As mobile event apps have become ever more sophisticated, organizers have enthusiastically embraced them at their events — fully 28 percent of North American planners are now including apps in their budgets, according to a joint report from The IMEX Group and QuickMobile released in May.
But what makes for a successful app in 2014? “I think it’s important to remember that the most successful apps are a living part of the event experience and are supported thoroughly,” said Adam Suellentrop, director of production and client services for Barkley Kalpak, a New York City–based event-planning agency, “through publication ahead of time, signage on site, and direct mention and incorporation by hosts and speakers from the stage.”
Here’s a six-question pulse check to make sure your event apps are evolving with your attendees’ expectations to ensure high levels of adoption and attendee engagement at your next event.
1. Are you incorporating the features attendees expect?
In terms of what’s au courant for mobile event apps, Suellentrop recommends putting as much emphasis as possible on social-sharing features. “Allowing attendees to share business information in the same effortless way they share their personal lives gives us more engagement in the event experience,” he said.
Beyond that, be sure you’re integrating real-time feedback mechanisms into your apps. “I like some of the new polling capabilities that allow the queueing of questions from an audience,” Suellentrop said. “This allows a moderator to evaluate and sort questions that might be asked of a panel rather than just calling on the next random hand that is raised … and [that] may take the conversation off course. It gives much more control to the planning team, while still leveraging the audience’s interaction.”
2. Are you stuck in the past?
While most standard mobile-app content is here to stay — agendas, speaker bios, and venue maps all are indispensible — there are some features that have failed to catch on with attendees. “If I had to point to any fading technology, it might be QR codes,” Suellentrop said. “They have been a staple in the landscape, but they really just aren’t that easy to use. I think that newer, better tech will probably replace them soon.”
Features that reinvent the wheel should also be on the chopping block. Most attendees have apps like FlySmart, Google Maps, and Yelp installed on their mobile phones, so things like airport information, directions to venues, and recommendations for nearby restaurants are less likely to be utilized than your app’s core, meeting-related features.
3. Are you effectively promoting your app?
Once an app has been thoroughly tested, you need to promote it to attendees through a variety of media, such as email newsletters, downloadable links on the event website, and on-site signage. Failure to do so could mean your app falls flat.
A two-pronged approach may seem like a way to cover your bases for both tech-savvy attendees and those a bit behind the curve, but be careful. You could save a lot on the cost of paper programs and such by introducing your app to attendees, speakers, and your company or client’s executives well ahead of time. “We’ve been right there with our clients through the learning curve,” Suellentrop said. “We have had experiences where clients know they have to embrace change, but have a hard time letting go of some of the traditional means and they don’t promote the app fully. But, after they’ve used the technology once, they have seen that their attendees, and company executives, are up to speed, easily adaptable, and actually expecting more technological solutions.”
4. Are you ready for what’s next?
Although no one can predict exactly what the future holds for event apps, there are some technologies that could soon make a huge impact. “I think that interesting uses of augmented reality — adding a layer of digital content on top of real life — are popping up every day,” Suellentrop said, “and I can’t wait to see the new ways this is incorporated into event apps.”
He also pointed to the replacement of QR codes with visual links to digital content. Attendees could take a picture of an event logo, for example, and then be taken to the event website. Of course, this linking capability won’t necessarily be limited to photos — audio and video recordings could be similarly “wired” to direct attendees to relevant web content. “Think what [the app] Shazam does for music,” Suellentrop said. “Imagine an expo floor where you can get additional information layered on top of every booth, or you walk up to a booth and you just missed a looping video about a product, but instead, you take a photo of their sign, and the app takes you to a video tutorial on that new product right on your phone.”
5. Are you getting in the game?
Gamification has been a buzzword throughout the meetings industry over the last few years, with more and more planners building competitive elements like scavenger hunts and leaderboards into their apps to fuel adoption and engagement. If you’re on a budget, even live Twitter feeds add excitement to an event, especially if you use them to fuel competition among attendees.
Suellentrop recalled one closing keynote during which awards were presented to attendees who had completed the most in-app gamification tasks throughout the meeting. “People were standing up at every announcement of a winner,” he said. “We’d never seen that kind of excitement before.”
6. Do you actually need an app?
Apps are great for almost any size meeting, but there are some instances when they can be a hindrance rather than a help, according to Suellentrop. Board meetings, company-wide sales meetings and retreats, and even product launches are all events where a custom app could backfire, he said, serving as a distraction rather than enhancing attendee retention and networking.
“Let’s face it,” Suellentrop said. “Sometimes you just don’t want people on their phones.” Key questions to consider are whether attendees already have the means to connect before and after a meeting — as in the case of an internal pow-wow — and if the meeting content is focused enough that a stack of old-fashioned paper agendas would serve almost the same purpose as an app that spells out session content.
Sometimes even a larger event may not require a mobile app. Suellentrop noted that existing technologies such as Salesforce Chatter and other customer-relationship management systems that attendees are already using can provide most of the functionality of a custom conference app. “You have to think about the experience it will support,” he said, “and answer the questions ‘Will this enhance the attendee experience?’ and ‘Will this enhance or make easier my planning experience?’”