Digital invites suit up for black-tie affairs

Electronic invitations have long been the domain of clip art and impromptu backyard pool parties. But with improved options and more focus on eco-consciousness, that's changing.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

Electronic wedding invitations aren't exactly Adam Lowe's cup of tea.

As host of the popular Modern Manners Guy podcast, Lowe attempts to marry--pun completely intended--the culture of traditional etiquette with a digital world that increasingly threatens to subvert its longstanding norms. And he admits up front that he thinks using the likes of Evite and MyPunchbowl for formal occasions is "a terrible idea" for the most part; except when difficult circumstances demand it, as was the case when he received a digital wedding invitation recently. There was an illness in the groom's family, and the date of the wedding had to be pushed up to the point where there was no longer a wide enough time frame to order formal paper invitations. "(They) changed to Evite for expedience's sake," Lowe explained.

"I would've been hard-pressed to come up with an example where (electronic wedding invitations) would be acceptable except when real life intervenes," he added.

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But "real life" gets in the way in more ways than we think, and people like Lowe may be in the minority soon. The eco-consciousness movement is encouraging us to cut down on unnecessary paper use, and tough economic conditions compel us to be thrifty. And when technology is able to cut down on hours of guest-list organization, the digital route is an obvious one--especially for a generation of young adults that has always used Google search in lieu of the Yellow Pages.

Online invitation services like the InterActiveCorp-owned Evite, the Events application on Facebook, as well as smaller start-ups like Socializr and MyPunchbowl, are nothing new. They've more or less taken over the RSVP duties for backyard barbecues, Halloween parties, birthdays, and even holiday cocktail soirees. Paper invitations still reign at the upper echelon: weddings and high-end corporate events, as well as other formal occasions like bar mitzvahs, proms, and charity fundraisers. But at this point, there are only a few tenuous standards of etiquette that are keeping this relic of the analog age alive and kicking.

"In the past, I never would have thought to use an electronic invitation, because I don't know if it was as much of a formality as it was about brand awareness and being so protective over how the brand was portrayed," said Celia Chen, a former luxury-brand event planner who now writes the blog Notes on a Party. "Image was so important: the paper stock, the font. We would have invitation designers, and we'd go through multiple edits."

But people are going digital, and Chen said that recipients have grown acclimated to it, especially as the younger generation grows up. "I think it's generational," she said. "People always wanted to speak to the hostess when they made a reservation at a restaurant. Now they just use OpenTable." Indeed, a 25-year-old getting married in 2008 likely had an e-mail address before he or she had a driver's license. Teenagers celebrating bar mitzvahs and Sweet 16s can't remember a time when the Internet wasn't everywhere.

One of the biggest drawbacks to electronic invitations for an event planning veteran like Chen was that they were neither attractive nor customizable enough for upscale or formal events. Facebook invitations cannot be modified beyond the social network's blue-and-white design, and Evite still pretty much relies on clip art. Though Evite still owns the lion's share of the digital invitation market, with stats from Hitwise showing that its traffic far eclipses that of its smaller rivals combined, alternatives like MyPunchbowl, Renkoo, Centerd, and Socializr offer different looks and feels for different kinds of events and hosts.

Chen has since started using Pingg, an invitation start-up geared toward a more discerning crowd. "There was a whole segment of event types that people just did not want to use electronic invitations for," Pingg co-founder Lorien Gabel said of his rationale behind creating the company, which gives the option for hosts to accompany their digital invites with print versions for all or some of the guests. "I'd like to believe that because of how we do things you also get the aesthetic aspect of it, you don't have to sacrifice it."

With the option of sending a pretty, well-designed electronic invitation now out there, they become more of a viable alternative for organizers of higher-end events who happen to be conscious of environmental impact, cost, or efficiency. "Not having to use paper is huge when you're trying to be eco-conscious," Celia Chen said. "It's better for the environment, it's cheaper if not free, and you're collecting the majority of your RSVPs in a place where there's no human error. People either hit 'yes,' 'no,' or 'maybe,' and it'll download into a list."

Manners expert Lowe still isn't convinced, saying that the chance to be economical isn't enough to sway him. "There are always ways to do (paper invitations) in a cost-effective way," he said. "You can get paper, print them yourself, hand-write them." As for being environmentally friendly, "(that) point is actually quite well-taken because it does create quite a lot of paper waste. What might be interesting is to see if there are people or companies that come up with very low-impact ways of generating invitations that are either easily recyclable or directly reusable."

But Lowe acknowledged that for efficiency's sake, as well as to fit the culture of the digital age, sometimes there are reasons to try and bridge the gap. He suggested that for events like weddings and bar mitzvahs, organizers could send out an electronic "save-the-date" in advance that would allow guests to opt out of a paper invitation if they preferred the digital route.

"If you really know your guests and you really know it's a preference for them, I think that's great," Lowe said. "Absolutely times are changing, and what is appropriate changes."

Proponents of digital invitations admit that there are lingering reasons, beyond etiquette, that sometimes compel hosts to stick to paper invitations. Chen said that the occasional client would raise the question that e-mail invites might not make it past a spam filter, and added that others were concerned about how much of a splash an e-mail could possibly make in an age of clogged Outlook inboxes.

"At New York Fashion Week, you've got 12 days of shows and events and it's highly, highly competitive," Chen said. "If you don't send out a paper invitation, (it doesn't work). There's something about it landing on someone's desk and having it be tactile."

But if you look at the ultimate gauge of formal events--weddings--things are certainly changing in favor of the digital. "A large, not quite a quarter yet, but about 20 percent of our events are actually wedding-related," Lorien Gabel said, saying that plenty of bachelor parties and bridal showers show up on Pingg.

As for invitations for wedding ceremonies themselves, Gabel said they're creeping in. "I see a couple of them a day," he observed.