At SXSW, Social Marketing Sheds Gimmicky Reputation

bbdo-sxswAustin, TX- This year at South by Southwest, marketers didn’t fret about social media being flaky, gimmicky, or just plain suspect. 

Now that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are “baked into campaigns,” as brands liked to say here this week, social media marketing has finally achieved a recognizable level of credibility.

Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network, knows a thing or two about building advertiser confidence around user-generated/social content. His five-year-old company began as a platform for people to post LOLcat pics and other web memes, but now he says it’s selling branded content sponsorships and display ads to CPG brands at a faster clip.

“Social media has infiltrated how people think,” Huh said. “It’s no longer just about eye balls. It’s all about recall and getting people to reengage with your brand.”

Ron Faris, Virgin Mobile’s marketing director, addressed social media and emerging platforms during a SXSW sit-down with ClickZ. The behaviors of Gen Y and younger demos are shaping the future of advertising, Faris suggested, and it’s the job of brands and agencies to keep pace.

“I really like to think that I am always going to ‘get’ my kids,” he said. Faris, a father of two young children, added, “But I am already seeing digital behavior that I don’t ‘get.'”

Faris went as far to say that the traditional sales funnel is dead because of the way digital natives have come to think about brands. “They are just as interested in the tweets that come back about a product as they are concerned about price,” he said.

Some Buzz, Much Noise

Recent SXSW conferences have generated huge buzz around fresh-faced apps such as Twitter and Foursquare. This year there was no “next big thing,” though Highlight, Glancee, and other mobile apps got some attention. With thousands of companies competing for attention inside or near the Austin Convention Center, it appeared difficult for new brands to receive significant notice organically without the aide of pre-show buzz.

“There’s so much noise here,” Faris said. “It’s really tough to cut through.”

The so-called serendipity apps Highlight and Glancee generated debates, in particular around the creep-out factor. Once again, there seemed to be a healthy dose of respect for what adolescents and young adults might be thinking.

“The younger generation’s behavior may give [the apps] more potential than you or I think,” said Mark Cooper, CMO of Offerpop. “You have to get them in the hands of the younger demo first.”

Faris added, “Some kids feel that if they don’t digitally check in when they go to a cool place or whatever…it’s like they were never there.”

Agencies Fish For Talent

SXSW is also a recruiting zone for young tech talent. The show featured a “Startup Village” where brands and agencies went to meet up-and-coming tech minds and, in some cases, hire them.

Digital shop Razorfish hosted a two-hour Happy Hour at an Austin bar on Friday night. The agency’s human resources director was on hand and running the event. The party listing in the SXSW program guide encouraged attendees to bring their business cards. “We’re hiring,” the ad said.

A rep for another digital agency, AKQA, stated, “Recruiting is a big focus for events like SXSW.”

Natasha Shine-Zirkel is the marketing director for Rounds, a social networking app that claims 4 million users. Her SXSW goals also involved connecting with developers.

Shine-Zirkel said, “At the Startup Village, we mostly met console developers, but we were looking for [software developers]….We are picky with who we partner with.”

Twitter’s Good Showing

ClickZ ran into Twitter chief revenue officer Adam Bain at an Amex party on Monday. He was all smiles, and not only because rapper-celebrity Jay-Z was about to perform. Twitter’s days-old Amex partnership is off to a fast start, the latest success in a two-year sales acceleration. He indicated the trend will only continue.

That’s good news for Cooper’s Offerpop, a Twitter and Facebook marketing platform used by brands like Gap, American Eagle Outfitters, and Tesco. He contrasted Twitter to Facebook when asked how differently the two platforms look from a marketer’s perspective.

“Twitter is a little more low maintenance,” Cooper said. “With Facebook, there’s more management involved. For instance, you have to monitor wall posts.”

At Chaotic Show, One Size Doesn’t Fit All

As was the case last year, it was common to hear attendees say, “I haven’t been to a single panel because I have been too busy.”

At the same time, plenty of others attended panels, which often drew long lines and capacity crowds. SXSW has become a spectacle of a conference, a marketing and technology circus for networking and “being seen.” Even discount hotel brands in Austin charged hundreds of dollars per night for a room. Taxis couldn’t keep up.

Official SXSWi registered attendance was 24,500, up from 19,000 in 2011. Some attendees griped that the show had become too big, too chaotic, just too much. But not Ebele Okobi, director of Yahoo’s business and human rights program.

“It’s not meant to be an intimate gathering,” Okobi said. “How much smaller would be good? 10,000? 1,000?”

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