Experiences of a SXSW Noobie

SXSW Backdrop
I like to think I maintain a perfectly healthy skepticism of the unknown.

So, last week, when told I’d be attending SXSW along with some other AgencyNetters, my immediate enthusiasm was quickly met with feelings of perplexity- I’d never been to SXSW, much less its interactive bucket, so I had no idea what to expect. A majority of my friends and industry colleagues had previously attended the music track, which I had assumed would overlap in some capacity.  Needless to say, pen, pad, and laptop handy, I hit the Austin Convention Center like it was freshman year orientation all over again.

Leaving New York was no small ordeal; my travel experience, compounded by rain and delays took an unbelievable 13 hours. Needless to say, I managed to arrive safely and in one piece, and began my three-day experience as an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with knowledge by some of the most influential minds in our industry.

Here is a quick summary of some of the best discussions that I attended:

The first (and definitely one of the best) of the discussions I sat in on was Clay Shirky’s “Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data.” The NYU professor brilliantly gave a discourse on “sharing”: its evolutionary origins, its considerable disruptive potential, how our shifting communication paradigm is responsible for the recent explosion in sharing behavior and the implications of such for creating civic value.

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky does his thing... without slides!

Some great points:

  • Abundance breaks more things than scarcity
  • Technology and media revolutions can devalue existing institutions because of inferiority by comparison.
  • Behavior = motivation filtered by opportunity.
  • People can use sharing to create civic value (For example, patientslikeme.com – where users upload their most personal medical symptoms allowing patients to better understand their diseases and doctor’s to better find suitable patients.)

Creativity Magazine published an excellent account of Shirky’s discussion. Well worth the read.

Immediately after Shirky’s discussion, I stopped by the “Brands In Social Media” flash panel sponsored by Pepsi.  The panel featured some heavy hitters including Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley, Christopher Barger, Director of Social Media for General Motors and Bonin Bough, PepsiCo’s Global Director of Digital and Social Media.

Discussing a Location-Aware Future

Discussing a Location-Aware Future

Despite the panel’s vague title, I sat in, mostly due to a distinct interest in “Lo-So’s” current upturn as it inches towards critical mass. (Lo-So is buzzword-speak for “location-based social networking.”)

Boasting a monthly growth rate of 100% and over 560,000 users, Foursquare is looking to be the first vendor to crack the “clicks to bricks” paradox. Crowley mentioned that Foursquare’s immediate social value is baked into the theory that “the more you share your life, the more relevant it is in the context of other people- the value of the check-in is for friends that don’t have friends.”

drawing badges

Some earned Foursquare badges... others drew them on the street.

Users leaving, what Crowley described as, “little nuggets of history” seems to be a unique behavioral phenomenon, one that brands need to realize is happening…now. Leveraging consumer insights when they’re given to you on a silver platter is every marketer’s dream, but the key is doing so with the right intentions (empowering and elevating consumer experience); this can determine success from failure in the coming months as brands roll out more “lo-so” iniatives.

Below is a post-discussion interview with the panelists, in which they each sum up their driving points from the quick panel:

Throughout the next two days, I tried to sit through as much as humanly possible, which any who have attended know, is no short order. One panel that I found to be extremely profound was “The Life Graph: You Are Your Location,” where developers and strategists from the likes of Google, Twitter, and Loopt discussed how marketers (and sociologists) can use data sets gleaned from users’ social networks and geo-tagging services to better understand behavior and apply it to practical problems like enhancing brand-to-consumer interaction.

Some of the noteworthy points and key takeaways were:

  • You’re a product of the places you visit.
  • The idea of the “life graph” is purely a function of the advent of smartphones and unlimited data plans.
  • Location should be integrated into every type of experience – there is no “killer app” for location-based marketing.
  • Two models: Check-in (deliberate opt-in) and long-lat (constant recording, where user can identify key/favorite locations after the fact)
  • Regarding value: Users need to understand what they’re getting out of it before they check in. Check-ins themselves have no value, but their application does. (What does it help me do?)
  • Coolness (social currency) and/or incentive (couponing/loyalty) motivates the user’s willingness to be transparent.

Although these three were the standout panels of my SXSW experience, the other aspects of my visit: panels, networking, fraternization, and spirited debates all helped me attain a better grasp on how critical it will be to harness the true power of digital: understanding the deep insight digital can provide into the lives of people and the harnessing the ability to create powerful utility and true value for our consumers.

Here are the Twitter hashtags for other uber-interesting panels & keynotes where you can monitor the conversation and get informed on the get-down….

“Augmented Reality: Gimmicky Trend or Market-Ready Technology?”

“Is Too Much Math Killing Marketing?”

“Online Tastemakers: Death or Rebirth of Music Curation?”