Eight Scintillating Lessons from SXSW

I heard a story about a business man who had a half-day layover in Paris.  He told a local person he had four hours to see Paris and asked him what he should do. The Frenchman said, “Sit on the curb and cry.”

That’s a little how I feel about trying to describe my first experience at SXSW, the World Cup of Interactive Media, Film and Music. The scope of this annual conference is so vast that it simply cannot be captured in a blog post … let alone a short one!  But I would be remiss if I didn’t write about this significant experience with the community, so here are eight highlights:

Social media evolution and revolution — I have long-admired Clay Shirky and was delighted to be able to see him live as one of the keynote speakers. In a speech that had people talking for days, Shirky described the evolution of “abundant media” starting with the first printed Bibles — authorities have been threatened by this idea for centuries. He took a direct shot at Malcom Gladwell’s claim that the “revolution will not be tweeted” by stating that social media does enable social change through synchronized information, documentation (ability to get the word out), and coordination. Probably one-third of the discussions I attended had some reference to social media and the developments in the Middle East.

The game layer — Another keynote speaker was a 22-year-old Princeton drop-out named Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR. Priebatsch opined that the era of social is over and will be replaced by the “game layer.”  His presentation generated controversy and I found my mind alternatively wandering between a) “he’s 22, and not everybody thinks like a gamer,” and b) “this guy is a genius.” Basically he believes that everything from education to global warming could be more effectively addressed if we applied game theory to it — building rewards into the system to generate enthusiasm and emotional connection.  His ideas are rooted in sound psychological principles and in the end, I think he’s on to something. Here is his TED talk.

Social media and society — I expected SXSW to be dominated by Facebook- and Twitter-related topics but it was not that way at all. A big theme was mobile, personal and location-based apps and how these personal interactive technologies were being applied to diverse businesses and social problems. For example, several panels addressed how technology is driving more open and accountable government. My new friend from Iceland, Gunnar Holmsteinn used text mining and sentiment analysis to “grade” public proclamations by politicians against the sentiment of the public. Probably the gem of the week was attending an intimate early morning discussion with the Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. and Presidental Advisor Aneesh Chopra. He said the U.S. government is moving beyond exposing data to enabling engagement. He sees technology as helping governments be “conveners,” enable citizens to help solve civic problems and streamline purchasing processes.  A representative from NASA said you no longer have to dream about becoming involved with the space agency — they have many online programs to participate in.

Networking — SXSW was an opportunity to meet-up with dozens of friends from the {grow} community — too numerous to mention! Thanks to all of you who went out of your way to meet me! By far, that was my favorite part of the conference. I also got to meet some well-known people in our field like Tim O’Reilly, Guy Kawaski, Brian Solis and rub elbows with some of my favorite bloggers like Jason Falls, Shelly Kramer, Amber Naslund, Stephanie Wonderlin, and Jay Baer.

The Epicenter of Desperation — This is the World Cup of tech start-ups and I sensed a pervasive tone of desperation throughout the cacophony!  Entrepreneurs tried every way to attract attention, from ridiculous get-ups to free parties. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how unprepared most of these companies were for the real world. The stereotypical entrepreneur had put a lot of work into an idea or app without much thought about marketing, financing or a business plan. I guess the raw innovation and craziness is part of the charm of the conference but I heard this naivety repeated over and over.

Hyper crowd-sourcing — I was blown away by what is being crowd-sourced these days — research, mapping, tagging, innovation, consulting services. Everything from the mundane to the profound.  Samasource connects menial labor with “marginalized” people around the world. One panel explored the controversy behind this trend. Is this the 2011 version of a sweat shop?

Augmented reality — I am really excited about this technology and absorbed as much as I could. I think this is going to be the next huge game-changer! : ) Combining an interactive layer to inanimate landscapes and objects (through smartphones and eventually eye glasses) is going to unleash unprecedented new creativity and applications for education, entertainment, marketing and networking. Can you imagine a book coming alive with 3D animation or a virtual character leading you on a tour of a city street? Probably have a blog post coming soon about this topic.

What’s the next big thing? This is the most popular and important question of the week. Everybody wants to know if the next Twitter or Foursquare will emerge.  What app was the winner?  If there was a buzz on one thing I missed it! But hey, there were thousands of new businesses trying to “launch” at SXSW and I’m not the guy to turn to for “inside tekkie” news! However, I did try to pay attention and here were some of the new businesses I liked:

  • Slide rocket — Finally, an alternative to Power Point? This paid service could solve a lot of presentation problems.
  • Start-up Boulevard — A much needed connector between start-ups, investors and corporate sponsors. See my interview with Founder Enrique Shadah.
  • Foodstream — Founder Paul Lo has put together an ambitious Foursquare/Urban Spoon/Living Social mash-up that discovers the menus, coupons and reviews at restaurants near you.
  • Harmony Institute — You’ve heard of product placement, but what about “cause placement?” The New York-based non-profit combines research with cutting-edge media production to generate entertainment with targeted social and environmental messages.
  • Birdcore — An innovative approach to text mining that has caught the attention of some major brands
  • AYTM — Low cost, crowd-sourced consumer research
  • Fish Technology — Combines RFID chips in a wrist bands to provide information-sharing and personal interactive capabilities in a live environment. Would be an interesting application for trade shows or career fairs.
  • Raven Tools — I loved this low-cost, integrated social media monitoring alternative. Might be a good option for small agencies.
  • LifeKraze — A new social network that is kind of a Foursquare for fitness and healthy living.


OK, here is the big question — Was it worth it?  We’re talking $2,500 plus five days of lost productivity and billable hours — an expensive and time-consuming jaunt. Yes, it was worth it, at least to me. I was really pleased that social media shilling was at a minimum and great content was abundant. There was far, far too much to see and do and despite crushing crowds that made navigating the Austin Convention Center extremely challenging, the experience was rewarding.  I’m looking forward to next year!

More SXSW coverage on {grow}:

Interview with Joe Fernandez of Klout

Interview with Rick Wion of McDonald’s

Interview with Kip Bodnar of Hubspot

Coverage of journalism versus content marketing debate

All posts

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast!

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details

Share via