How To Make A Mobile App Work For Your Event

I am pleased to present Thorben Grosser as our second guest blogger here at The Gems.  Thorben and I met earlier this year at PCMA’s Convening Leaders event in San Diego, where I was very impressed with our conversations.  I am grateful that Thorben accepted my invitation to do a guest post here. – GR

Almost three years ago, the UK version of Wired magazine was running a title story on the app economy and how Jamie Oliver had it all sorted out. At the same time, I just bought my first BlackBerry, because I believed apps are nice, but a keyboard is nicer. Now, according to a more recent Mashable article, today, there’s roughly half a million people doing nothing but apps, and even more apps available across the big platforms.

So five years after the release of the iPhone, along with its competing phones on different operating systems, you can’t miss the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets. Not even as an event professional. And I don’t mean that in a patronizing way – attending PCMA Convening Leaders for example feels like going to an Apple store. But you also quickly realize that meeting planners are among the most loyal folk out there, reluctant to change suppliers and willing to be advised by their suppliers. One example of where this can go was the Convening Leaders 2012 app, which was a terrible piece of software, being almost useless for most attendees.

Interested in doing better, and enhancing your experience by offering an app with your meeting, conference, expo or special event?

Know your event and your audience

As for anything you want to achieve inside your event, it is of highest importance that you understand your event, understand what people will attend and understand their needs.

The first question is: Do I need an app? And more often than not, the answer will be “yes”. Actually, apps start making sense quite often starting with events of only 25 people. In fact, every event you would decide to print a programme leaflet may benefit an app.

Make sure your event has free Wifi access. Seriously, I mean it. Unless you might decide to actively ban social media (Julius Solaris had a post on that, unfortunately it’s gone) and internet connectivity, make sure that you give your attendees the possibility to access the web. For free, as part of your event.

Know (at least some of) the technology

If it comes to the technology, there are two basic concepts you need to understand: native apps and web based apps. A native app is an app that is specifically designed for a specific operating system (commonly Apple iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 or Blackberry). The advantage is that you can fully use the device’s functionalities in every regard and it is easier to make them run without internet connectivity (stay away from native apps that require internet connectivity for running in any case). On the downside, they are more expensive to develop, mess around with app store restrictions and you need to develop a specific app for each platform. This means, if you are on budget, you need to decide which attendees are worth the money, and which are not. That’s a quite unfortunate situation.

A web based app runs in every browser. This has a lot of advantages. No more app store drama, no platform segregation, one app serves all. It also saves you a lot of money and integrating a new feature becomes much easier since you only need to update one platform. One of the repeated arguments against browser based apps is that they require a constant internet connection. That would be problematic, but also is no longer true. Modern browser apps know how to work the browser cache, and thus manage to work even with little or no connectivity, once they have been opened while the phone was connected – which is the same for native apps. There is no longer a need to be scared of well-made web apps. They might sometimes not be able to use all the phone’s features, though, but that gap is being minimized. Also, not everyone owns a fully-fledged smart phone – but even most phones offer browsers that can access these apps.

Choose

The choice of apps depends largely on your budget. If you want to build a native app for two or three platforms, you are easily looking at somewhere between $10,000-$20,000 per event. It might well be worth the money, but that’s a lot. If you are looking at web based apps, you are somewhere between $200 – $5,000.

The second decision then looks at the up- and downsides of the different kinds of apps. Many native app companies offer mobile versions of your app as an additional perk, at an additional price tag. That way, you circumvent the platform issue.

In a third decision, you should then look at suppliers. Look at a dedicated conference app provider, not necessarily your standard technology provider. The issue is that apps are not simply your programme or digital signage ported to a mobile phone – it is a whole different story. Apps follow their own paradigms and conference apps even more. Also, look at the functionality you would like to integrate in your apps. My research has shown that not all suppliers are the same – in fact, each of them has a very different personality, with different features. As an example, my interview with ATIV projected them as a conservative (conservative does not mean not innovative, but rather aware of the users’ wants), yet reliable app; EventMobi were the innovative web based app makers with beautiful interfaces; CrowdCompass felt like the hip and young company and industry leader; QuickMobile were the giants that provide top-notch apps at a high price.

And then go with your feeling – after you have spoken to some suppliers, you might just feel that they are right to work with you. After all this is a new field, and we still know very little about what works and what does not.

Implement

We have not spoken about what apps can do for your event. But there’s hardly a limit to the possibilities. The most basic elements will be speaker profiles, attendee profiles and of course the schedule. But almost every app goes further than that, interactive maps, speaker profiles, instant messaging, social media integration, live voting, sponsorship and branding opportunities and so on are just a few of the features. Once you have decided for an app, you should look at all the features you can have, make a list in order of priority for each feature, and see where you draw the line.

Also, you should offer incentives to your users to use the app instead of a printed programme. Not only will that save you money, it will also reduce the amount of resource use and ultimately the ecological footprint of your event. How about a special badge “I have gone green, did you?” to induct a sense of pride, or a special networking reception open to app users to provide real value?

Also, don’t forget your sponsorship opportunities: Cleverly done, an app can not only save you money from printing less or no programmes, but generate money as often sponsors are more willing to pay more money for mobile advertising because they also receive more value: more statistics on usage, more possibilities for interaction, better targeted audiences.

Take care

Firstly, market your app properly. A pop-up at the entrance with a QR code is a good start, but is this the best you can do? Use all your channels to make your message known, use incentives, use your keynotes and maybe even dedicate a session on it. We all are in a learning process, and we should not be afraid to learn from everyone, attendees, programmers, friends and our kids.

Different to printed guides, mobile apps can change during the event. And you should reflect that in your usage. You can change programme details on-the-go, you can push emergency messages, and some apps allow a ticket-based help system where you can support attendees directly through their apps.

Make your apps come alive by not simply putting them out there, but by using them and using their features to make your event even more special.

What are your experiences with apps? What are your worries? Please share your comments and thoughts here! I look forward to the conversations.

Thorben Grosser is about to graduate with an honours degree in event and marketing management from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, Scotland. Having organised events for more than ten years, his current research interest lies in the link between software and events. He worked as a research assistant on writing the book Event Marketing: How to Successfully Promote Events, Festivals, Conventions, and Expositions by Chris Preston and blogs at his own website, http://thorbengrosser.eu

5 Responses to How To Make A Mobile App Work For Your Event

  1. Doing something special at events to make all attendees part of the action is now possible even if they don’t own a device. Any event planner can increase the number of iPads or iPhones available for staff and select attendees by renting additional units for the event. We see an increase in the number of event planners renting for clients or linking to our website for rental units.

  2. EproMeetingApps were designed by meeting planners for planners and events. They offer a package price for their Native Apps that are built across all 4 Smartphone platforms (Apple, Android, Blackberry & Windows) starting at just $5,700 for events that have less than 1,000 attendees. So please be sure to keep them on your list of Meeting App Suppliers too.

  3. Great article Thorben!

    Just feel like notifying you about twoppy (twoppy.com), The Rebellious Guys ;-) We offer a fully self service platform where you can create your own event app in a flash, and for free. WebApp as well as a multi event twoppy iPhone app.

    I only disagree with the question ‘do I need an app’. For two reasons: (1) you don’t have an app, your visitors have (2) I would suggest rephrasing the question to ‘how do I serve my mobile visitors’.

  4. I have now been through a full meeting cycle as an implementer of ATIV’s EventPilot for our customers. I cannot say enough good things about the service levels of ATIV and quality of this mobile application. Attendees were delighted, and the app stood-up to over 20,000 attendees at Chicago’s McCormick place. From wayfinding to content discovery, EventPilot really gets it. As an abstract management vendor, I am very pleased at the efficiency we achieved in integrating our product, OASIS, with EventPilot. I look forward to future implementations and expect they will be even more streamlined. What a great mobile solution!

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