Austin, Texas-- South by Southwest Interactive 2011 was a colorful and frenetic digital marketing event that, according to some, was particularly suited to let geo-social platforms like Foursquare, Scvngr, Whrrl, Gowalla, and Loopt strut their stuff. The five-day event was by far the biggest ever, drawing 19,364 registered attendees, according to SXSWi spokesperson Kelly Krause.
Some among that huge crowd speaking with ClickZ gave props to GroupMe, a free group-texting app that created hype with its street team and product demonstrations. The New York-based company took home the "Breakout Digital Trend" distinction at the SXSWi awards ceremony last night.
"Two years ago, it was Twitter, and last year it was Foursquare," said Patrick Starzan, VP of marketing for FunnyOrDie.com. "Now I see a lot of the group-texting services like GroupMe, and I have actually been using that a lot...I feel that's the been the buzz around the conference right now."
Heather Meeker, spokesperson for Whrrl, disagreed. "I cannot say there has been one particular technology that has stood out to me," she said. "I don't see people running around say, 'You should be on this because everyone is on it.' We had Twitter and geo-social services in the past as emerging technologies, but I am just not seeing one this year."
Brands And Geo-Social Apps Appear Hand In Hand
Michael Pilla, social media head at comparison shopping site PriceGrabber.com, said he saw the conference as a signal that the geo-social space has come of age. For the second year in a row, Pilla said, location was the key topic.
"What we are now seeing is that marketers understand how to reach people where they are and where they want to go," he said. "I see that in terms of shopping with retailers trying to monetize different [channels]. There's so much promise now because everyone is going to be equipped with a device to communicate and buy anywhere. Finally, marketers are bridging the divide to reach those users."
Two particular scenes certainly pointed to the crux of Pilla's views, as well as the fact that consumer brands were heavily participating in SXSWi events.
First of all, Foursquare last year created a lot of buzz by getting 100,000 people to sign up for its service, despite having a constantly moving, by-the-seat-of-its-pants physical presence outside the Austin Convention Center. This year, the New York-based company and SXSWi partner Pepsi shared a full parking lot that was outfitted with activities like a foursquare court and ping pong table.
"I'd say it's a lot more grown-up this year," said Eric Friedman, business development head at Foursquare. "Last year, it wasn't nearly this set-up or organized."
Andrea Harrison, VP of strategy at digital agency Razorfish, commented about the Pepsi/Foursquare lot: "I saw [Weblogs founder] Jason Calacanis playing foursquare next to a local dad and his son who wandered in and just saw it as a fun place to hang out."
Secondly, there was Casey Peterson, social media manager at Murphy USA. Peterson gave a presentation about his brand getting a one percent sales lift for Coke products while employing Whrrl as a promotions platform. His El Dorado, AK-based firm runs 1,000 gas stations that are near Wal-Marts in the Midwest and Bible Belt - not exactly touted hotbeds of geo-social usage.
"Eight-hundred people were applauding Casey when he was done speaking," said Meeker from Whrrl. "It was cool to see because he's a gas stations guy."
Pilla from PriceGrabber suggested that Twitter has been slow to develop mobile marketing opportunities. "It's odd the one entity that is not driving tons and tons of revenue is Twitter," he said. "Think about what Foursquare is doing, think about what Gowalla is doing, think about the deals Whrrl is doing. Those folks are all starting to figure out that where consumers are is very important to a marketer."
So-called influencers were also a hot topic at SXSWi, as celebrities like Eliza Dushku, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mike Tyson, Rosario Dawson, and many others were present.
Harrison from Razorfish said: "Personally, the only example of good use of celebrity influence on Twitter is when we see them channeling their fame for good. [Singer] Adam Lambert donating his birthday to [nonprofit] charity: water and raising almost $300,000 from his fans is my favorite."
Did SXSWi 2011 "Jump The Shark?"
The massive showing at SXSWi was also an ongoing discussion item. Meeker from Whrrl wondered aloud if the event had jumped the proverbial shark.
"It's like this is the year that everyone figured out that 'South By' was the place to be," she said. "I am trying to track down people for business…And it's like impossible to get people in the same room because there are like 15 parties going on at the same time."
Pilla from PriceGrabber said, "South By Southwest didn't jump the shark this year. It jumped the shark last year. I actually think it regained its footing this year, at least to me as a business man. There is more serious dollars-and-cents talk going on. There are more credible business models."
Michael Mendoza is a trade commissioner for the Canadian government who was at SXSWi while managing various speakers' schedules. Lamenting not having enough time to go to panels, he succinctly summed up the hectic pace that many business-minded attendees experienced.
"I'm following what's actually going on at the conference on HootSuite," Mendoza said. "It's like I'm attending the conference on my computer. It's a shame to come all this way and not be able to enjoy it a little more."
Harrison from Razorfish suggested that too-busy-to-attend marketers like Mendoza missed out on the panels. Particularly, she said, there was an abundance of sessions geared toward marketing executives for big brands.
"I wonder how many of them learned something new - or just went to sessions that promised discussions of topics that they felt comfortable with," Harrison said. "I would challenge my clients to pick topics that they know nothing about and break out of their comfort zone a bit to really get a view into the breadth of what SXSWi has to offer."
Surprise Appearance for Japan Aid
Meanwhile, the conference occurred against the excruciating backdrop of the catastrophe in Japan. Many here may end up remembering SXSWi 2011 not for when geo-social matured or when GroupMe had its break-out moment, but as the place where they were when the tsunamis battered East Asia.
So it was appropriate before the March 12 keynote address that philanthropist and filmmaker Charles Weingarten made a surprise appearance. He announced that his Annenberg Foundation would give $100,000 to aiding Japan if 100,000 people "liked" the Facebook page for Dog Bless You, an animal rights nonprofit. If the number was reached by the next day, he said, they've give $200,000 to the relief efforts.
The initiative accomplished the "likes" goal by the March 13 deadline, according to USAToday.com.
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Christopher Heine was a senior writer for ClickZ through June 2012. He covered social media, sports/entertainment marketing, retail, and more. Heine's work has also appeared via Mashable, Brandweek, DM News, MarketingSherpa, and other tech- and ad-centric publications. USA Today, Bloomberg Radio, and The Los Angeles Times have cited him as an expert journalist.
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