Does Your Conference (Or Church, For That Matter) Really Need A Mobile App?

They seem to be all the rage nowadays: the mobile app. Mobiles apps exist for any and every company, service, or product you can imagine, from Netflix to the NCAA, Walmart to the Washington Post, and Bandsintown to the Bible itself. The iPhone even popularized the phrase “there’s an app for that,” which has become an answer to any question you can imagine. Need directions? “There’s an app for that.” Want to order something from *insert store here*?  “There’s an app for that.”

In keeping with that trend, annual conferences and churches have jumped aboard the mobile app train, releasing their own (often in conjunction with outside developers). By my personal (and very quick) count, close to a third (18 of 55) of all annual conferences have at least one app of some sort, and countless churches on top of that. However, I want to ask two questions about these church and conference apps that are the most important: what is the app accomplishing, and is it worth it? The short answers (in my opinion) are “nothing unique” and “no”, but let’s really look at these closely.

What is the app accomplishing?

Apps, by their nature, need to do something. This docan take a few forms, so I want to focus on two: Uber and Simple.

Uber is the big “ridesharing” app that is now popular in major cities, and chances are that the app has been recommended to you (if you’re a smartphone user). This app accomplishes the complex task of simultaneously getting your location and comparing it against those of nearby Uber drivers who can give rides, in order to connect the closest driver with you. It also handles the payment side of the ride transaction, among other things. Altogether, it handles a collective group of diverse elements in order to provide the user with a seamless and fun experience that Uber has become known for. That is what Uber does, and to that end, the app becomes necessary in order to facilitate the experience in that way.

Simple is a up-and-coming bank that functions entirely on the Internet and mobile devices. That alone is enough to qualify it to exist in app form (for features such as check deposit are not easily accomplished in any other way), but it goes beyond that by providing a slick interface for displaying transactions, card maintenance, and other tasks. (Disclaimer: I’m a Simple member, and use the app regularly.) In fact, it’s the interface and ease-of-use that drew me to the app, because if I’m using a bank that has no physical locations, the app has to be fully-functional and easy to use, and Simple does both well.

Why do I bring these two up? Well, after downloading several of the conference apps I previously mentioned, I found that outside of serving as an interface to the website and its content, they didn’t do anything. A few of them displayed outdated content, others linked to content that no longer existed, and I did not find a single one that conformed to any of the Android design standards (as I own a Nexus 6P) which meant that they looked like a one-size-fits-all solution, and that is not a good thing in the mobile app world.

Is developing an app worth it?

This leads into my second question: “is it worth the fees and yearly costs?” The only developer I could find any information on was myUMCapp.com (also known as OCV), and their plans start at $1,295/year. A year! And that $1,295 is the base price, allowing you to choose 5 of the following:

  • RSS/XML Feeds
  • Twitter Feed
  • Facebook Wall
  • App Graphics
  • Badges
  • Updates (1 Update/year included)
  • Audio Feed
  • Sermon Notes
  • Maps/Directions
  • Video Gallery
  • Photo Gallery
  • Calendar

For more features, the non-quote-based plans go all the way up to $2,995/year. For comparison, I run my website/blog JacobTurner.me on a VPS for somewhere in the neighborhood of $80/year. Why do I bring up my website costs?

What should conferences and churches do then?

One reason: “responsive” web design and development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and any number of web frameworks and languages (PHP, Node.js, Ruby, etc.) is a far more effective tool for reaching visitors and connecting with members. With a design that’s considered responsive, you can create an interface that’s seamless across all devices, regardless of the size of the screen, and you end up with only having one source of content to maintain (and that makes the load on a communications person a lot lighter)! I have three different examples of conferences that I really thought had solid mobile-ready front pages (the most integral part of a website, in my opinion), in no particular order:


Minnesota Conference (minnesotaumc.org)

The Minnesota Conference has a clear and clean design that scales well. The large, attention-grabbing spinner scales well on my phone, the elements of the page are all at appropriate sizes and not overlapping each other, and it generally feels like the information that it presents isn’t overbearing.


New Mexico Conference (nmconfum.com)

The New Mexico Conference takes a more stylized approach that also isn’t overbearing. You have big images that function as buttons, and they again scale well for a phone. Again, the desktop and mobile versions are again identical in look, giving a consistent feel, and the visual elements used, including the typography, are responsive to the size but not lacking in style.


Pacific Northwest Conference (pnwumc.org)

The Pacific Northwest Conference also goes for a more stylized look, but the content of the site is structured in a way as to present the mission statement of the conference upfront, which shows visitors what the conference is all about. The page also uses color and typography to give the design style that works well across any display.

With all of these designs, the content and design remain consistent, giving your conference’s digital presence a unified look, all at a lower cost and lower amount of maintenance. So unless you have a very specific use case, or you have to build something that just can’t be done with existing web technologies, I’d personally recommend going all-online.

As always, I share my thoughts and research in the hopes that this ends up being of some benefit to someone, and as always I appreciate any comments or questions.

Until next time,
Jacob

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