More than a quarter of the attendees at the 2010 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market downloaded the show's inaugural mobile app for the iPhone, and Ford Motor Co. signed on to sponsor the technology as part of its multimedia presence at the show. But those successes did not deliver profit for owner Nielsen Business Media.
The expense, however, has not dissuaded show director Kenji Haroutunian from offering apps at subsequent shows.
“It's a marketing expense,” he said. While sponsorships might help offset the cost of building the app, his current interest in the medium has little to do with revenue. “I need to keep my show relevant. All trade shows are experiencing changing value propositions. Outdoor Retailer has continued to grow partly because we continue to show innovation.”
Many organizers are following that same logic, adding value for exhibitors and attendees through apps and mobile sites that provide access to exhibit guides, maps, social media feeds, digital scheduling tools and other features—regardless of the strength of sponsorship and ad sales.
That isn't to say that marketing dollars will never arrive. The Ford sponsorship lent credibility to the platform, Haroutunian said, and the app for the Winter Market found multiple exhibitors interested in banner ads and landing pages.
“We haven't transitioned into a mobile world yet,” said Cameron Bishop, CEO of Ascend Integrated Media, which expects to introduce more than 20 event-related apps through its custom content division this year. “But as the advertising base and marketers become savvy about how it is used, [mobile sites and apps are] going to become hot.”
Attendee interest is already widespread, Bishop said. “We haven't seen anywhere that it can't work. Smartphones are becoming ubiquitous.”
Aggressive audience development campaigns are key to the success of mobile tools, he said. Organizers need to use every channel available to promote the app.
Organizers also need to focus on content management, developing an integrated strategy that maintains continuity of look and feel across print, online and mobile platforms, while serving stories in a format suited to the delivery channel, according to publishers.
“One of the biggest mistakes media companies make is taking content and replicating it across all media platforms,” said Jerry Rymont, VP-Penton Food Group.
Penton introduced a Supermarket News magazine app following its launch of a 2010 FMI Show app. The successful test of the event app “gave us a strong indicator that we could move forward for our magazine, and it has strengthened our relationship with [the Food Marketing Institute] and our position in the marketplace,” Rymont said.
United Business Media's TechWeb is also evaluating mobile tools, said Alex Dunne, general manager-online for the division. “The plan is to use Interop Las Vegas and the upcoming Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston as our event tests. We'll take stock of where we are and move forward.”
He already has learned a few lessons about managing mobile functions: Make sure in-house staff can manually update features like the exhibitor listing and schedule. Sync Web and mobile agenda-building tools. Opt for features that allow attendees to query their devices for show floor directions based on manual location input rather than triangulation services, which have proven faulty in the tight confines of a convention hall.
Most of all: Build a learning curve into the development timeline.
TechWeb launched a mobile app at its U.S. Interop show two years ago and has added new functionalities each year. The company offered an iPhone app in addition to a mobile site at the Las Vegas event in May.
“We view this as an essential part of the attendee experience,” Dunne said. “I envision a day where we're not going to print anything but assume everyone has a mobile phone or device. If there is a revenue stream associated, that's wonderful, but the attendee experience is most important now.”