What do qualifiers find most engaging at your incentive conferences? Half the time you might think it’s their own smartphones. Go with it. Give them reasons to pull out those iPhones, Droids, and BlackBerries and engage with the meeting, the company, and each other, by creating a mobile meeting app.

Consider: The average smartphone owner spends more time using apps on that phone than talking on it, reports mobile research firm Zokem. And by 2013, according to research from Gartner, more people will access the Web via mobile devices than with laptops. “It’s a sea shift,” says Aron Ezra, CEO of MacroView Labs, a mobile app developer based in San Francisco. “Over the next 10 years, mobile will become the primary way we consume media. It’s already happening.”

So, let’s start at the beginning. A mobile application, or “mobile app,” is a piece of software that lets a user perform some task using his or her smartphone. In the meeting realm, it could be finding a breakout room or completing a session evaluation.

Native App: If the user has downloaded the app software onto a smartphone, then she’s using a “native” app. Mobile Web App: If, instead, the user gets to the app’s features via a Web site, she's using a mobile Web app.

When you are deciding which is right for you, consider that a mobile Web app requires Internet access, so if you have no connection, you have no app. On the other hand, a native app is specific to the device, so unless you’re handing out iPads to everyone (not a crazy idea—they are commonly rented), you’ll need to create, and pay for, a separate app for iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerries. (Or, you could create an app for the smartphone that is most popular with your group, and then have a Web app available for everyone else, including those with no smartphone at all.)

What’s in an App, Anyway?

Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Real-time agenda
  • Personalized agenda
  • Speaker and session info
  • Live Q&A during presentations, for attendees who have questions but are hesitant to speak up
  • Games that boost interactivity or reinforce corporate messaging
  • Reminders
  • Destination guides
  • Calendar
  • Maps
  • Attendee directory
  • Attendee messaging
  • Feedback and ratings
  • Location-aware push notifications—Your attendee sees “Drop by the hospitality suite” if he is nearby at the time it’s open.
  • Password-protected content—Qualifiers at different levels could access different features.
  • Augmented reality—An attendee uses her phone's camera to view the hotel with overlaid directions and find her next session, the nearest bathroom, or even use the feature in a scavenger hunt.
  • Social media—Attendees can take photos with their phones and instantly post them on Facebook or Twitter, or post a comment on the conference’s social media page right from the app.
  • What'll It Cost Me?

    You will work with a developer to create your app. Payment to a developer such as MacroView Labs can be a one-time sum or a monthly or yearly subscription fee. A subscription allows for continual updates. If you hold the same meeting annually, you keep the app structure in place and simply refresh the content.

    Native meeting apps can cost $2,500 to $50,000, depending on complexity. Mobile Web apps can be much less expensive. It depends on what you’re after: a low-budget solution that puts meeting basics on attendees’ phones, or a full-featured communications tool you’ll use year after year.

    Eight Steps to a Winning Mobile Meeting App

    MacroView helps companies to create their “mobile ecosystems,” as CEO Aron Ezra puts it, reaching prospects, employees, customers, and vendors. For your first-ever mobile meeting app, he offers this advice:

    1. Start early. Ezra recommends three months' lead time: That’s eight weeks to create the app, including rigorous testing and time to get approval from app stores, plus four weeks to promote it.

    2. Determine your primary goal. This will dictate how your app is structured and what features are included. An app based around "delivering first-class service" will look different from an app whose primary goal is "getting additional leads."

    3. Don’t duplicate your Web site. Think about how your people behave in the mobile world. Pre-event, the typical user goes to your event Web site to see the location, agenda, and dates. On site, however, they want to know where their sessions are and how to get to the lobby from the ballroom. Your app should take advantage of the phone’s capabilities, including the GPS, camera, and QR-code reader, to create a customized experience.

    4. Balance where the app content comes from. Allowing the user to download everything at once makes your app always usable, but it’s also static. “It’s like going to print,” Ezra says. On the other hand, if everything has to be downloaded from a server each time a user wants to do something, they can be frustrated by weak signals or slow transmission rates. Ezra’s solution is a hybrid, which requires using a content management system, or CMS. Users download the framework, but you are able to change content as needed and push it out to all users. The app is continually “checking in” with the server, and updating occurs automatically.

    5. Let the app pay for itself—but not by charging users! Find a sponsor for the entire app, or sell ads. Are there local merchants who might want to reach your attendees? “These apps can be very profitable,” Ezra says. Factor in savings from not printing or shipping agendas.

    6. Then again, don’t make it about sales. You want to showcase sponsors, but you don’t want an app that looks like an ad.

    7. Don’t annoy your attendees. What’s annoying? A confusing user interface, too many required steps, notifications that seem like spam instead of offering important information, or incorrect content. Know your people, make the content relevant to them, and don’t bury critical info.

    8. Let your imagination loose. “We are only in the foothills of this technology,” Ezra says. “There is a lot more innovation to come.” So don’t look only at what others have done. Explore what is possible.

    Promote, Promote, Promote

    Once you create your app, you need to do some work to get people using it. Here are Ezra’s suggestions:

    1. Make users evangelists. Offer useful tools such as QR-code readers, check-in services, social media, photos, videos, and special offers that encourage users to share the app with their friends, colleagues, and social networks.

    2. Make people want to play with your app. In addition to usefulness, you need something fun. How about a trivia game about senior leaders? Ask your developer what other companies have done to increase engagement with their apps.

    3. Talk it up early. Start your promo work one month out, so attendees aren’t hearing about your app for the first time at registration. At your event Web site, redirect smartphone users to a mobile Web site. (You can include a pop-up that says, “Hey, I see you are on a smartphone, click to download our iPhone app.”)

    4. Train registration staff. They should be able to describe the usefulness of the app to attendees, and tell them how to access it. Also, use lots of on-site signage.