores of offerings, from free tools to the most sophisticated solutions, some part of multi-billion dollar companies.
This rapid expansion of products and providers is mostly a great thing for consumers. More choice typically equates to better odds of a great fit and a better price. It does, however, muddle the due diligence aspect of researching solutions, a challenge which becomes more difficult with each product arriving on the market.
So, how do you find the right fit – the software with the functionality that aligns with your program or event’s needs, the price that squares with your budget, and the service that widens your comfort zone?
Begin by having an idea of what you need from the software to bring efficiencies to your events. Talk with providers to cement in your mind what’s necessary for your programs, especially if you are new to registration management software.
Once armed with baseline, desired functionality in mind, start kicking the tires. Registration software providers offer a handful of essential features. Walk through them with prospective providers, focusing on whether their core features offer the tools your events require at the price you can afford.
Start with Event Listings/Pages
The list of essential registration software tools begins with the ability to build event pages and listings that fit seamlessly into an organization’s website. This feature enables administrators to create an event’s online “storefront” – setting in place the process in which registrants learn about the event, complete an online form, pay (if appropriate) and trigger a myriad of actions (email confirmations, reports, etc.) depending upon the software’s capabilities and how the event is set up.
Tools available range from free content management systems (WordPress, Drupal, etc.) to those built into registration software, with varying levels of complexity and database integration. More basic platforms will allow you to display event information and a registration link on a white background; more complex enable the design of conference-style pages – even standalone urls – featuring tabs for registration info, agenda, venue details, accommodations and more.
For most organizations contemplating registration software, the goal is to create event or calendar listings in which each listed item is linked to its own, specific event page that offers details about the function, contact information, and a link to a registration form.
With higher-end registration software, administrators can create listings and pages with background color schemes and themes that mirror the rest of the website. Fonts can be matched, logos and mastheads imported, and the overall layout mimicked.
The actual tool used to create such pages will vary from software to software, but typically it will appear as some sort of page editor with a variety of action and editing buttons (e.g., fonts, insert image, table, html, etc.) and a “wysiwyg” (what you see is what you get) pane that allows users to see the page as they build it. This is where users plug in relevant data for website display, from the event’s time, date and location to its subject matter, presenters, images and more.
Full-featured software solutions enable the user to easily copy an event and change details, so that providers of multiple events don’t have to format a new page from scratch with each event. They also allow 24/7 access for administrators with a computer or mobile device to update current event pages and listings, removed completed events or add new events.
Carefully consider what you need in event listings and pages. Complete registration solutions – versus freemium or do-it-yourself options – often make more sense for those that offer multiple events, take online payments (more on that below) and rely on their website to drive traffic.
Event Page/Listing Questions
- Can I make the look/branding of the event pages and/or listings closely mirror my website?
- How easy is it to use and create attractive pages?
- Can I format once and copy over to make it easier for creating multiple events?
Work the Registration Form
One of the biggest differentiators among registration software providers is registration form-building capabilities. Base-level providers offer a form builder with limited field options that typically collect basic contact information such as name, organization, email and phone number.
More complete systems provide tools to build registration form pages that collect about everything an event administrator could possibly need – from registrant information to payment – to track participation, send automated communications, generate name tags or certificates, award continuing education credits, export financial reports and more.
With database-driven registration software, the spreadsheets get populated and the features unlocked when that registration form is completed and the “register” button clicked. Contact info spawns a registrant record, automated email confirmation and reminder messages, and source data for mailing lists, name tags, certificates and marketing of future events. Other, specific form questions set in motion a number of event-related activities.
Top-of-the-line registration software, for instance, allows the administrator to customize the registration form to not only attain the vital information you need but also to tailor the event experience to the registrant. Specific questions delve beyond the individual’s contact information to attain event-specific info such as a t-shirt size for a road race event, a meal choice for a conference’s lunch or a concurrent session choice during a training program. More advanced systems also allow users to set up questions with conditional logic, whereby different responses trigger secondary questions (e.g. “Do you want to participate in the golf scramble?” If the response is “Yes,” a secondary question might offer two choices, “morning” or “afternoon”). The responses to event-specific questions are critical to an efficient, customer-friendly experience.
Some registration form builders can enable group registrations, whereby several individuals are registered at once, such as signing up for a table at an annual meeting. Software with more functionality also offers the ability to incorporate codes to attain discounts and other benefits.
As with event pages and listings, better registration software facilitates the creation of registration forms with a similar look and feel as the users’ websites. Administrators can tweak color schemes, import a logo or background art, and align fonts to closely mirror their web format. These systems allow users to arrange the order of the questions, adjust spacing, preview the final appearance, and denote required fields versus those not required.
Registration Form-Building Questions
- Is the data collected by the form integrated with other features, such as automated email notifications, name tags, reports and so on?
- What options do I have in creating new fields and questions for the form?
- Can I do other things with the form builder, such as build evaluations?
- How easy is it to make changes? Do I have to go through the software provider or can I do it myself?
Bank on Online Payment
A single registration software tool solves one of the more difficult challenges for event planners and program managers – getting paid.
Online payment functionality virtually eliminates the never-ending phone calls, faxes, mailings, collections and – gasp – errors associated with event payment and financials, especially pre-Internet registration processes.
The tool typically integrates an organization’s merchant (bank) account with a payment gateway so that registrants can pay online while signing up for programs or events. It’s a natural component of a registration software suite because participants are accustomed to paying while registering and event administrators don’t want the hassle of 100% “offline” payment.
With some software, online payment set up allows direct transactions from the registrant through the gateway to the event provider’s merchant account. In others, the software provider acts as the payment processor (usually for a fee), passing on the registrants’ payments (minus the fee) at designated times.
Set up is fairly simple. If you don’t already have a merchant account, it isn’t difficult to create one with your bank or a reseller. Many of the payment gateways, along with PayPal, will even set up an account for you. The most complicated aspect might be reviewing all of your options.
With payment processing third parties in place, administrators can simply build payment options and questions into the registration form. Once that information is filled in by the registrant, a typical payment window will open requesting specific payment (e.g., credit card) information. The registrant fills in the blanks, clicks submit, and the process is done.
No need to send an invoice. No waiting on checks or running them to the bank. No worries about payments coming in at all hours of the day and all days of the week – they will. And, expect fewer questions from your finance department relating to cash flows, invoices, and overdue accounts.
Better registration software also adds functionality to online payment that can make it similar to offline retail offerings. Some systems, for instance, enable administrators to create customized event discounts for anything from early registration to specific offers (e.g., senior citizens, returning participant, military, students, etc.). Other software avails tools to build in payment plans for registrants that spread the cost of an event or program over a pre-determined period.
Online Payment Questions
- With your system, do I integrate with my merchant account or is payment facilitated by the registration software provider? If the latter, do I pay an extra fee, and when does payment reach my account?
- Can I create discounts with this software?
- Can you walk me through your security safeguards?
- How are payment refunds handled?
Automate Routine Registrant Communications
Of event registration software’s many essential tools, email functionality rates as one of the most appreciated and most valuable.
That’s because back in the pre-Internet days, alerting your registrants of a scheduling change or cancelation constituted a minor crisis; sending a confirmation note was a nuisance; and circling back with invoices to try and attain payment just fed the cycle of mailings, faxes, and phone calls.
”Fully loaded” registration systems allow administrators to quickly create a personalized email – tied directly to registrant contact information – that automatically delivers a message at a pre-set time or condition or after a “triggering” activity. It might be a registration confirmation email sent immediately after an individual signs up, a reminder email delivered two days prior to the event, or event availability notices transmitted to participants previously put on a waitlist.
Top-end software not only allows some customization of the “look” of these automated emails, it also gives the users’ fields or “tags” that instantly fill in event and registrant data already in the system.
Better systems also feature the ability to pre-set internal notifications that relay event and registrant information to other stakeholders within the organization or critical to the event, e.g., presenters.
Finally, add “email marketing” to the list of benefits registration software’s communications tools deliver. Administrators can use the tool to send notifications of upcoming events – complete with event details and a link to the event page and registration – to prospective participants in their registrant database.
Email Functionality Questions
- Can I set up automated email confirmations, notifications, reminders, cancelations and so on?
- Can I use the email to send out details and links for upcoming events?
- Does the functionality allow for segmenting emails, e.g., only sending waitlist updates to those on the waitlist?
Mine That Data
Most registration software is database driven, giving administrators the ability to almost instantly import or export data. This easy access to pertinent information solves some of the biggest challenges of managing events or programs.
Need to import a contact list to invite to an event? Done. Need to assess the current number of registrants for an upcoming program? Find it with a couple of clicks. Want to view your offerings’ financials year-to-date? Again, that info is typically available in a click or two with better registration software.
In another area that differentiates it from low-cost, low-feature tools, complete event registration systems provide functionality – such as spreadsheet imports, registration questions built into a signup form, or attendance and payment checklists – that not only allow you to gather data, but also enable you to export the information in the form of reports, charts and graphs, mailing labels, name tags, certificates, and more.
The reporting functionality of higher-end registration software allows the user to pull or export registrant data and financial data (from payment and invoices to specific program budgets) by the event, by a series of events, or for the entire year or other duration. Users can pull detailed reports on registration question responses, credit card transaction logs, continuing education credits, attendance, and more. They can manage and track payments – and generate statements – for organizations participating in their programs.
This functionality helps administrators stay on top of their events and track and report a number of easily accessible metrics (attendance, financials, etc.) useful in measuring success. Administrators can also pair the reporting tools with registration form-building features to create surveys and evaluations that help improve their programs or events.
With tight budgets and an ever-present emphasis on outcomes, event administrators benefit greatly from reporting features that can help them market their offerings, facilitate a smooth event, track key metrics, and report results.
- Can I easily access data on items like registrations and payment?
- Does the software allow me to import and export registrant data?
- Can I use the software’s tools to generate nametags and certificates, or track education credits?
The Big Picture
Few shop for a car only seeking a vehicle with four wheels. Similarly, when shopping for registration software, it makes sense to define your parameters beyond, “it needs to sign people up.”
If you’ve found a software directory such as Capterra, you are likely looking for a more complete registration software solution to build an online platform to market your programs and events, accept and administer registrations and much more.
Really good software delivers several core tools to customers in a secure, always accessible, and easy-to-use platform that works with just about any device or operating system. It likely offers additional features, handles integrations and customizations, and provides expert and timely support and service.
Finding the right fit for your events will take a bit of effort on your part. Providers aren’t too transparent when it comes to pricing, and there isn’t a simple functionality comparison guide available.
Have an idea what you need and schedule as many demos as your time allows. Walk through the functionality essentials listed above. Ask about pricing and hidden fees. Learn what you should expect from customer service. Talk to a customer or two.
It might seem like a lot of work up front, but finding the right registration software will save you a lot of work going forward.
Looking for Registration software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Registration software solutions.