Can mobile event apps cross the rubicon from mediocrity?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 7, 2016
Why are mobile event apps so clunky and mediocre? That bothersome question inspired me to research what's out there. The cupboard isn't as bare as I thought - though issues remain.

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The 2015 event circuit left me with a lasting conclusion: mobile event apps still suck. We endure the inconvenience of app downloads and thumbing log-in credentials to experience: nothing. Maybe a schedule of events with key appointments missing.

The holy grail of event apps: make it easy to find people who share our interests or problems. Find folks we might never meet without some orchestrated serendipity. And what do we get instead? At best, a chaotic hashtag stream incorporated into the app, where exhibitors flog their wares and preening pundits pimp keynote trivia (err - that last one hits a bit close to home actually).

So I asked readers on a Slack backchannel for their views - they had nothing good to report either. Plenty of ideas, yes - but no compelling experiences. But then I found some context for my woes, in the form of the Event App Bible (free to view online or download). These folks have done their homework on the state of event apps - though they are not in the business of critiquing individual apps.

From what I can tell, their business model includes ad revenue from event app makers, so keep that in mind. That said, their research adds plenty of context. I also learned that some event apps offer the "matchmaking" capability I've been looking for.

Events apps must change: from floor plans to integrated experiences

The Event App Bible covers five key app trends. Number two, "blurred boundaries," jumped out:

Event apps have evolved into more integrated platforms. We used to think of an event app as offering basics like the event schedule and floor plans. The new wave of event apps are integrated event management and engagement systems. The increase in apps offering native registration capabilities has been substantial, but still does not reflect the requirements of the market.

And yes - there is an app disconnect between event provider and app suppliers:

event app disconnect

From The Event App Bible

Matchmaking is falling into the void - at least on the low end of event apps. So is integrated registration, as anyone who has had to dig around for their event credentials will attest.

For future tech, the event needs seem to be more aligned:


From The Event App Bible

If new technologies helped with event engagement, wouldn't that change the perceived value? But hold up - I got ahead of myself. It turns out that engagement is only one issue for event planners. Most of them are still struggling with basic issues of adoption, ROI, and native versus web app:


From The Event App Bible

Why are users slow to adopt event apps?

It's a chicken-and-egg thing. If event apps kicked ass, adoption wouldn't be a problem. But how do you overcome the "clunky app" stigma? Event planners seem content to watch this from the sidelines: the Event App Bible survey found that 59 percent of respondents don't use mobile event apps. And 50 percent of those have "no intention to use one in the future."

When you compare that to 83 percent of event planners using social media for events, we can see the problem. But social media doesn't get us over the finish line when it comes to personalized matchmaking. The report asks:

If mobile event apps are so powerful for events, why are so many users still unsure, or worse scared, of using an app?

The answer is: users are smart. Event apps are not very powerful - or at least they haven't been. Users have been burned by the install crap/uninstall-it-later headache.

In addition to "blurred boundaries" between logistics and engagement, the Event App Bible outlined four other trends:

1. Point of entry - event apps are becoming a "standard component" of an event professional's toolkit. Soon, event apps will be as ubiquitous are online registration.
2. Not too fancy - as noted, event planners are not clamoring for augmented reality and iBeacons just yet. They'd settle for an app people actually want to use that drives engagement.
3. Native versus web - event organizers are struggling with the native app-versus-web-versus hybrid dilemma. Originally, we thought that smart phones would make native apps universal. But it turns out that users are not thrilled to bloat their phones with apps for every one-off event:

All of a sudden downloading ‘yet another app’ is annoying and unwanted. Making the most of our memory real estate is also a priority.

4. ARS revival - Audience response systems are getting a second wind. More app providers are building apps and platforms designed to share content, and interact with attendees:

This is mostly fueled by increasing demand in the market. Top features looked for by planners are slide and document sharing as well as audience response systems. As audiences grow tired of the same event concepts repurposed as exciting experiences, planners are looking at using tools that stimulate interaction and horizontal conversations. Apps are able to fill that gap nicely.

From on event planning standpoint, app pricing remains a key consideration. Perhaps that's because the ROI of event app investments is tough to quantify. Pricing concerns are problematic: the more expensive event apps tend to have the differentiating features such as matchmaking, but also: lead retrieval.

Private, in-app chat or messaging is the most prevalent of all event networking features. These can be found in most apps costing upwards of $1,000. But the Event App Bible reports that the top networking features event planner want are attendee matchmaking, appointment scheduling and social media sign-in. Turns out none of these features are standard at any price range, although they are more likely to be included in the higher-priced apps (you can see their report for a full features breakdown).

Lead generation through personalized, real-time promotions also has promise, though it comes with privacy perils. The report quotes Rebecca Slater, group event manager of UBM, on the use of iBeacons to "bring together the online and offline experience." At the eCommerce Expo, iBeacon technology was used for location-based-messages delivered near an event theater triggered a 35 percent action rate from attendees within the app.

Final thoughts - event apps and conference ROI

My thinking now shifts from "mobile event apps suck" to "if you're willing to invest, some apps are making headway." Just how much headway remains to be seen. I'll look forward to kicking tires on next-gen event apps and hearing feedback from those of you who've used them.

The reality of premium pricing for non-negotiable features forces the ROI question. The report suggests these event app metrics:

  • increase the percentage of evaluations returned
  • increase the number of times that exhibitor/product profiles are viewed
  • increase the amount of revenue from advertising, data resale and virtual booths
  • reduce operational costs
  • increase the social footprint of the event
  • increase the level of engagement between exhibitors and attendees
  • track attendee behaviors and preferences

A sensible list, though tying the event app experience back to event satisfaction scores (and plans to return in the future) is more important than anything on this list.

The pressure is on events to provide a deeper level of value to attendees than content they can easily consume online. Engagement is the missing piece. If I can leave an event with a better network, that's a big result I can't get in my Internet pajamas. But most events completely whiff on this engagement result. Maybe event planners are too focused on getting their keynote and messaging across, I don't know.

How many networking events come down to who you randomly meet as you wander the show floor? There are ways to overcome this; I've used some of them during events I've planned (turbo networking for example, where you leave with tons of relevant contacts). Event apps are in a great position to make a difference here. Too often they fall short, but perhaps change is coming. Of course, that ratchets up the pressure on event wifi to actually work- but that's another grouchy post for another time.

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