Still Thinking Like a Desk-Topper?
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Look at your delegates. If they're not poking and prodding an iPad or taking photos and video with their smartphones, I'd be surprised. In 2011, smartphone and tablet sales are surpassing desktop and laptop computers for the first time. We live in a mobile world, so be prepared.
How We Connect
Event-goers now communicate with several kinds of devices. Some still use laptops, but many more are operating with a mix of tablet (iPad or the like) and/or smartphone. More often than not, people "live blog" or "live tweet," so that they can share experiences as they happen, instead of after the fact.
Let There Be Wi-Fi
Despite all the cellular data plans these days, offering Wi-Fi is still imperative. Depending on venue, cellular signals often don't reach meeting areas, and in today's ultra-connected world, antsy conference-goers will sneak out of sessions to connect to see what they've missed. So, give 'em Wi-Fi—good, solid, robust Wi-Fi—and get them to stay seated longer.
A quick technology note: Smartphones have Wi-Fi capabilities, so don't assume that 500 delegates will use 300 connections. Smartphones and tablets connect to those signals, with or without owner intent. So, 500 delegates might well launch 1,500 attempts to connect to your event routers. I've seen this challenge cripple events, with even the most tech-savvy teams working on execution.
Oh, and provide power strips for people to use. I know it's expensive, but I've even seen exhibitors spring for extra power to create a "recharging station."
Conference on the Go
Websites detect the browsers trying to access them. Because of this, you can create a version of your event site that's optimized for mobile viewing without a whole lot of hassle. I built Chrisbrogan.com on WordPress and used WP-Touch, a plug-in that optimizes the site automatically. Build a site in a readable format that improves your constituency's experience from a mobile device.
The same is true for email. Delegates read email from their mobile devices, often in between other tasks. Create a non-HTML formatted version of your email newsletters and simpler, briefer emails with one call-to-action per message. Your delegates see these on a three-inch screen; thousands of words won't receive the same attention as a 200-word brief.
Bring on the Event App
Depending on the event, consider building an event application. There are low-cost tools available to help you create rudimentary iPhone and Android apps, and there are Web firms that create applications for reasonable prices. These apps should contain pertinent information for delegates, and, depending on the type of event, you might even find a way to better integrate your sponsor's experience.
I've seen "egg hunt" applications (where people visit sponsors, enter codes posted at booths and unlock prizes) and "birds of a feather" applications (where like-minded individuals could find each other). Just avoid any "Swiss army" applications that do "everything." People won't live and breathe your app, no matter what you spent on it or how proud you are that it matches your website design.
In a room full of smartphones and tablets, encourage people to extend their relationships online. Whether it's on your own event social network, a LinkedIn group or a Facebook community page, urge delegates to connect early in the event and stay connected after.
The iPad 2 has built-in video, and most smartphones do as well. Do interviews in the halls. Look for testimonials. Find ways to create interesting media for the halls between sessions. Gather reaction pieces and interview bits for private consumption.
Meanwhile, help your exhibitors understand the power of video. Help them film reactions to products and services. Video can serve as great social proof later (with permission, of course).
Don't Bite Off Too Much
If you aren't ready to create an event app, don't. If you're not ready to build a mobile site, don't. Work with what you have, and note where technology is leading. It's not okay to ignore mobile tech or its impact on events, but it's fine to work your way through it a little at a time. One+
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