As more brands investigate the possibilities offered by smartphone apps and QR codes, Morag Cuddeford Jones investigates how they could transform the exhibitions industry.
Developments in mobile technology promise to help brands stand out from the crowd at exhibitions and trade shows. Companies such as CrowdCompass in the US and GenieMobile’s EventGenie are cutting through the clutter, creating apps that serve as virtual programmes, instant messaging services and customer relationship managers.
Some of these apps, such as GenieMobile’s creation for the 100% Design show, take on different roles depending on the event stage. They act as a pre-registration vehicle and digital magazine pre-event, a conference programme and networking tool during the show and a post-event feedback mechanism.
Even though 100% Design is not yet under way, endorsements of the app are already coming in. Exhibitor Hanex UK posted this on Twitter: “Just downloaded the @designlondon app, absolutely brilliant. I recommend to all attending/exhibiting or even if you’re design mad.”
Another fan of apps is Erv Jones, director of marketing and logistics at IBM Retail User Group, which held its annual conference in May.
Jones initially believed that putting an app together would be more trouble than it was worth. “We had less than five weeks to go before the event when a couple of people on the board suggested getting an app ready. I tried to talk them out of it. It was too close to the conference and, worse still, I’d probably end up having to organise it all,” he recalls.
However, finally convinced to use CrowdCompass, Jones admits that he was happy to be proved wrong. “I had to buy an iPhone just to do this experiment and from the first day of the conference with the app I wondered how I ever got by without this.”
He points out that the app didn’t supplant the paper programmes or point-of-sale materials, but says: “Information is there instantly and you can make changes very quickly. It keeps the whole thing very current. And it saves you reprinting 500 agendas.”
Like the 100% Design download, the app developed for CeBIT the giant German technology exhibition also performed a number of functions, including a booking service and exhibition programme. Annika Roetz, internet and new media project manager at CeBIT, explains: “The app has all sorts of functions that add real value for the visitor. It tracks the buses that take you round the fair, suggests accommodation and automatically updates the exhibitor product and programme data when users sync with the website.”
The app also helped delegates find exhibitors of interest among the 8,000 stands displaying their products and services at the trade fair, which was showcasing digital IT and telecommunications solutions.
However, reviews of the CeBIT2go app were not resoundingly positive. In fact, it barely scraped two stars on reviews of both the Android and iPhone versions. General criticisms were that its 40MB size was too large and that it lacked the system integrity needed to process the actions it promised. The most frequent criticism was that it appeared to crash constantly.
CeBIT’s Roetz admits that it is the technology not the content that remains the biggest hurdle: “The biggest challenge for our technical supporter is making the mobile website and app work on different smartphones with different displays and operating systems.”
Indeed, concerns about making the best use of the technology available mean that apps are still some way off being a must-have exhibition accessory. “I haven’t seen anyone using QR codes as a way of communicating at events. The event industry is not cutting edge,” states Peter Kerwood, marketing director of Altitude, an event and restaurant space in London’s Millbank Tower.
Jamie Harrison, emarketing manager at Reed Exhibitions, which runs 100% Design, claims that QR codes have potential. “There is so much you can do with QR codes that there’s the risk of overkill. Yes, visitors will be able to scan stands and exhibitors can track leads. QR codes will be essential in the next couple of years but they are not being used intelligently at the moment,” he says.
Altitude has been using QR codes across all of its marketing materials to emphasise the experiential nature of its offering. “We can take what would normally be flat and make it fully interactive,” Kerwood claims. The venue’s windows have been tagged with QR codes hovering over London landmarks so that visitors can interact with the skyline around them. Kerwood has also looked into using location-based apps such as Foursquare and sound uploading website AudioBoo to bring a new dimension to his brand marketing.
Jones at IBM also believes there is a lot more that apps and technology can deliver to event organisers and visitors. “There was so much we didn’t have time to integrate this year, such as being able to scan exhibitors or developing a method for messaging across the event and afterwards. It’s more than just an app for the event, it’s become a way of staying in touch all year round.”
Rather than being a gimmick, apps are an exhibition tool still in the development stage. Kerwood claims Altitude’s app is crucial to the success of his venue: “QR isn’t just a fun way of showing Big Ben. We use them on feedback forms and our clients can scan them for my personal email address. We believe in this so much we’ve even got them in the toilets.”
And as the pace of development picks up, it is more than likely that the belief in mobile technology shown by Jones and Kerwood will help brands update their marketing strategies.
1 Web or native app? Native (downloaded to the phone) is more expensive, but a web app is more like a mobile-optimised site and requires constant web access to work.
2 Web access Despite being downloaded, many native apps still need internet access to function properly. Will your design deliver value offline?
3 Supplier delivery On-time delivery is crucial with immovable events such as exhibitions. Will your vendor be able to supply and service your app if their books are full?
4 Maps Image-based maps work well for small shows but large ones cannot deliver this way and you will drive the user back to the paper catalogue.
5 Be inclusive Apple’s iPhone may be one of the most popular models for the general public but many business smartphones are BlackBerry or Android-based. You need to develop for as wide a range of technologies as possible.
6 Sponsorship Can you sell to more than just one company without cluttering up an already small screen? Examine how to derive revenue without rendering the app unusable.
7 After the event The app is an investment in time and money but also a relationship with all the stakeholders. Look at how the app can remain current through changing content and contact with users.
8 Updates Understand how these happen and how you can make them trouble-free. Requiring a large update with good web access in the middle of a busy event could render the app useless.
9 Appearance Reflect the event’s tone and feel throughout the app and not just the front page. Be consistent with the information. Only publish detailed profiles if the information is available for every exhibitor.
10 Self-service Items may need to be changed frequently during an event. Keep it simple and you won’t have to keep going back to the vendor for costly alterations.
Marketing communications manager
Automated Packaging Systems
We will be embracing new technologies such as QR codes at the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association show at the NEC in Birmingham at the end of this month.
Brands have got to think about the environment they’re in. Why direct prospective customers to a website when they’ve already got everything there in front of them? Our plan is to have nine packaging machines with a QR code on them, which when scanned will generate an email to be sent to me. In one action, I will know which machine the customer is interested in, when they saw it and the immediacy of the communication means they won’t have forgotten all the questions they wanted to ask me five minutes after leaving our stand.
I was initially a bit wary about using these codes. I even researched contacts via LinkedIn to tell me their experiences of how much value it would add or whether the potential for technological failure would wipe out any gain. The important thing here is that it is experimental, so if it only generates one response I’ll be happy.
Over the years we’ve changed our marketing strategy as new, more effective techniques have come to light. Using QR codes is relatively inexpensive. You can find online code generators that provide basic email functionality for free. But we’re not going to get rid of the more traditional paper-based methods such as catalogues or business cards.
If this works, we will integrate it more into our standard marketing programme. We’ve been looking into it for nine months and couldn’t see anyone else in our space doing this. We hope that by experimenting with new techniques and technologies, it will put us as a company, working in a pretty traditional market, in a different light. By using experiential technology, we are automatically more innovative.
brand in the spotlight
Q&A Jamie Harrison
Reed Exhibitions, which runs 100% Design
Marketing Week (MW)/: What attracted you to creating an app for 100% Design?
Jamie Harrison (JH): Research last year revealed that the majority of our audience had some kind of smartphone. We also knew that they were receptive to apps, particularly one that made planning their day at the event so much easier.
MW: Part of the joy of an exhibition is chancing upon something unexpected. Will such access to information ruin the spontaneity and spirit of discovery?
JH: That clearly is an important part of the event. We believe that visitors come in, walk round and get a feel for the place first before they start looking to plan who and what they will see. The app is a logical way of getting closer to our audience.
MW: How has the app affected the run-up to the event?
JH: We’ve had several hundred pre-registrations come to us directly from it, which is encouraging but there is no way of knowing whether they would have registered anyway by some other means.
MW: Apps and other new technologies are still at risk from failure and that is a risk for your brand. How do you mitigate this?
JH: The reality is that the technology is not ready yet and to try and bypass the issues could be very costly. We’re aware that by putting too much reliance on mobile technology you open your users up to costly data roaming charges, or the physical barriers in the exhibition space could simply block the signal altogether.
MW: Is there a solid business case for apps, codes and the like?
JH: We’re in this because it’s got to be the next generation. Everything changes daily, hourly at an event and paper can’t stay current. But while we use it because it’s there, it has to demonstrate its value.