Most event apps are stuck in legacy mode, but Whova isn't - a progress report from Controlling 2019

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed October 10, 2019
Summary:
The quest for a halfway decent mobile event app is fraught with the peril of time wasted. But at Controlling 2019, attendees embraced an event app in a way I've never seen before. It made a difference.

whova event app
Whova event app - Controlling 2019

We talk about user adoption as the standard for which cloud software should be judged. Well, how about a mobile event app with 100 percent user adoption?

At our live conference debrief session for SAP Controlling 2019 - with almost 50 percent of our attendees present - all said they were using the app. Then we asked: how many loved the Whova event app? 99 percent of the hands stayed up.

In my line of work, that's unheard of. When I go to enterprise events, I always download event apps. Most of my press and analyst colleagues don't bother. In fact, they make fun of me:

I'm not downloading another crummy event app.

That's typical. Followed by:

It would take me a half hour just to figure out the log-in.

Yep, mobile event log-in codes are typically buried in emails, with jibberish passcodes to type in, or some kind of password reset purgatory to slog through.

If you want a great event, you need a great mobile app

In my diginomica enterprise event survival series, I ventilate over the absurdities of enterprise events. But it's not just grilling vendors on bad press conferences and boring panels. It's about the potential for better enterprise events:

Controlling 2019, a specialized annual event for SAP Controllers, tries to give that time back. We hold our keynotes to one hour; a customer always delivers the main keynote:

No matter what the size, enterprise events aren't easy. But when we started this event eight years ago, our founder John Jordan gave us the freedom to experiment with event structures like turbo-networking and unconferences - which have become staples of the program. I remain convinced larger events can adapt some of these same principles. I compiled the best examples in Powerpoint-drenched events are legacy. Why unconferences and white board sessions are the way forward.

The real event gold isn't guru panels. It's peers sharing with peers, mixing in ways they didn't expect:

However, to pull off a great enterprise event, the event app has to keep up. It usually doesn't. We've been using the Whova app for the last few years at the SAP Controlling show, ever since I discovered it at another event, and wrote this piece: The quest for an awesome mobile event app - Whova pushes past event app mediocrity.

Each year, attendee use of our event app has grown. Last year, I was impressed to see attendees organizing their own evening excursions and dinners via the app. But this year, Whova took their app up a big notch - and attendees took full advantage.

So why do I always download an event app, when most of my press/analyst colleagues don't? Apart from my masochistic curiosity, event apps generally do two things well:

  • Announcements (via push notifications) of the major conference happenings - and last minute changes. You'll never miss a celebrity photo opportunity with Shaquille O'Neal if you have the event app.
  • A comprehensive and more up to date event schedule, so I can crash customer sessions.

How did Whova get my attention in 2016? It was the first time I ever had an worthwhile 1:1 meeting directly caused by someone I had never met , who found me - and messaged me - from within the mobile app. I always found Whova easy to log into, and from an admin standpoint, sending out announcements is easy.

A new level of mobile event adoption

But this year, a few things in the app really took off. Most fall under the "community" section of the app:

whova community
Sample Whova Community screen

Ice breakers - prior to the show, attendees were already firing off ice breakers in the app. The early ones were kind of fun/frivolous, like "What's your favorite country you visited, and why?" But others planted the seeds for a better show, such as questions about nearby running trails, or how to get the most out of the event.

By the second day, the community section was out of hand, in a good way. Attendees started their own threads on super-interesting topics such as:

  • Topics they'd like us to cover at Controlling 2020
  • Other relevant conferences in the industry
  • Their favorite sessions so far

A post on "years of SAP experience" took off like crazy, after speaker Kent Bettisworth asked:

What year did you first type an SAP tcode?

Answers went back to 1994, and even further, into the mainframe SAP R/2 heyday. (Look for my podcast and writeup with Bettisworth on RPA and auditors tomorrow).

Gamification - I'm no gamification fanboy, but Whova's leaderboard, showing the point totals as everyone posts, added more stickiness as well. That came in handy. Since attendees were already app-savvy, they had not problem popping into the "ask the organizers" section, pinging us with issues.

We had some problems with PDF session downloads this year. That's tedious stuff on all sides, but it's invaluable to get flagged and notified immediately. Using the app, attendees can quickly ping, without waiting in a help desk line or figuring out who to email. I've never seen an "ask the organizers" section in an event app before.

When your app has that much traction, messaging is easy also. I lined up a podcast taping quickly within the app:

Whova chat

My take

I'm honestly confused: why are so many event apps stuck in neutral, while this app keeps widening the gap between what's possible and what's typical?

I'm sure there are other event apps making strides; hopefully I'll eventually find one. But I haven't yet in 2019, and the event season is on the home stretch.

The Whova app is also reasonably priced. I was worried that their low prices would include intrusive advertising from their partners. So far, I have not encountered that.

There are areas Whova can definitely improve. I didn't find their recommendations of attendees to connect with very creative (most were based on shared company affiliations, which is very obvious). Integration of social streams, in particular the Twitter event hashtag, would be helpful. Push notification should be expanded into admin functions that are not currently in the notification settings.

Whova's app is designed to be a home base for multiple Whova events. Eventually, this could allow them to push towards a kind of LinkedIn for events. In between events, event organizers can lose their community momentum. Can Whova help here? Perhaps, but there are obstacles to overcome. Obviously, you can't give a past attendee full access to the event stream going forward.

Right now, you can see messages in between events, which is a nice way to track ongoing 1:1 chats within the app. But if Whova can ever crack the nut on how to keep communities connected between events, that would be something.

ERP Corp's Controlling conferences are based in San Diego, and so is Whova. This year, three members of the Whova team dropped by to see how attendees are using the app - and to answer questions. The only problem: Whova is easy enough to use, so the Whova team wasn't really needed by attendees. Waiting for people to ask for help, and waiting some more - that's the kind of problem you want to have.

This Whova team wasn't authorized to talk to the media - unfortunate red tape - so I can't say more about that. But they made a note of my feedback, and it was good to see them learning from customers directly. Their CEO and marketing lead both reached out to me since.

However, the obvious question is one of scale. On the Whova web site, the FAQ says:

We have supported events with less than 50 attendees and events with more than 1,000 attendees.

A customer testimonial indicates that Whova supported a "large scale" event with attendees from more than 37 countries. That said, it would be interesting to see how  - and if - Whova can operate at much higher scale than 1,000 attendees (I've personally seen Whova function well at an event with about 500 attendees; this year, Controlling 2019 had around 140 attendees).

Update: I heard from Whova's Yuelu Duan:

The highest attendees we supported is close to 10,000, but we are very confident that our infrastructure can support even more than that.

I'd be interested to see that in action. I would think that Whova's "Ice Breaker" section, as currently designed, would be difficult to navigate if hundreds of posts were made - but they may have some solutions for that I don't know about. Also, at a high attendee event, there will surely be moderation tools needed, including the ability to delete attendee comments that cross lines - something I don't see in the app currently, unless I'm missing something.

A great mobile app is integral to putting on a better enterprise event. Whova says they are not just an event app provider, but a pre-event service provider with email marketing support as well. How much that extends between events I don't know yet, but I know that SAP Controlling attendees probably won't use the app much until next year. If we can change that, it would be huge.

I hope to find more great mobile event apps in my final event swings of the fall. I'm a fan of choice, not of singular endorsements. But for now, it's good to experience some of the jugular networking possibilities I've always hoped an event app could deliver.

Updated, 9:30am PT October 10, with minor tweaks for reading clarity and additional resource links.

Image credit - screen shot of SAP Controlling 2019 Whova app home page for admins. All other screens taken from our mobile app, except the Community sample which is from Whova's web site.

Disclosure - ERP Corp paid the bulk of my expenses to attend SAP Controlling 2019. I am a founding team member and advisor to ERP Corp - a paid engagement. ERP Corp pays Whova for its event app each year; diginomica has no financial ties to Whova, I just think their app is kickass.