A Google search of "online registration" delivers approximately 159 million results in about 18 seconds. Finding the right provider for your online registration administration will likely take a bit longer, though. When you begin your due diligence, consider these 10 characteristics as measuring sticks for determining who best to partner with to vault your registration management system into the 21st century.

# 10: History

This issue can't rank too high because online registration providers have only been around for a decade or so. However, a customer would be well-served to pick a provider that has some history of focus on your industry. Also look for a supplier that has grown its customer base over time and, of course, is profitable.

# 9: Customer Base

A review of the supplier's current customer base offers a number of clues as to whether it is the right fit for your organization. Does the provider cater to industry giants, smaller operations, or a broad mix? Does it have a reasonable amount of customers? Does it serve multiple markets, or is it more industry-specific? Does it receive a significant amount of referral business? Does it let potential customers talk to existing customers about their experience with the product?

You will likely find a lot of variation in customers from provider to provider, ranging from customers that manage conferences or events to those that focus on athletic leagues to others that provide continuing education training and so forth. If a provider's customers seem similar to you, take it as a positive sign.

# 8: Innovation

Since the online registration market launched nearly a decade ago, Microsoft has changed its operating system four times, PDAs have become a standard mobile device, and Apple has produced killer gadgets to access the Internet and spawn an industry of mobile applications.

An online registration provider must not only be nimble enough to keep pace with changing platforms and systems, but it also needs to keep pace with the evolving needs of its customers. Look for companies that frequently upgrade or update their software, add features requested by customers, and seek to innovate to differentiate themselves from competition and to better serve their clients.

#7: Security

Any solution that involves personal data, payment transactions, and the Internet needs to meet a host of security standards, including secure socket layer (SSL) encryption, payment card industry (PCI) compliance, and so on. If you can't find this information somewhere on the provider's website, be sure to ask about its security measures.

#6: Reporting

When spending money on a registration management solution, you not only want it to make the process easier, you want to make it better. One way a good registration system can improve your process is by providing reporting functionality that enables your organization to track essential information, including registration numbers, attendance figures, payments, continuing education credits, evaluations, and more.

More important, the solution needs to be able to output this data in a variety of formats. A good system will provide tools to share key metrics to others in your organization. Without question, what you glean from this data should help you continuously improve your offering.

#5: Payment Solutions

Typically, there are two choices providers will offer in terms of how registrants pay for an event or program being offered through the online registration platform:

1) the provider will take money through its merchant account (these are the payment gateways that accept credit/debit cards)

2) the provider will use the customer's merchant account; and typically help set it up if not already established.

Each method has its pros and cons. If going through the provider's account, for instance, the customer isn't required to set up its own account, but it also doesn't immediately receive the money from registrants. That money is held in the registration provider's account for a period of time, and some providers even tack on a fee for using their account. Using the customer's own merchant account may involve setting up that account, which isn't too difficult. The upside is that payments are received immediately and there is no additional fee.

Organizations that expect to use registration software for multiple events might find it beneficial to have their own merchant account, while those providing a single event or conference might find it easier to work with a provider that uses its merchant account.

#4: Ease-of-Use

For many, the kick in the pants that started your search for an online registration provider was the prevailing thought: "There has to be an easier way." Well, there is. However, what you are really looking for is the right balance between ease-of-use and functionality. Some systems are extremely easy to use because they are simple and lack functionality and features. Some systems with a multitude of bells and whistles might seem like overkill to use and learn.

You should demo (or "test drive") systems to make sure you find one that provides the features you need, feels intuitive from your experience with software, and is easy enough to master that you could teach a co-worker to run it. Simply put, if a system feels like more work with less reward than what you are currently doing, you want to look elsewhere.

# 3: Functionality

A good registration management system is "cool." It looks like your website, it is customized to your event or program, it automates communications to registrants, and it produces progress reports and evaluations. Bottom line: it will add value to your offering.

The key is finding a platform with functionality that is right-sized for what you do. The more complex your registration needs, for example, the more features will be required from a system. Think about your current registration form, communications with registrants, management process, and reporting needs. Make sure the provider's product can not only fulfill these needs and perform these functions, but do so more efficiently than your current process or tool.

The right fit might mean a provider that can also create a splashy promotional page if you focus on a single event. Or, if you coordinate multiple events, it might be a provider whose software is customizable for easy conversion from one event to the next.

#2: Pricing

Like any new industry, online registration pricing started all over the map and has begun to migrate toward a general figure. Like most other tools, you mostly get what you pay for. If one provider's pricing appears to be a tremendous discount compared to others, you could be buying a single-page form that your IT department could build in a few minutes through your organization's content management system.

The trick with pricing is understanding what you are getting, and then determining a bottom-line dollar figure. Many providers charge a per registration fee that typically drops a little with added volume. Some, however, add fees for additional functionality, set-up, training, payment processing, and so forth.

After receiving all pertinent information, figure out what it will cost your organization per registrant. If you are quoted more than $3-4 per registrant, you should shop around some more. Note: $3-4 per registrant should represent savings - assuming your registrants total in the hundreds, not dozens, compared to what you spend in postage and work hours, not to mention what you might spend in web development and hosting.

#1: Customer Support

To be sure, saving time and money are main goals for implementing a registration management system. But ideally, you are looking for some way improve your customers' experience. By that same token, every provider worth doing business with is in it to help its customer - you.

Because there is a learning curve with any new software, the supplier must provide ample training and customer support. Use the demo or initial conversation to get a feel for what type of training and customer service you can expect. Call the company again to see whether your call is either answered or returned immediately. Make sure there is an email address available and that it emails are responded to quickly. Some of the larger firms provide a live chat; many websites offer FAQs. Look at all of the resources and get a feel for whether it is going to treat you like its number 1 customer.

Bottom line

If you were to spend a few thousand dollars of your own money on a car, you would do more than kick the tires. Similarly, if you tap the company budget to improve registration management and the related events, please do more research than merely picking the first name that comes up in an Internet search.

Most providers offer excellent products that will help you achieve your goals. But, not all providers are created equal; some will definitely be a better fit for your niche, size, industry, or specific need. The checklist of 10 items should help guide you toward the right provider.

Todd Chandler is founder and president of ABC Signup (www.abcsignup.com), an online registration management system currently serving hundreds of organizations that provide education, training, and professional development.