Online Invites Are Superior to Paper—Even for Weddings

Notes on nuptials.
June 12 2013 7:00 AM

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Online invites are now far better than paper. And yes, you should even use them for your wedding.

The Paperless Post online design process.
The Paperless Post online design process.

The biggest fight my wife and I had during wedding planning—and, come to think of it, blessedly one of the biggest fights we’ve ever had—involved RSVP cards. To understand our disagreement, you need to know that our relationship is one of those opposites-attract sitcoms that you’d swear would never work in real life. I’m an early adopter; she’s still using technology from last decade. (Also: I’m like a minus. She’s like a plus.) So when we got married, in 2009, I acquiesced to most of her wishes, and much of our nuptials were old-fashioned. (I did get the right to tweet a photo of the bride right after the ceremony, though.)

But I put my foot down on the RSVP cards. In truth, I’d have preferred to have sent our invitations entirely online using some Evite–like service. This idea was a nonstarter; my wife is a stationery nerd, so I understood there was no way we were getting away from paper. At the very least, though, I argued that we should give people the option of responding to our invitations online. Instead of having to fill out their meal preferences on a card and then drop it in the mail, why not add a simple email address that they could respond to? Or, even better, a URL for them to fill out a Web form—which, of course, would automatically populate a spreadsheet that we could hand over to our caterers? To do it the old-fashioned way seemed hopelessly inefficient, like much too much work for our guests and ourselves.

My demand sparked a huge row. There were insults, tears, begging, things better left unsaid; my wife wasn’t too happy, either. In the end, of course, we did it the old-fashioned way. Guests got an RSVP card with a pre-stamped envelope stuffed inside their invitations. They filled it out and dropped it in the mail. Some people even hand-wrote thoughtful notes on the RSVP cards. It was nice, I guess.

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But if I had to do it all over again—which I’m pretty sure I won’t, unless my wife reads this story—I know that we’ll do it my way. And it won’t just be the RSVP cards. That’s because something marvelous has happened in the four years since I got married: Electronic invitations have become totally acceptable. If you want to dismiss cardstock for your wedding, don’t think twice about it. Go forth. Worry not. The etiquette police have lost all ground in this fight.

On whose authority do I make this pronouncement? Well, there’s no global decider in these things— and it’s certainly true that there are many people who still believe online invitations are tacky and unbecoming of a high-class affair. The etiquette doyenne Peggy Post maintains that electronic wedding invitations “might fit the bill for an informal wedding,” but are “not the best match for a formal one.”

Post and other opponents of online invitations offer two main justifications for their devotion to paper. First, they say, online invitations simply aren’t elegant—because they’re delivered over email, which is often used for “casual” communication, online invitations do not “convey the same sense of importance as a paper-and-ink invitation received in the mail.” The other problem is that electronic invitations create their own problems. Depending on the demographics of your guest list, there will likely be a few oldsters who are not be hip with the Internet. This means you can’t get away from paper completely—and if that’s the case, why not use it for everyone?

But these arguments are bunk. Over the last couple of years, both paper and electronic wedding invitations have improved greatly—they’re now both cheap, elegant, and easy to create and send out. This means that you don’t have to choose between online and print invitations. You can send out both. For instance, at sites like Minted, you can quickly create beautiful print invitations in small quantities for not very much money—$100 for 25 of the ones shown here. So you can offer electronic invitations to the vast majority of folks on your guest list who are tech-savvy, and then save a handful of these paper invitations for the few who aren’t.

Will people look down on your electronic invites? Sure, some may. But don’t put much stock in their prejudices. That’s because electronic invitations have so many clear advantages over paper. We live in lean times; nobody is going to fault you if you want to save money on the invitations in order to pay more for better food, better music, a better honeymoon, or just so you can pay the rent. Electronic invitations are also more environmentally friendly than paper. And they’re less work. Planning a wedding is difficult. If you want to save time collecting addresses and writing out envelopes, not to mentioning keeping track of RSVPs, you’re within your rights to do so.

The most outdated objection to online invitations is this widespread assumption that they’re inelegant, either because the screen isn’t as pretty as paper or because email isn’t as refined as the postal service. Let’s dispense with this second thing first: What does it matter if email is primarily used for casual conversation? It’s not like your snail-mail inbox is a haven for refined communication—it’s actually most often used for garish circulars, tricky solicitations, and reminders from your dentist. And yet, despite this pedestrian lot, a beautiful envelope addressed by a calligrapher and a gracefully designed invitation on quality cardstock still stands out. So why don’t we believe the same is possible online? Sure, email is mostly awful. But sometimes you get a wonderful note or beautiful invitation from a friend. In those moments, isn’t it great?

I suspect the problem is Evite, whose unaccountable dominance in online invitations has given people the idea that all electronic invites are ugly. But that’s just not the case. There are many other, better online invitation sites that offer more stylish designs and a more thoughtful user interface. The best of these produce invitations that evoke the same feeling as an elegant letterpress card you’d find sitting between the circulars in your snail-mail inbox—a sense that a lot of thought has been put into this affair, that this bride and groom are trying to create something wonderful.

My favorite such site is Paperless Post, which has a set of fantastic designer wedding cards that, to me, look every bit as great as paper cards. Note that many of Paperless Post’s designs aren’t free; the site offers some online cards for no charge, but its best cards will set you back $50 to $100 for a small to medium-sized order. The site’s pricing system is convoluted and depends on your specific order, but here’s one example: You can send out this understatedly comic card to 75 guests for $12. For a few dollars more, you can have the card show up in a personalized envelope displayed in the email message. Note that there’s an enormous advantage to paying for online invitations—unlike the free invitation sites, Paperless Post displays no ads.

But here’s the absolute best thing about Paperless Post: Many of its designs are available both online and in paper, perfect for satisfying both paper aficionados and tech zealots. For instance, the paper version of that card I linked to above goes for $1.45 per card. These hybrid designs allow for amazing flexibility. If your budget requires it, you can divide your guest list between young and old, close family and distant, or in any other way, so some people receive a paper invitation and some receive an electronic version, both the exact same design. And even if you decide to send only paper invitations, Paperless Post allows you to add electronic features to the cards, like email reminders or the ability for guests to RSVP online.

As its name suggests, Paperless Post’s original mission was to deliver invitations online. James Hirschfeld, the company’s CEO, told me that the company moved into paper invitations last year because he recognized that we don’t live in an either–or world. Some people are always going to prefer paper invitations—their expense makes them luxurious, and, when it comes to weddings, there’ll always be a market for luxury. Meanwhile there are some wealthy people who find paper too inconvenient. “You might have a bride whose family lives in New York and a groom whose family lives in Sao Paulo,” Hirschfeld says—for these high-flyers, electronic invitations are the way to go.

Hirschfeld also points out that weddings are composed of a series of card-sending occasions—in addition to invitations for the ceremony itself, there are save-the-dates, bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, tedious post-nuptial brunches and so on. Hirschfeld says that many customers are happy to use online invitations for those smaller events, but they still want to send paper invitations for the main event. (Electronic save-the-dates are especially popular, he says, because they allow guests to fill in their mailing addresses so the couple can send out paper invitations later on.) By offering both paper and electronic invitations, Paperless Post can cover the entire event, he says.

I’m surprised that other greeting-card companies don’t recognize this duality—that neither paper nor Web invitations is always superior, that both serve a function in modern weddings, and we shouldn’t rule out one or the other. “The idea that there’s a single etiquette for everyone is a fallacy,” Hirschfeld says. “What’s important is the consideration that goes into what you’re saying and how you’re expressing it. Whether you send the message on paper or in email isn’t the most important question.”

Stop the Scourge of Wedding Presents: They’re outdated, inefficient, unfair, and unnecessary,” by Matthew Yglesias. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

The Long Walk to the Altar: Prudie offers wedding advice on family estrangement, inappropriate toasts, and an extravagant bride, just in time for summer,” by Emily Yoffe. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

My Big Fat Disney Wedding: I’m a tomboy, not a princess. Here’s why getting married at a huge theme park was a delightfully practical decision,” by Rachael Larimore. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

This Is the Last Time I Will Ever See You: After every wedding, there is a dear friend who will immediately disappear from your life. And that’s OK,” by David Plotz. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

How to Be a Better Best Man: Flirt with the mother of the bride, but don’t grind with her,” by Troy Patterson. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.