With the rise of the chatbot and the abundant availability of event apps, today’s event planner is left with some key questions: Which of these will help provide a more engaging event experience for their delegates? Will chatbots replace apps at events?  What are the pros and cons of each when it comes to engaging attendees?  And what kind of considerations should events be taking into account when deciding which one to use?

What is a Chatbot?

Of all the ways to describe a chatbot this is a nice simple definition taken courtesy of G2 Crowd. They say: “A chatbot is a piece of software that is either pre-programmed or powered by AI to hold conversations with human users. These interactions are often text based, but through conversational interfaces they can occur vocally as well.”

Many of us are now used to having questions pop up as we search a web page. We’re also familiar with asking questions to digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa. This is chatbot technology at work.

But just how popular are chatbots? They are definitely an emerging trend in the events space. You can take a look at the SXSW event last year when ‘Abby’ the chatbot provided automated concierge-style assistance on demand by answering more than 56,000 questions from attendees.  The questions ranged from “What time is Joe Biden speaking?” to “What hip-hop artists are playing on Wednesday?” and “Where can I find tacos?”

In fact, all sorts of questions can be asked of chatbots when it comes to events. What session is next, where are the toilets and where can I find food are some examples. ‘Fred’ was the chatbot used at the Wimbledon tennis championships and people asked questions like where they could go to find drinks and whether Wimbledon towels were on sale and if so, where.

It is argued that one of the reasons that chatbots are set to become even more popular in our industry is because essentially, people tend to be lazy. This is a view expressed in the Meeting Professional article – “Meet your new digital event staff, chatbot assistants.” The point is that people don’t want to look for information even if it’s in their hand. They ask their device a question and expect an immediate response.

Laziness may be a bit harsh but if this is the way in which people are going about their day to day lives then when they become delegates at events, it should come as no surprise that they’d expect (or prefer) to use their devices at the event in the same way as they would at home.

Advantages of Events Chatbots:

  • Delegates only need a phone and a basic knowledge of text messaging.
  • No downloads required.
  • Communication via text is efficient and easy, with high open rates.
  • Questions posed receive immediate responses. If a question is unclear to a chatbot then a human can intervene to help answers.
  • Chatbots are always on, offering 24/7 support directly to delegates.

Disadvantages of Event Chatbots:

  • A chatbot needs to be asked questions that are phrased correctly.
  • The chatbot may not have the answer to the question raised if it’s not in the database of questions and responses – so there will inevitably be the need for human intervention.
  • Anything beyond a simple chat requires the user to move between text messaging and external programs or sites. For example, if your attendee wants to browse a speaker’s profile, the chatbot may be able to provide the link, but in order to access the information, the user must click to a different site. Depending on what the attendee is looking for, this can get messy in a very short space of time.
  • Chatbots (presently) cannot offer the same advanced features as event apps. Here we are thinking of personalisation, advanced network and gamification. Having said that they do appear to be catching up fast.

Take personalisation, for example, and our chatbot Abby. The bot was programmed with the entire event database, which included information on the more than 6,000 sessions and 600 venues, as well as input from SXSW help desk staff regarding the most common questions they receive. With all of that information as a delegate you will feel you are getting a personalised response, whatever your question.

Do Event Apps Really Need an Introduction?

Event apps have been with us for a while now but it’s worth taking a quick look at them again especially when our new kid on the block, the chatbot (Abby, Fred and others) is making such noise.

Event apps are now the norm at major conferences, exhibitions and other similar events. In fact, not only are they expected, sometimes they are the only way in which delegates can find information.

Whenever there are multiple sessions, several break out rooms and competing options for a delegate’s attention, an event app is a useful tool to navigate what’s important. If an attendee uses an app to ensure that they see who they are most interested in, hear talks on the topics most relevant to them and therefore makes the most of their time, they are more likely to return to the event next year and recommend it to others. The app itself can also be the platform by which they engage with speakers (ex. polls) or make recommendations to their networks via links to social media channels.

Read: 10 Reasons Why Your Attendees Did NOT Use Your Event App

Advantages of Event Apps:

  • Event apps offer more advanced features and functionality than chatbots – from personalised schedules and session details to presentations, floorplans, maps, exhibitor info etc.
  • They can help boost attendee participation and engagement with push notifications, live polls, speaker profiles, note-taking, surveys and social media
  • All information is captured in one spot, within the app
  • Provide lead retrieval tools and real-time analytics
  • Enables emerging tech like facial recognition and gamification

Disadvantages of Event Apps:

  • Downloading of the event app is required. Some delegates are reluctant or unable to do this. Either because they don’t want to as it uses their data allowance or because their employer will not allow them to (due to data security concerns).
  • No personal touch that comes from engaging with a chatbot.
  • Information is available on the app but the delegate may have to search for it.
  • No immediate response to questions that a delegate has.

Key Considerations

Whether you use an event app or a chatbot, both help with the common goal of increasing engagement with your delegates.  Both have similar security and GDPR considerations that event planners need to think about. Both also require a level of time and energy on the part of the event planner to ensure that the technology works and beneficially impacts the delegate experience.


Your event app can have big security implications when it comes to the safety of your attendee data! 

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Before deciding on how you can further improve the delegate experience it is worth answering the following questions as objectively as possible. Once you do that you will be able to make informed decisions that align with your overall organisational strategy.

  1. Does my event need an event app or chatbot (or both)?
  2. If I didn’t have any of this technology, would the event still be a success?
  3. What value is this technology really bringing or is it a distraction and therefore detrimental to the delegate experience?

Conclusion

Often, event tech trends tend to follow consumer tech trends. Siri launched in 2011, Alexa in 2014 and both are now mainstream. But consumers are still using apps to order food, buy merchandise and secure rides. In the same way that Siri and Alexa didn’t replace consumer apps, it is not expected that chatbots will replace event apps.

Despite potential app fatigue with some delegates, apps continue to evolve and keep attendees engaged. And even though chatbots are gaining a lot of ground, events still want new experiences and more functionality which cannot be provided by a chatbot.  And it doesn’t have to be either or. Chatbots can also work in tandem with event apps, ranging from full integration to allowing the two to run side-by-side. Just remember whatever you decide, always look at your event objectives and ask yourself, how will this improve my delegate’s experience?

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