Conference apps – Points to consider before making an investment

Conference app technology provides event organisers with a unique and effective channel through which to offer an enhanced experience and premium advertising space. A conference app should act as a personal concierge for those attending an event – a logical, functional support that intuitively supplies tailored information and provides a key advertising platform in a way that reinforces the professional and well-organised nature of the event.  Low quality, badly functioning apps can be damaging to the reputation of an event so app development is something that is worth doing properly.

For a conference organiser looking to invest time and money into harnessing the app, there are a number of very important issues that need to be covered.

Conference App design

This is crucial for any event looking to maintain a professional, high end image, as there is nothing more off putting for serious conference attendees and premium sponsors than an app peppered with clumsy cartoon icons that bears more resemblance to a cheap website that a slick piece of technology.  Web app technology is currently in its infancy but developing rapidly and being absorbed into every sector, which means there is no longer any room for unprofessional, low quality offerings.  The effectiveness of a well-designed app and its ability to sell an event to delegates and incentivise sponsors makes it an essential tool for business conference organisers.  The design of the app can be the difference between a fully attended conference attracting premium sponsors and ongoing relationships, and a poorly subscribed event that lacks essential funding.

App types and connectivity 

For those new to this kind of technology, there are two main types of apps: native apps, which are designed specifically for the type of Smartphone they are to be used on, downloaded from an app store such as the Apple or Android app stores, and installed the phone; and web apps, which are the equivalent of a mobile website.  Web apps will work on any Smartphone but have the same limitations as any other mobile website.

The main difference between the effectiveness of these two types of apps is that a web app will require either 3G or a Wi-Fi connection in order to be able to function.  Despite the fact that web apps are often thought of as cheaper, a venue looking to rely only on web apps needs to be able to provide a constant, strong and reliable 3G data or Wi-Fi connection.  A strong connection can be quickly impaired by a large number of users in one place and of course bandwidth is soon exceeded by other users in the vicinity, such as delegates from a neighbouring conference, or even guests around the pool if the event is held in a hotel.

So, the native app with its ability to function offline and enhanced functionality is often seen as the more sophisticated option, as well as the most reliable.  However, there are a number of native apps that still rely on a data connection as the content they need to access to function is stored elsewhere and must be downloaded.  Whilst connecting to social media, sending push notifications and making changes to the app content will always require a connection (although not a very substantial one in the case of the latter), there are certain elements of an events app, such as schedules, floor plans and profiles that should not require a connection to function.  The easiest way to make sure that an app works independently in this way is by turning the phone to ‘airplane mode,’ as this will remove the data connection and highlight which functions still work and which don’t.

Given this potential issue with native apps, the easiest way to ensure all bases are covered is to combine both web and native apps.

Choosing an app developer

It’s important to choose an app developer who understands the event and the level at which the app should be pitched.  The app can be an enormously effective communication tool and should be the most coveted advertising slot at the event – if it doesn’t look the part it’s unlikely to attract high-end sponsorship and the company constructing it should understand this.  The developer should also be able to deliver functions within the app that are specifically tailored to the requirements of the event – and personalised for each delegate attending – so choosing a developer with the right technical resources is key.

How is the app delivered and administrated – and by who – is also something to consider.  In particular, those developers that can provide self-service tools for customers to change the app themselves, and developers using non-technical staff tend to be able to deliver a more effective service.  A developer using only technical staff may become overwhelmed if demand from customers is too high, which means the end product may be either delivered late or to a low quality.

Finally, there is the issue of whether it is preferable to work specifically with a UK based app developer.  With some of the larger US organisations the bulk of their operations (other than the salespeople who might be UK based) are overseas, which can be difficult culturally and logistically.  With the larger, ‘factory’ type organisatons some customers can end up feeling like a small cog in a big wheel and the service received is unresponsive, despite the premium prices paid.

Where to start with an app brief

The number of platforms (i.e. the different number of phones) that the app is required to function on should be decided at the start of the process.  Iphones are extremely popular, however, not everyone has one and often in a business context Apple is usurped by other platforms.  Alongside the iPhone, Android and Blackberry platforms are also advisable, as well as a web app to cover those delegates with web enabled phones.  Consideration should also be given to developing specific apps for tablets like the iPad to ensure that the app will display on a full screen (which a phone app may not), otherwise interaction can be frustrating.  Planning for coverage of a full range of platforms will ensure that all attendees are catered for and none come away feeling frustrated – the developer should be able to offer the full range as part of one package.

Next, consider what information that will be loaded into the app and the functions it will need to have.  Be wary of apps that look great on the front page but have very little substance behind and make sure the app is designed around the content, as empty pages will indicate a lack of planning or substance. Every organisation will have different requirements and a standard template is unlikely to provide a sophisticated and full functional finished product.  The app should be personalised on a per delegate or exhibitor basis so different groups and delegates see in effect a different app relevant to their experience.  Make sure the developer has the programming capabilities to tailor the app to the design and functionality required and – crucially – be sure to find out whether this kind of non-standard template customisation will cost extra.

Consider sponsorship income

Income from sponsorship can be key to events and conferences and it’s important not to miss out on what can be a premium income stream by not conveying the right image through quality app design.  Make sure the app is designed with a premium feel and functionality.  It’s also important to retain control of the structure of the advertising in the app – whether that’s a single advert taking up a whole page, such as the front page, or smaller adverts that cost less, peppered throughout the app.  Be sure to be clear from the start about what best suits the event in question.

Ongoing app management

Updating apps – with any app, it’s particularly important to understand how it is updated, as this is the way any improvements or changes will be delivered.  If the app is going to require regular updates and will not function unless the latest one has been downloaded, a lack of a data connection can mean that the app is totally useless.  Apps requiring updates that take hours to download are often simply deleted from handsets as they are frustrating and useless.  Test out the other apps being offered by the app developer to see how long they take to install and to update and if they are sluggish opt for a different designer or a different type of app.

Using the app after the event  – a well designed, attractive and useful app will no doubt have been downloaded and frequently used by all attendees at the event.  This provides an open and ongoing communication channel that should be properly exploited.  Speak to the app developer about the ongoing opportunities for reaching people through the app – it should be possible to continue to use the app to connect with an audience by providing regularly updated content that is compelling and interesting.

Maintaining the app – try to understand the changes that can be made to the app without the developer and the changes that require their input.  Most events will remain in a state of flux right up to the last minute and the app should respond accordingly.  Time and money can often be saved by the smaller tasks being completed by the event or conference organiser – the developer should be able to provide training if necessary.  For those alterations that do require the developer it’s important understand what is required when in terms of updating deadlines and how long processes will take to complete.  Look out for ‘updates’ that are in fact ‘republishing’ (usually images or pdfs) – doing this for Apple products, for example, can take up to two weeks, so time pressures may require a different route to be taken.