Mobile apps have become one of the hottest topics in the meetings industry. Innovative mobile apps are not only popping up at a breathtaking pace but, in many cases, they are utterly transforming the process of planning and attending a meeting or event.
In May, at IMEX Frankfurt in Germany, IMEX Group, in partnership with mobile app technology innovator and market leader QuickMobile, released a groundbreaking research study that shed light on just who is doing what.
Although 60 percent of planners have used a mobile app in the past two years, the study found, most are only using them for a few events, such as major annual meetings. Key reasons for such reluctance are budget concerns and the perceived amount of time it takes to create a customized app designed to deliver a set of precise capabilities.
Somewhat surprisingly, the survey found, only 24 percent of planners typically include the costs of a mobile app in their budgets, while 42 percent said they never include such expenses.
And despite the ever-growing list of things a mobile app can do, 91 percent of planners reported that the primary motivation for using one is planner-to-attendee communication and the sharing of information such as meeting agendas and program notes. A large majority, 79 percent, also said they viewed the ability to facilitate communication among attendees as a key benefit, with 75 percent saying they wanted to get the interactive conversations started before the meeting and 78 percent noting they want to continue the conversations after the event.
The biggest and most important of the first-of-its-kind survey, says Patrick Payne, CEO of Vancouver, Canada-based QuickMobile, is that “while more planners are using mobile apps and seeing them as 365-day communication tools, they are just beginning to discover their strategic value.”
Bonnie Boisner, vice president of events management at global customer loyalty management firm Aimia in Plymouth, Minnesota, notes the speed with which mobile technology has entrenched itself in the meeting industry. “Not that long ago, mobile apps were not that widely used,” she says. “But nowadays, they are expected. Mobile is not something that’s just nice to have anymore. It’s mainstream.”
And there’s a simple reason for that, says QuickMobile’s Payne. The most essential impact of mobile technology is the critical difference between real-time information and information that is old, even if by a day, which tends to render it as anecdotal rather than spontaneous, he says. “The question is if you have real time information, what advantage does that give you? And I would say that after day one of a three-day conference, if you can say, ‘This seems to be the hot topic out there, these are the things that people are most interested in, you can actually make adjustments on day two, as opposed to in the past when your only real option was to review the whole meeting two or three weeks later when you’re trying to figure out what worked and didn’t, and what changes you want to make for your next meeting.”
Although new capabilities and functions are being announced on an almost weekly basis now, it’s still attendee engagement, in one form or another, that is driving the adoption of mobile apps by planners.
“Mobile technology has enhanced the way in which we engage with our attendees, and it allows us to do that on a whole different level,” says Kelley Butler, director of meetings and events at McDonald’s Corporation in Oak Brook, Illinois. “It allows us the opportunity to create experiences that engage our attendees before, during and after the meeting.”
That’s critical to McDonald’s, which hosts major meetings around the world.
Another key benefit of mobile technology for Butler and McDonald’s is the ability — before, during and after the meeting — to drive the development of more effective content. “And specifically, that means what our attendees want to hear about,” Butler says. “And that means giving us the ability to tailor specific messaging that is considered most relevant to attendees. It also helps perpetuate the dialogue that goes on about that content. And it also creates a way in which you can gather analytics about the behavior patterns of specific attendees and from that perspective, use those analytics to make very targeted and specific decisions about how you spend money and develop more meetings and trade shows moving forward, based on the information coming out of all those analytics.”
Boisner, a user of the Cvent meeting management platform and its CrowdCompass mobile app, as well as QuickMobile, agrees that attendee engagement is the single most important benefit of mobile technology. “The most common thing we use mobile for is to communicate information, such as schedules,” she says. “We also put our maps on the app and room assignments. We put all the details that attendees need in their hand via their smartphone.”
In effect, she says, it is a high-tech wayfinding function for attendees.
“But,” Boisner says, “it also includes things like speaker bios and meeting-related content, such as links to presentations or other content that people will be communicating about at the meeting. It’s not just about the agenda. It’s now about everything as it relates to the event and the experience of attendees.”
Another important dimension of her use is personalization of the meeting experience for attendees. For example, Boisner says, attendees can adapt the meeting agenda to their own personal agenda — what sessions they plan to attend and what other onsite activities they will participate in — that is always current and at their fingertips.
Using an app that is a component of the market-leading Salesforce.com customer relationship management (CRM) platform, Boisner recently took engagement to a new level when she connected different groups of attendees who did not know each other previously. “We assigned individual group leaders and then they reached out and formed sub-groups through the mobile app,” she says. “Then they were able to communicate and engage with each other prior to the meeting. And by doing that, they were able to exchange questions and other information that related to what they are responsible for and the experience they would have at the meeting.”
In turn, that made their interaction at the meeting more efficient and productive. “And that was all accelerated by that ‘get to know you’ phase before the meeting,” Boisner says.
Melanie Scharton, marketing programs manager at Behavioral Science Technology (BST) in Austin, Texas, is a relatively new adopter of mobile technology. She has used Cvent’s CrowdCompass for her last two annual user conferences, which each draw about 2,500 attendees. Her primary motive? Enhancing the attendee experience onsite.
“We want to make sure they have the latest information,” Scharton says. “And if there is any updated information, like a session being cancelled or moved, then they get that information right away. And with printed material, any kind of change means your program guide is now outdated and incomplete once attendees get onsite.”
But, Scharton says, she must master some change management, too. “This has been a learning experience for our attendees,” she says. “Ours are a little different from a lot of meeting groups. They are not necessarily tech savvy. They come mostly from the plant level floor in large manufacturing operations. And many of them don’t use a computer every day. So they’re not the most technology-forward group. So the first year was an experiment for us to see how well a mobile app would go over. And we were actually quite surprised to see how well it went over. We got more than a 50 percent adoption rate on the app our first year. And this year was even better. And we also found better ways to communicate and connect people onsite.”
That’s very important to BST, Scharton says, “because one thing our conference does is help people network and share best practices among their different industries or find similar challenges that they want to network and communicate about. So that was another advantage of using mobile technology that we also identified the first year and did a lot more of this year.”
For example, Scharton says, “For this year’s meeting, attendees could use the app to build their own profile and then put that up so other folks could see it and connect with them electronically.”
One of the fastest growing and most talked about capabilities of mobile technology is gamification, which means steering and rewarding specific kinds of behavior, such as on-time attendance at particular sessions, retention of educational content, or interaction with sponsors or exhibitors. Response mechanisms such as scanned QR codes are used to monitor and tally results.
Butler used gamification for the first time last year at the McDonald’s U.S. owner-operator conference, which drew a total of 15,000 attendees to three Las Vegas events.
Butler chose to use gamification because the major event is tailored toward education. “So there was a desire from the planning team and the operator community to be able to engage those particular attendees in a different kind of way and also make the event fun and interactive,” she says. “We also wanted to allow people to compete because we are a very competitive brand by nature. And we also like to have fun at our meetings.”
As a result, Butler and her team created a game that attendees played by region, based on how they participated in educational sessions and what they did on the exhibit floor. “And based on those things, they could earn points that led to them being the winning region,” Butler says. “And what they were playing for was to make a donation to the Ronald McDonald charity in their region.”
As a result of the success they had, they now consider gamification a go-to tool for attendee engagement and have deployed it for this year’s meeting. “Any time you can create something that helps people participate more in your meeting, that becomes a best practice,” Butler says.
Boisner is increasingly using gamification as way of getting attendees excited about a meeting. “Gamification is the hot new thing out there,” she says. “It’s a great way to drive results and get the specific outcome you want.”
“Gamification is the hot new thing out there. It’s a great way to drive results and get the specific outcome you want.” — Bonnie Boisner
She uses the gamification capability within Cvent, as well as QuickMobile. She agrees that QuickMobile is currently the clear innovator and dominant brand in meeting-related mobile apps, largely because it can be customized and configured based on exactly what a client wants to do or accomplish. “We do a lot more gamification with QuickMobile,” she says.
Scharton is now preparing to investigate gamification. “I know our marketing team would like to look more into that,” she says. “They’re interested in going even further in improving upon how people interact at our meetings onsite. So gamification is something that we’ll be looking at for next year’s meeting.”
Although truly wide adoption of mobile apps is still a way off, according to the IMEX/QuickMobile survey, technology providers are betting on the premise that the sky’s the limit for new apps.
In April, Chicago-based startup Social Q&A introduced a new browser-based mobile app that enhances audience response by allowing attendees to participate in question-and-answer sessions from their smartphone, tablet or laptop. Attendees submit questions that in turn can be up-voted by other attendees, giving speakers or moderators real time insight into which questions are deemed most important by the audience.
BusyEvent, from The Meeting Pool, ups the ante when it comes to meeting-related business intelligence that helps meeting hosts and planners generate revenue. It allows the tracking of attendee activities such as personal agenda building, clicked links in digital meeting materials, one-to-one meeting requests with sponsors, exhibitors or vendors and more.
Another new tool is the business card reader for iPhones by ABBYY, which automatically transfers and saves contact information from business cards — in 21 different languages — to iPhone contacts or the app’s own digital storage capability.
And now that Apple has revealed that iOS 8 is on it’s way, the opportunity horizon for new app development is greater than ever. C&IT