Should You Mobilize Your Meeting or Conference Data?

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Jason C. Levine
Creating effective web sites since 1993


I am the Vice President for Technology at a company you've never heard of that runs scientific conferences and trade shows for not-for-profit organizations.  As soon as Apple opened the App Store after the release of the first generation iPhone, I was besieged by requests to create apps for conferences and have now spent a very long time carefully going through the various options available. As my clients have limited budgets for their meeting IT services, I had to take a very hard look at costs, benefits, and drawbacks of apps and mobile web sites and I'd like to share my experience with the community here.  This will be a series of articles that touch on the whole process of providing mobile access to your conference data and future articles will go into great detail on app development and mobile web development. This first article will attempt to take the 10,000-foot view and address some common questions we hear from clients when we try to convince them that mobile development is worth their while.

Client: Can we afford an app and/or mobile-friendly meeting web site?

Given the cost of printing program books, flyers, your inability to change something once it has gone to print and the impact of all of that paper on the environment it make good sense to take that budget and throw it at mobile development.  In my experience, even a small (~300 attendees) scientific conference's print run can cost many thousands of dollars and generate a program book that is several hundred pages in length.  Larger conferences have exponentially larger print budgets (well into tens of thousands of dollars) and thus could get even more bang for their buck from going electronic and mobile.  The cost of mobile development is fixed no matter how many people download the app or access the web site and the “number of pages” isn't really relevant to the cost.  Smaller conferences can actually publish more information for the same overall expense by concentrating on mobile development.  This does lead to a discussion of going full paperless vs. some limited printing so the Luddites have something to read too.  I'm happy to have that debate in the comments section below.

Conscientious organizers also arrange for recycling of unused paper at the venue and frequently that comes at a cost to the conference as well.  Obviously, going full paperless will remove that cost and other associated trash collection costs if the venue charges for those services separately (and many do).

Client: What other advantages will I get from an app or mobile web site?

Aside from the cost savings there are several other compelling reasons to mobilize your conference data.  

First and foremost, the mobile web version of this stuff makes FANTASTIC search engine bait.  It is fresh, relevant to your organization's mission, and stuffed with keywords and long-tail phrases.  Publishing even the most basic conference information should result in a big kick to impressions and inbound users and you should find interest and attendance increasing.

Almost as important is that a printed conference program or slide deck is dead as soon as it prints.  If there are any changes you either have to live with your materials being incorrect or publish a “changes” supplement just before the meeting begins and even that can be rendered useless if there are more last-minute changes.  By contrast, you should be able to update a meeting app (and can absolutely update a web site) with up-to-the-minute changes or revisions ensuring your attendees have access to the most recent data.  It's also a lot easier to display rich media materials (images, videos, PowerPoint slides) electronically than in printed form (see my “How Do I Print A Video” article, coming soon). Electronic content typically has one more huge advantage over print...it's searchable.  Instead of thumbing through index pages in the back of a book hoping to find a reference to a talk you wanted to hear, having an app/web site should allow you to just search for it and instantly see all of the information available.

If you run a conference that has a trade show or exhibit hall, your exhibitors will absolutely love you if you allow attendees to search the trade show participants by name or product.  This brings more traffic onto the trade show floor and makes your exhibitors more likely to exhibit with you again.  If you have the ability, you can even sell enhanced listing features like links or logo placement for additional fees.

Apps (and mobile web but not quite as much) also carry a “buzz” factor that exists but is hard to nail down in a quantitative fashion.  My anecdotal experience for non-IT conferences (IT specific populations EXPECT an app/mobile web so that calculus is different) is that having an app legitimizes the conference and makes it seem that the organizing group is “cutting-edge” and it does seem to provide a morale boost for the attendees.  I have witnessed many world-class surgeons acting like kids with a shiny new toy as they demo their conference app or mobile site for their friends while standing in lines or waiting for a talk to begin and recruit others to download the app or access the site.  Conferences actually depend a great deal on this sort of positive buzz and energy.  It affects the ratings in post-meeting evaluations which makes the organizers look and feel good and can also affect attendance at future conferences as people want to be a part of positive, fun things again.  Finally, it allows non-attendees a window on the conference to see what they are missing and, if social networking is embedded, a way to engage with attendees who will reinforce what a wonderful time is being had. All of this adds up to better attendance and repeat business for the planners.

Your conference materials are automatically archived and available as long as you are willing to keep the app in the app stores or the web content up.  This makes it easy for new attendees to go back in time and see past presentation information and use it to make an informed decision about whether to spend money on your conference in the future.  The more thoughtful readers will note that this means you should have the best possible app or site you can from year-to-year since it's likely to always be out on display.

Finally, it can increase the social interactions of your attendees in positive ways.  A well-designed app and mobile web solution will integrate Twitter and Facebook functionality and allow attendees to spread your information via their social networks.  This is all free marketing for your meeting and organization and you should be doing everything in your power to encourage it.  Good developers can also create mechanisms to allow attendees to interact with speakers and moderators via the mobile solution which enriches your Question and Answer portions of the meeting.  People who are too shy to approach a microphone or who don't have a good grasp on the spoken language at the conference can submit their questions electronically and give the panels more choices for conversation starters.  If you can get your attendees to Tweet about your conference using a pre-defined hashtag you will create dozens or hundreds of brand evangelists that can promote you and will alert people to interesting content that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Client: So you're saying we really need to have mobile-specific development?

Based on the points above there should be no question as to IF you should have a mobile presence for your conference in this day and age. The only question would be what kind.  Nearly everyone is walking around with some sort of smart phone that is, at a minimum, capable of accessing web sites.  A majority of that majority has a device capable of running apps and nearly everyone prefers to carry a phone or tablet instead of multiple program books, syllabi, flyers and other assorted swag that conference planners generate to justify their existence.  Having your meeting content available for mobile devices and taking advantage of that built-in market is just smart.  It can be cost-effective, useful, and enhance the attendee experience in many ways.

Thank you for reading.  If you have any questions or want to discuss a point I made above, please leave a comment for me below.
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