SXSW: The Big Themes


how far does a taco need to travel?

Here, not a moment too soon, is a more-or-less random recollection of the big ideas and trends I witnessed at South by Southwest Interactive.

Location-based applications were predicted to have the biggest hype, and that was borne out. These are applications, primarily for mobile devices, that let you "check in" at a location to tell your network where you are, see where other people are and share information about the spot. The two most popular, Foursquare and Gowalla got the level of attention that Twitter enjoyed at previous events. Even in Geek Central, though, they failed to live up to their promise. There's a huge opportunity for aggregation. More on that in another post.

Twitter's big announcement was the creation of their @Anywhere service. Twitter's official blog post about the new service is neither particularly compelling nor clear. Mashable has a better description.

In short, Web site operators will be able to drop some code into their pages that will allow viewers to perform a variety of Twitter functions without leaving the page, like follow a person mentioned on the page, or tweet about what they're reading. I'm sure there's more to come. Facebook has stolen a march on Twitter by making the Facebook Connect protocol an easy way for people to sign in to Web sites without needing an account, and Twitter no doubt wants to win back some of that ground.

Twitter turned, Frankenstein-like, on it's inventor during co-founder Evan Williams' keynote interview, conducted by Umair Haque. People became instantly bored after the announcement of @Anywhere and didn't keep their feelings hidden. People began getting up and leaving no more than 15 to 20 minutes into the discussion. Lesson learned: it's a tough crowd to impress and to sell to - if they don't hear a message that's cool or benefits them, they're out. (One tweet read, "I've seen more energy at a lawn bowling tournament.")

The exhibit hall was big, but I was surprised there weren't more booths that caught my eye. For an event with SXSW's reputation, the overall exhibit presence was pretty lackluster. Triangle-area cloud phone system providers managed to stand out just for having red English-style phone booths.

me and a gorilla and a bananaA guy in a gorilla suit chasing a guy in a banana suit was about the extent of the wackiness I witnessed in the exhibit hall.

My friend Kipp Bodnar from Hubspot wrote the definitive post on the right way to attract attention at SXSW, "Foursquare's $5.99 SXSW Booth.

While other companies spent tens of thousands of dollars on their booths, Foursquare caused a line around the block when their founder Dennis Crowley took on the crowd in the playground game four square. Total cost? The price of a rubber ball and some chalk. Brilliant.

As for the panels, I've already expressed my displeasure elsewhere at the fact that many were oversold or disorganized or both. From a corporate perspective, gleaning what I could from the many positive discussions and interactions I did have, here are the big themes I noticed:

  1. We still want good case studies of how to integrate social media into existing marketing campaigns.
  2. We still want to figure the ROI.
  3. Many companies are staffing up for social media, creating social media manager positions and departments.
  4. Many companies are still trying to get it done without adding headcount, but sensing that can't last.
  5. Companies are still worried about employees making mistakes in social media.
  6. There is still a significant disparity between the people who understand and appreciate the changes social media can bring, and those who are skeptical, mistrustful or outright hostile.
  7. There is a huge opportunity to apply analytics to corporate social media activity and derive some real value.
  8. Companies are beginning to understand that social media needs to be integrated into all aspects of the organization, but not many are doing that yet.
  9. Lots of corporate social media folks feel the need to swear publicly at SXSW to show they're not one of the "suits."
  10. The people who do this for a living within corporations are still a fairly tight-knit and supportive community glad to see one another's success. I hope it can stay that way.

Photo credits are tough for this one. The picture of me and the gorilla and banana was taken with my camera, but I don't remember who took it. I shot the image at the top, but I don't know who's original artwork it is. If you know, please tell me.


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  1. Ginny Skalski on

    Great post, Dave. A few thoughts:
    New Twitter @Anywhere Service: I noticed that it's working on, but it seems to take more than a few seconds to load if you hover over the links. Not sure if this is a product of my connection, or of the time it takes for Twitter to pull in the information when you hover. But unless the speed of this pop-up feature is improved, I don't really see it being useful whatsoever.
    QR Codes: I largely dismissed the QR Codes on our badges and on fliers around SXSW until the last day of the event. Then I attended the session on QR Codes and was amazed at what I learned. I think the growing use of these in America (they're already commonplace in Japan) will transform the way we market things -- both tangible items and web-based services. I wish this session would've been on the first day (it was literally the last session of the last day of sxswi) so more people could've learned about them.
    Cussing: I'm all about dropping a well placed F-bomb when appropriate (like when I stub my toe or when someone really makes me mad). But I was amazed at how many panelists, speakers, and audience members cussed all the time. I'm not easily offended, but it was definitely noticeable and at times unnecessary, even for the cool kids.
    Exhibit Hall: I too wasn't very impressed with the exhibit hall. I would've preferred to see more booths from established web brands like Flickr or Delicious, just so I could interact with the people behind the services I use everyday. Maybe they don't see any value in it since they're already established, but I think it would be a good way to spread warm fuzzies about their brands and reward existing users.
    Thanks for letting me practically write a blog post in your comments section, Dave!

  2. David B. Thomas on

    Great stuff, Ginny. Thanks. I totally agree about the QR codes. I scanned some badges but I barely saw it used. Maybe next year.
    I feel the same way you do about the swearing. I'm no puritan either, but sometimes it just seems like posing.
    Great to see you and Cree represented there.

  3. It doesn't surprise me that the exhibit hall and panels were not satisfactory. Most of the work at SXSW conferences is done by volunteers. You get what you pay for. Influential attendees should require more from SXSW Inc.

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