The Hidden Psychology of Successful Event Apps

psychologyWe all know someone with an email habit – or even an email addiction. It’s the guy at dinner, peeking down into the glowing abyss below. It’s the woman in the meeting who says, “Can you repeat the question?” as she shuffles her iPhone into her handbag.

There are very few times in my long career, though, where any email was THAT urgent. So, why do we wake up in the night and frantically grab for the nearest mobile device?

As it turns out, it’s simple psychology – and understanding it may be the key to making your next event app a big success.

In the 1950s, a pair of psychologists uncovered the area of the brain associated with rewards – from good food to gambling wins to sex. It’s called Nucleus Accumbens, and when people find an action that will activate it, they will go without food and water and even endure pain to perform that action over and over again.

Another study showed, however, that it was not actually the reward that triggered the pleasure center. Rather, it was the need to alleviate the craving for the reward.

Our email addict checks her email because she wants to feel needed, connected and valuable. That’s the reward. But, it’s the action of checking her email that alleviates the craving – even when the reward doesn’t come.

What does this psychological response mean for your apps?

While there are many psychological building blocks behind habit forming event apps, the most important is probably the concept of variable rewards.

Successful event apps don’t force people to use them; they create experiences people badly WANT to use. In short, they relieve one or more of your audience’s cravings.

To understand what rewards will keep your audience coming back for more, however, comes down to understanding your audience. We’re all programed to “seek rewards that make us feel accepted, important and included,” according to Nir Eyal, author of the excellent book “Hooked.”

Those are all very important motivators for event attendees, but to understand them better we’ll break rewards down into the three categories Eyal outlines in his book: The Tribe, The Self and The Hunt.

The TribeRewards of the tribe are social rewards that come from a feeling of connectedness between people, one of the cornerstones of every event. Event apps extend that benefit into the digital world, using tactics like these…

  • New people you know – Showing your attendees who they know at the event and giving them the tools to reconnect before and during that event. Train them early and often that the app will show them new people they might know, and they’ll come back in search of those connections.
  • Discussion and collaboration – There’s a reason people turn to apps when they’re lonely. They want to feel connected. Apps that incorporate discussions on key topics and fuel collaboration around problems help people feel connected to their community no matter where they are in the world. An attendee’s reward is the feedback on the discussion, including likes, comments and shares, which build after a post, bringing them back again and again.
  • Meeting new people – People want to extend their networks. Show them recommendations of new people to meet, based on their interests, and give them the tools to communicate with those people and set up meetings. This combination of new networking opportunities and the messages that follow create a powerful variable reward cycle.

The Hunt – Rewards of the hunt focus on the search for resources and information, playing on an ancient human instinct to “hunt” for what we need to survive. Again, this reward is part of almost every event, but apps give hunters new tools.

  • Exclusive content – While people come to your event for live content they can’t find anywhere else, they come to your app for digital content of the same distinction. Thread proprietary documents, videos and live discussions through the app, and you’ll have people hunting for more. This can be particularly effective at building the app habit before the event with “new releases” as you build toward event day.
  • Time-Sensitive Updates – It’s hard to resist those little red alerts on your phone. They tell you that new information has surfaced, waiting for you to discover it. Use broadcast messages from your organization, your speakers and even sponsors to train your audience that the app gives them first-look access to the latest information – and that they should check it often for more.
  • Activity Feeds – Put your event content to work for you by constantly updating your app feed with news, photos and relevant links. Our customers often use their Twitter handle to do this and compliment it with a feed of company or event news. There’s nothing more addictive to app users, than knowing new, exciting content is one “pull down” away.

The Self – Motivated by intrinsic rewards, we are programmed to complete and master things to reward the self. Your app can help your audience do this in several ways:

  • Badges and achievements – You don’t have to be a gamer to like achievements. People will work tirelessly to complete tasks and earn status in apps. Provide “networker” badges for your most connected attendees or “influencer” badges for the people who engage in the most discussions or post on social media more often.
  • Level of completion – Ever notice how your LinkedIn Profile is never 100% complete? LinkedIn knows that people want to accomplish completion. On your apps, you can feed off this need by giving users a path to complete the things that make your app valuable, whether that’s finishing a profile or setting up meetings. The added bonus here is that when people invest time in something, like your app, they see more value in it.
  • Gamification – While it may be a hot buzzword, point- or prize-driven, “gamification” is proven to reward the self. We are naturally programmed to be a bit competitive – and to demonstrate, if only to ourselves, competence. By building small challenges like trivia or scavenger hunts into your app you incentivize the behaviors you want to encourage at your events – and keep people coming back to the app for more.
What rewards will work for your app?

Your app may use rewards in one or all of these four categories. The key to selecting which rewards might work for your audience comes down to one simple thing: You need to understand what really matters to the people that come to your event.

Do people want to feel connected? Do they want to be recognized by their community? Or, are they hunting for new knowledge?

Find out what rewards your audience. Then, give it to them.

Happy planning,

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