SXSW 2011: Great for Networking, But No Technology Breakthroughs

I’m writing from a Jetblue flight from Austin back to Silly Valley, it’s a great chance for me reflect on what happened in the last few days at SXSW and sober up both from last night’s party and the excess of stimuli –they both require some detox. First of all, this is the type of event people love talk about when they’re there, but those who aren’t there may find the noise excessive. I’ll try to boil down the key things I observed, caveat, this is just one person’s perspective, leave a comment with your experience.

SXSW, Bigger Than Ever
Attendance was up, many rumored that it was up around 30% over last year, which was also growing. There were so many events and panels that even spilled out of the traditional convention center to neighboring hotels some as far as 6+blocks up hill at the Sheraton. The attendees trend a similar look: often younger than older, stylish glasses, blinking device in hands, the occasional ironic tattoo, and glossy shimmer of sweat from last night’s drinking binge.

Panel Content: Hit or Miss
While I didn’t attend many panels, several folks mentioned to me the quality of content in panels was very hit and miss, often dependent on the quality of the moderator to draw out insights and guide the panel. Because SXSW deploys the scalable way of voting up panels to determine who will speak this leads to panels that have popular speakers (but that doesn’t guarantee the best speakers) or topics that are liked by the mainstream. Fortunately, given the vast assortment of panels, the opportunity to find niche topics is available, providing you can easily get to the physical location. Colleague Susan Etlinger blogs how Deb Schultz lead an insightful session on the ‘manners’ of the internet and social web. I think it was Robert Scoble who said that the best content at SXSW will just appear on blogs later, so Ill continue to keep a watch out for the panels that were a “hit”.

Yet Parties, Events, and Dinners Galore
There were many, many parties and events, even during the day. During the evening there were several events, parties, and dinners all happening consecutively. In particular, the Social Business crowd was assembled around the All Hat (pics) even held by David Armano and Richard Binhammer off campus, the Corporate Social Strategists and those that serve them were present, this was the market I serve, and was glad to see them all. To me this was the best event, as it was off campus, a mixture of dialog, meet and greeting, and good food and music, great mixer. I heard that the (formerly SMBC) event was a great mix for Corporate Social Strategists who glean a lot of value from peer to peer interactions.

Influencer Outreach: Samsung, Chevy, AMEX, Apple, Pepsi.
One of my mottos is to ABR (Always be Researching) and I did just that for clients. In fact, several brands were present, and sought to reach this influencer and early adopter crowd, notables include:

Samsung hosts bloggers, and showcases electronic products. I spent time in the Samsung blogger lounge, which was well attended by influencers, and featured product demos and their tweeting fridge. One nice treat was Guy Kawasaki was giving away signed books, Enchantment, (which I read and recommend) at the blogger lounge. Also, Samsung brought the social media space to their own devices and worked with Jess3 an information design firm to showcase hand-selected curated tweets in their large airport-styled screens for passerbys to see what the zeitgeist was of the event.  I even was a panelist in an impromptu “unpanel” on the topic of curation.

Samsung Airport Style Tweet Aggregation by Jess3

Chevy doubles down on this influencer market. Last year, Ford had a strong presence at the event, which likely drew the interest of General Motors, who I learned was the sole exclusive sponsor for the show, I’d estimate that buy out certainly be in the millions as they had integrated branding, product demos, charging stations, sponsors of the Techset party, and had inter-city rides available to anyone using their vehicles. Ford was not present this year, nor other auto-manufactures. See Twitter exchange between myself and Scott Monty who commented on spending, here, here, and here. (Update: Chevy’s Mary Henige has updated me that Chevy has a 3 year exclusive sponsorship with SXSW for the automotive category)

Chevy offers rides Charging Station using Powermats at Chevy Booth Chevy Aggregates Tweets

American Express seeks WOM. I learned from Jennifer van Grove of Mashable how American Express has launched a form of a loyalty program that encouraged users of their credit cards to receive money credited to their account after purchases after they shared it on foursquare. This form of social commerce initiates advocacy at point of sale –increasing spread of the service. Very smart integration.

Apple pops up a store in downtown. Apple assembled a “pop up” store in downtown where lines went around the block to purchase the iPad 2 and hours extended to the wee hours of the night. The store was a former Gold’s gym, and was assembled virtually overnight to serve this specific market. I saw several proud owners of this shiny device with colored covers touting their purchase at a variety of venues, it was the hot physical product (see friend David Berkowitz with his orange topped one). I experimented with it and believe the features to be evolutionary, but not a major upgrade, that being depending on new software to emerge to take advantage of the cameras such as augmented reality gaming, or new forms of video conferencing.

Impromtu Apple Store (Popup Store) has a line around the corner

Pepsi tells their story. Other notable brand out-reach booths was Pepsi’s touchdown station that let people recharge and learn about the variety of products. Clearly an influence play, as Pepsi as a lifestyle brand isn’t directly related to ‘interactive’ that SXSW sports.

Pepsi Lounge photo photo

No Technology Winners –Although “Intimate” and “Hyper Local” are Trends to Watch. I was at SXSW when Twitter, Foursquare ‘broke out’ in previous years, yet this year there were no clear winners our ‘breakout technologies’ that I saw from the space. Why? There’s an over saturation of products due to low barriers to entry –while innovation certainly isn’t stifled the number similar or ‘like’ products is hard to swallow.

The closest to it was SMS chat tools with a small social group of friends like GroupMe and Beluga were being used by this early adopter crowd, even the press picked up on some of these trends (thanks Julie Viola for the link). Secondly, I asked my network what technologies to watch for and saw some adoption of local Q&A tool LocalMind (screenshot from iPhone). This tool allows you to ask very specific question “where are the cleanest restrooms in this hotel?” and it shows it on a localized map.

In both of these new toolsets, they are less about mass broadcasting to your network like Twitter and blogs, but are more about intimate discussions with your most immediate circle and localized content down to the building that you’re present at.

So that’s my perspective: This year, SXSW was great for networking. New technologies trend towards smaller personal networks and hyper localized content, but I didn’t see any clear winners, at least from my limited perspective.

Please leave a comment or link to your experience so we can share what we heard.