The Dutch company Log On was a bit ahead of its time. In 2006 it won a meetings industry technology competition for a tool that allowed conference-goers to use mobile phones to network, view the agenda, participate in polls, and more. But that was before the iPhone redefined the smartphone, before app had made it into the vernacular, and back when Facebook had a meager 7 million users (versus more than 500 million today).

A lot has changed to make the climate right for today’s tidal wave of mobile meeting guides, which, in their simplest form, aren’t so different from the pioneers’: They put the conference schedule and a list of sessions and exhibitors on attendees’ smartphones, allowing users to create personalized agendas and connect with social-media sites. The functionality gets a lot more elaborate from there (more about that here), but before your organization takes the meeting-in-your-pocket leap, start by answering a key question: Does a mobile tool make sense for the meeting?

APP-PROPRIATE FOR YOU?

First, are your attendees smartphone users? If not, your work is done—for now. However, the day is coming when almost everyone’s phone will double as a little computer and Web device. The Nielsen Co. reported in November that 28 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers now have smartphones, and among those who bought a cell phone in the past six months, 41 percent opted for a smartphone over a standard-feature phone. (Of course certain groups blow those numbers through the roof. More than two-thirds of U.S. physicians now own smartphones, according to Manhattan Research, which predicts an increase to 81 percent by 2012. And a recent study by Deloitte reports smartphone use by business travelers with an income of more than $150,000 at 63 percent.)

A second point to consider is whether your meeting design and objectives mesh with a mobile guide. The capabilities are well suited to larger meetings with multiple sessions and speakers, and most are good at connecting attendees with exhibitors, other attendees, and social media sites. They can also allow organizers to send out alerts, conduct surveys, post downloadable handouts, and get detailed stats on how the attendees use the app. But if your meeting includes, say, 150 attendees coming in for three days of chapter leadership meetings, is a mobile meeting guide worth the effort?

And since costs can be significant, a third question to ask is whether you have the budget or, probably more importantly, the sponsorship dollars to support the project. While developers tout their systems’ ability to save cash and trees by replacing printed meeting guides, most groups still want printed collateral on hand for attendees who use standard phones.

MOBILE WEB OR NATIVE APP?

To speak the language of mobile meeting guides, it’s important to understand the differences between native applications and mobile Web applications. Native apps are small pieces of software created for an iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, or other smartphone. One great benefit of a native app is that, because attendees download it onto their phones, it will work very well without Internet connectivity, which can be critical if broadband wireless Internet access at your meeting facility is spotty or nonexistent.

However, native apps aren’t interchangeable among smartphones. Unless you are in the unusual position of hosting a meeting where everyone has the same kind of phone—Macworld?—you need to create a different app for each operating system (or, more commonly, one or two native apps and a mobile Web version for everyone else).

In contrast to native apps, mobile Web applications aren’t technically apps at all. Users don’t download anything but instead navigate a mobile-optimized Web site with their smartphone. A mobile Web meeting guide tends to be much less expensive to create than a native app and more convenient since any smartphone can access it. However—and this is big—no Internet service, no meeting guide. Also, with a native app, the user interface is far more polished, and there’s none of the browser lag that can gum up the mobile Web experience. Also, native apps can be integrated with core smartphone features, such as GPS navigation, calendar, and address book.

However, the gap between native apps and mobile-optimized Web sites is expected to narrow as the Web moves toward a new development standard called html5, which among other things will allow Web-based applications to work offline and more easily integrate video playback, geo-positioning, and drag-and-drop features.

THERE’S A MEETING APP FOR THAT

To understand everything that’s possible with a mobile meeting guide, it’s helpful to think of three waves of development, says Roger Lewis, executive vice president at Austin, Texas–based Alliance Tech Inc.

First-generation guides, Lewis explains, simply list sessions and exhibitors, provide a way for attendees to create a personal agenda, view a map of the exhibit floor, and get information on the hotel and local area. A second generation of development, he says, connected attendees, incorporating social media and networking tools, such as Twitter feeds and Facebook walls for the show, user-generated photo galleries, inter-attendee mail systems, and, in the case of his company’s Intelligent Connect Mobile product, “Bump” technology that allows attendees to exchange contact information by bumping their iPhones together.

A third generation of tools, Lewis says, is giving host organizations data and feedback on the meeting experience, with session and conference evaluations, instant polling, mobile commerce, and detailed reporting on the app’s usage (tracking metrics such as click-through rates and average time spent per page, for example).

Of course, even as newer tools gain users, the original functionalities get more sophisticated. For example, some developers’ floor maps of exhibits now offer “wayfinding,” GPS-enabled technology that shows attendees the best route to the booth they’re looking for.

Kathleen Gilroy, CEO at SwiftMobile Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., and author of a new white paper on the business of mobile meeting guides (which will be published in January 2011), has researched user behavior on the apps her company creates and found that users spend the most time looking up sessions, using social networking tools, and viewing venue maps.

SCROLLING FOR DOLLARS

Just as features on a mobile meeting guide vary widely, so do costs. Native meeting apps run from about $2,500 to $40,000 per device, with most tending toward the lower end of that range. (Remember that each type of phone—iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, etc.—needs its own app.) In comparison, mobile Web guides are less expensive—ranging from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

Pricing trends are emerging, but organizers should expect to negotiate. At Core-Apps in Glen Burnie, Md., for example, pricing for its native apps has evolved to include a setup fee, a negotiable per-exhibitor fee, and a negotiated percentage of sponsorship sales, says CEO says Jay Tokosch, whose Follow Me apps have been developed for large events such as the Consumer Electronics Show and the annual meeting of ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. “Some shows absorb the costs [of the app], some shows make money,” says Tokosch.

Typically, the cost of a mobile guide is borne by the show organizer and then offset by sales of sponsorships, banner ads, and expanded exhibitor listings. (Charging attendees a modest download fee, in the range of 99 cents to $1.99, is not unheard of, but it’s rare.) Many mobile-guide developers get involved in the sale of sponsorships and exhibitor listings, which can include downloadable product information, links, photos, videos, and more.

It would be hard to find someone more bullish on mobile guides than Jacques Racine. The president and CEO of Montréal-based Sherpa Solutions accepted EIBTM’s technology award this fall for his ActivTouch mobile guides and has a 16-conference deal in place with Reed Expositions North America. Nevertheless, he’s conservative when it comes to first-year revenues from show exhibitors. “It’s important to have reasonable expectations. On average, the first year is an investment year, and the second year there’s higher adoption and more educated exhibitors.” He cites a recent show with a first-time mobile guide in which only 5 percent of exhibitors bought an expanded listing. However, 50 expanded listings for the next year’s mobile guide sold during the show and all the original exhibitors renewed. And it will help, he says, as organizers come to see apps as integral to their shows. Reed, he notes, is planning to add mobile options in exhibitor packages, rather than selling them separately.

While revenue sharing and per-exhibitor fees are common pricing schemes, some developers take a licensing approach, varying their rates based on how long the tool will be used. Others prefer charging a flat fee. Mike Foster, executive vice president, sales and marketing at Dallas-based Taptopia, says his company takes a keep-it-simple approach to both an app’s functionality and its flat-fee pricing. Taptopia includes space for banner ads and sponsor pages, but it doesn’t get involved in sales or earn revenue on ads sold. “We’re a technology company,” Foster says.

Another flat-fee approach comes from ootoWeb, which offers a low-cost, do-it-yourself, drag-and-drop tool for building basic event guides as mobile Web sites. The price is $149 per user (meeting planner), per month, with no per-meeting charges. The no-frills tool is free to ootoWeb’s attendee management clients, but can be used on its own. That arrangement is similar to a2z’s ChirpE, a mobile Web meeting guide that’s free to clients but available to nonclients for a fee.

BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME?

Whether you’re in the market for a low-budget solution that will put the meeting basics on attendees’ phones, or a full-featured communications tool, the most common advice for organizers who want to learn more or who are deciding among mobile developers is to take some guides for a test drive. (At the iTunes store, for example, there are easily 100 free conference apps.) How’s the navigation? What do the expanded listing templates look like? Borrow some phones and compare the iPhone experience to the Android experience to the mobile Web. Take the app on a site inspection: How well does it function inside your meeting venue?

And get members’ reactions before you build. What kinds of phones are they using? Are they ready to make the switch from paper floor maps to digital screens? Is downloading product data preferable to picking it up in the booth? Is easy access to Twitter and Facebook a plus or a nonissue?

Amanda Wegryn, marketing consultant in the Penton Custom Solutions department at Penton Media (Association Meetings’ parent company), has worked on five conference apps. Conference producers, she says, need to be ready to market the app to attendees. Her team pushes downloads through dedicated e-mails blasts, advertising on industry and show Web sites, print advertising, and on-site promotion at the show.

Show sponsors, Wegryn notes, also have to consider whether they have the staff available to go out and sell app advertising and sponsorships, or whether they’ll look for a partner—the app developer or a third party—to handle it.

Of course, the advertisers may come looking for you. SwiftMobile’s Gilroy foresees the day when big advertisers, eager to capture the eyes of targeted vertical audiences, will be knocking on associations’ doors eager to sponsor an app. It’s one way advertisers can be sure their message is in attendees’ pockets throughout—as well as before and after—a show.

Related links:

Directory of Mobile Meeting Guide Developers

What Mobile Meeting Guides Can Do: 36 Features

10 Questions for Mobile Meeting Guide Developers