Your attendees are going to use an app anyway — so why not give them yours?

Recently I was attending an international conference around my area. This was a conference of a large stature and with quite notable guests and interesting panelists and for which attendees had paid a rather large amount to attend. As an attendee, I was interested in what the presenters had to say, but also in observing attendees and what they do with their time before, during and after a talk.

“Our attendees are not very tech savvy / too old / not interested” is something that I’ve heard quite a few times from organizers when they think about providing high-tech tools to their attendees, and I was interested in seeing for myself what really happens and how attendees spend their time. Are people actually using smartphones during the events? Or are they so engrossed in the subject being presented that they can’t bring themselves to take their eyes off stage?

Here are a few things I noted, which I think probably resonate at all kinds of conferences and events:

  • Many, many people walk around with a conference program in one hand and a smartphone in the other hand. Is this because they want to chat with their IM contacts at the same time as they are figuring out where they want to go next? Or is this because they wanted a program but an electronic one wasn’t available?
  • It happened more than a few times that a speaker referred the audience to information online right on the spot. “I don’t have time to go over Joe’s full bio right now because I’ll use up all of our time, but rest assured that he’s a great guy, have a look on our conference website and you’ll be blown away!” This kind of comment, of course, prompted those interested into immediately stopping their listening activity and switching back to their phone to see exactly who was this guest on stage.
  • People are always circling and scribbling stuff on the program, which you could argue is one reason paper is great. In the other hand, paper is easier to lose and seems to have less of a permanence these days, where searching on our devices seems to be the default behavior when we need to get back to things.

In all cases, you won’t be surprised, people keep taking mental pauses from what’s being presented and getting back to their phone, some with a semi-hiding gesture, as though they feel guilty having paid a lot of money for attending this event while not actually listening in the moment.