Austin, TX- The blogerati may have crowned Highlight as the South by Southwest Interactive "winner" before the event even began today, but marketers worry the so-called serendipity app may spook the general public. Launched in January, the smart phone app notifies users when a Facebook friend is in their current locale and alerts them when a nearby stranger has Facebook friends in common.
If a "friend of a friend" is in the coffee shop next door, the user will receive a push notification. He or she will see images and names of nearby strangers on the app with which he or she has "1 thing in common" or "2 things in common." The key utility, in theory, is that Highlight will help users meet more people. Unlike Foursquare and Facebook Places, check-ins are not a part of the process.
As tech marketers like to say, the app is "frictionless." But will publicizing location-based information rub social media users who also like a little privacy the wrong way?
"I don't think people really want to be stalked, or do the stalking. I think it's just a little creepy," said Joe McCaffrey, a product strategist at digital agency Huge, who has been trying out Highlight. "It doesn't give exact location or sensitive personal information…just tells you where your Facebook information matches [with others]. It's a little weird but on the 'creepy scale,' I think it's only in the middle."
Heather Meeker is VP of communications at mobile app textPlus and previously helped market now-defunct location-based app Whrrl. Meeker called herself a "big fan of location-based apps" while questioning whether people outside of the marketing or tech world would feel comfortable divulging location to strangers.
She explained, "I mean, can you imagine every time you're out, someone coming up to you saying something like 'Hey, this app says we're supposed to be friends because we're buddies on [a social network]?' I think that scenario is useful at conferences and events like SXSW, but could be invasive in everyday life."
Erik Qualman, founder of new media marketing firm Socialnomics and a ClickZ columnist, gave an assessment of Highlight similar to McCaffrey and Meeker. He compared the two-month-old mobile player to Color, a photo-sharing app that last year generated significant buzz before drawing ire from privacy critics.
"Highlight might be a little bleeding edge, versus cutting edge," Qualman said. "In a year where people are starting to get creeped out about their lack of privacy, the timing may not be right for an app like this. Think Color. Also, people are having a difficult time keeping up with people they know, let alone, those they pseudo-know."
Joe Ciarallo, a Buddy Media rep, complimented Highlight's use notifications.
"I don't want to be staring at my phone the whole time at SXSW. But a quick notification to say 'a friend is nearby' is helpful," Ciarallo said. "I'm going to watch it closely and may turn it off after SXSW. There definitely is a 'creepy' factor with these kinds of apps. If someone came up to me at SXSW and said they 'saw I was here on Highlight,' and we didn't really know each other, I may be a bit creeped out."
SXSW Loves Shiny New Objects
Highlight isn't the only app winning pre-show SXSW attention. Most notably, Glancee has caught the fancy of tech influencers in recent days. The mobile app works similarly to Highlight but offers more images and arguably a slicker-looking design.
Other contenders for SXSW hype include Banjo, Pixable, Zaarly, LocalMind, and Sonar. Meeker from textPlus said marketers should view the conference's proverbial shiny new objects through the lens of regular consumers before buying into all of the industry-bubble chatter.
"What we should be asking ourselves is whether or not our family, friends, and even strangers on the street would find value in these technologies before we jump the gun and award it a 'breakout,'" she said. "This will keep SXSW relevant in the eyes of marketers."
McCaffrey from Huge concurs. "Just because the tech community buzzes about it, doesn't mean it will have lasting power," he said.
Last year's most-mentioned SXSW startup was GroupMe, a group messaging app. Attention paid to the New York-based company quickly died off after the event, and it was purchased by Skype in August 2011.
An Anti-Startup Brings Perspective to 'South By'
Compared to starry-eyed startups, other digital marketing companies at SXSW have soberer objectives. For instance, eight-year-old social networking site Tagged - originally a Facebook competitor that's morphed into a dating site - wants to remind the tech world of its still-high traffic. According to Hitwise data from January, Tagged is the third-largest social networking site, ahead of MySpace and LinkedIn while trailing Facebook and Twitter.
Steve Sarner is Tagged's VP of marketing, whose career before joining the brand two years ago entailed leading sales for MySpace, IGN, Photobucket, Monster, and Fox.com. To generate SXSW awareness around his current company, he's picking up brands like Coca-Cola and ESPN as well as media influencers at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and giving them a ride to their hotels. Sarner said his team would pick up around 150 individuals, who also get a Tagged-branded shoulder bag and umbrella (local forecast calls for rain this weekend).
It's the second consecutive year Tagged has run the airport-to-hotels program at SXSW, targeting technologists in 2011. Attracting top-notch developers in this competitive social media climate against Facebook and Google, Sarner said, "is a bitch."
But he said the rides offer worked last year. Tagged has built up its overall team from a few dozen employees to 180, the marketing VP said.
The San Francisco-based privately held company is profitable, Sarner said, while leaning on social gaming and virtual currency revenues. At the same time, the sales veteran sounds like he's looking forward to specifically courting Madison Avenue during future SXSW events, even if he has to ride from the airport to the Texas capital city for several miles over and over again.
"I would love to be here next year doing this for more brand advertisers," Sarner explained.
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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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