by Michael J. Shapiro | June 01, 2012

More than one-third of the total U.S. population -- 117 million people -- used downloaded mobile apps as of this past March, according to market analyst comScore. Given that staggering figure, and considering the increasing number of professionals who bring smartphones or tablets to meetings, the soaring popularity of event-specific mobile apps comes as no surprise. But selecting those apps and implementing them for a meeting takes patience and persistence; as with any new technology, planners are learning best practices as they go. Based on feedback from industry experts, following are some common missteps -- and suggestions for how to avoid them.

1. APP ENVY Michelle Bruno"Many planners select mobile apps for their events just because 'everyone else' has one," points out industry expert Michelle Bruno, CMP, CEM. Bruno, a principal of Salt Lake City-based Bruno Group Signature Events and author of a buyer's guide to event apps, stresses that app use should be a business decision, not simply an experiment with cool gadgetry. "It's better to select a mobile app as a solution to an existing problem or as a tactic that aligns with the organization's strategy," she advises.

That approach will indeed produce better results, notes Kathleen Gilroy, CEO of app provider SwiftMobile in Cambridge, Mass. "In general," she says, "we believe that apps help people decide how to spend their time." Begin from that standpoint, Gilroy suggests, and decide which features will best solve that problem given the parameters and format of the specific event.

All too often, says Gilroy, event organizers contact SwiftMobile with an extensive checklist of requirements. "They have gotten a list of all the available features, and they're looking for at least 25 different things -- a Swiss army knife version of everything an app can do," she explains. "That ignores the fact that 80 percent of the engagement is going to come from 20 percent of the features."

Which features? For SwiftMobile customers, it's about the sessions. "Eighty percent of the people access event apps for session information," says Gilroy. "So how you structure and manage the sessions, provide access to them, filter them, the 'what's on now,' feature -- all the different ways to get people quickly to the information -- that's going to drive engagement with the app."

A meeting has many stakeholders, Gilroy notes, and different stakeholders might have different requirements; the trick is to get their input in advance and assess those requirements. What features will be essential to fulfill them?

The focus on features affects the design, too, adds Anthony Krumeich, CEO of San Francisco-based app developer Bloodhound. "The mobile environment has a unique look and set of capabilities," he says. "You have to think about the design. It's not the same as a regular website, and it's not the same as your printed event guide. You can't try to cram too much in there -- the number of features can be a big problem affecting design."

"Stay focused and keep it simple," advises Michelle Bruno. "Start with a handful of functions based on the event strategy or priorities, and add features as adoption grows."

3. USER-UNFRIENDLYKathleen Gilroy"Apps are highly experiential," notes Kathleen Gilroy. "It's all about usage. Nothing else really matters." Meeting attendees won't return to an app if it's too difficult to navigate or if it takes too long to find relevant information.

Bloodhound's Krumeich agrees that planners must keep ease of use in mind. "Sometimes people think attendees are going to download an app and will want to know all of the advanced things that they can do, all of the things they can accomplish, and that they're going to spend time reading the manual to learn about it," he says. "Obviously, they're not going to do that. They'll download it while they're busy doing something else. If they can quickly find the core features that they want, they're going to end up getting a lot more value out of it."

When selecting a provider, ask for engagement metrics, suggests Gilroy. "It's not about the number of apps a provider has in the iTunes Store," she says, "because meetings are all different. It's about audience engagement results." SwiftMobile builds Google Analytics into its apps so the company can track page views, number of unique users, percentage of users that access the app more than once, average number of times per day users access the app and amount of time per day each person uses the app. As app providers get more experience under their belts, they can offer reasonable benchmarks concerning attendee engagement and what to expect.

The best way to assess an app's ease of use is to test similar apps created by the vendor under consideration. "Download the apps and get the opinions of people who will be going to your event," suggests Anthony Krumeich. "If you get five people to check it out, just ask them what they think. Don't tell them about your feature checklist or expectations, just see how they liked using it. You'll get some pretty valuable feedback."

To make things easiest for attendees, says Michelle Bruno, avoid unnecessary barriers to use of the app, such as password protection or user authentication. "It kills adoption and really isn't necessary," she notes, "unless some top-secret information is being disseminated through the mobile platform."