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Mobile #succeed or #fail at SXSW?

  |  March 25, 2010   |  Comments

Are trends and experiences from SXSW any indication of how mobile will evolve in the rest of the United States?

I just came back from SXSWi and had a great time, met some fabulous people, and had a chance to ponder the future of our digital industry - all from the vantage point, communication point, and with heavy reliance on my mobile phone. All around me digital natives, technologists, and interactive practitioners of all sorts were attached by the thumbs to their devices; myself included. How did this #succeed or #fail to enhance the experience?


  • My iPhone kept me up to date with things back at the office through e-mail, text messaging, and even document review. Thanks to mobile connectivity, I had no angst about being in (mostly) sunny Austin and away from the daily grind for six days. While my unscientific poll had iPhones far in the lead at this particular event, there were also many BlackBerrys and a scattering of other phones with flip-out keyboards. Of course, lots of SXSW folks also relied heavily on their laptops or netbooks; using them to blog or tweet during sessions, check e-mail, or make connections.

  • I used text messaging to connect with friends and colleagues I wanted to find during the day or even to connect back to the office. This was the most straightforward, real-time way to convey information or get a quick update.

  • I liberally and frequently consulted the SXSW schedule app to make hard decisions about what sessions to attend or skip.

  • I used Foursquare, and many used that as well as Gowalla to find friends or the best party. Foursquare offered some unique SXSW badges to make it even more fun.

  • Many raved about other location-based applications like SitBy.Us to find people in those monster auditoriums.

  • The noise level often made productive phone calls problematic unless you hiked many blocks away to find a quiet spot. The reliance on texting, e-mail, tweeting, and other quiet methods avoided the problem where the substitution was appropriate.

  • We all tweeted using conference sponsored hash tags to give real-time feedback on the content and presenters, to submit questions to panels, or to voice our opinions. However, the conference appointed hash tags too often, they were long and unwieldy, and panel moderators or presenters often asked us to use an alternate version, which left those not at the show in the dark. It was not uncommon to be sitting in one session and following the tweets surrounding another. It's a good thing we are skilled at multitasking.

  • Like any conference, there is some waiting involved - for shuttles or sessions or during registration. Many attendees amused themselves during downtime with mobile games or fun applications. Everything from solitaire to Plants vs. Zombies helped wile away the time.

  • AT&T delivered flawless connectivity to users. As far as I know there were no gaps in coverage or slowdowns during this heavy, heavy usage period. There were, however, some delays in some applications that got heavy use.

  • Many individuals used their cell phones to take pictures and capture important slides during presentations.


  • QR codes. Great in concept. Who wants to carry around and exchange paper business cards when we can electronically exchange contact info through our smartphones? In practice however, the technology hurdles kept most from using the opportunity. I did not see anyone using it, nor was I asked even once to exchange contact in that manner. Maybe it was me.

  • Battery power was a constant struggle. Many people missed sessions and meetings or tweaked their backs sitting on the floor guarding an electric outlet to recharge multiple times during the day. Many circled in shuttles or taxis back and forth to their hotels to charge up during the day. Before I left for the conference I invested in an extra battery as well as a case that doubled battery life, and still ran out of juice during the longer days. There were sponsored charging stations that served as gathering points - a nice idea from the conference - and also vendors doing a brisk business in selling cell phone accessories - chiefly batteries and power cords.

    This constant tethering disrupts the flow of otherwise efficiency-producing activities, and places artificial limits on the benefits we can derive from the software applications that have clearly outpaced the hardware. We can expect this divide to continue to plague and hinder our progression in mobile if we do not solve it soon.

  • Some attendees tended to use every second to check e-mail, tweet, or otherwise attend to their mobile needs instead of talking to their seat neighbors and potentially making a great new contact. People: remember to look up once in a while!

  • Don't laugh - or do, but tweeting while walking or riding escalators is not the best idea. I saw multiple collisions and much tripping from people glued to their mobile while being mobile. This is a matter of common sense and personal responsibility. I bet these same folks text while they drive and don't wear seat belts.

Was this a good test case for future, population-wide heavy use of mobile devices? Most U.S. mobile phone users do not profile like those who attended SXSW, but I'd be willing to bet that smartphone users in the United States are trending in that direction. We know that many international populations are way ahead of us already. Eventually, I expect the world will look a lot like SXSW did this past week, with a good percentage of the population relying almost minute by minute on the productivity that their mobile devices promise. If we can solve the infrastructure issues that hamper access in many places and improve battery function to reasonably support all the good ideas that proliferate, we can look forward to a time when there are far fewer #fails in our mobile experience.

I would love to hear about your mobile experiences at SXSW.


Robin Neifield

Robin is the CEO and cofounder of NetPlus Marketing Inc., a top 50 interactive agency established in 1996 to focus exclusively on online marketing and advertising best practices. Robin brings innovative strategy and a depth and breadth of marketing experience to the agency's practice and management. As one of the industry's pioneers, she is a driving force behind NetPlus Marketing's ongoing success with a diverse and discerning client base that considers online results critical to their business success.

Robin is a frequent speaker at national industry events, including ClickZ, internet.com, OMMA, Ad:Tech, SES, Online Marketing Summit, and Thunder Lizard conferences and is a sought-after resource for industry and business publications for her insight and advice on such topics as digital strategy, social media marketing, and behavioral targeting.

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