March 25th, 2011

#SXSWi 2011 Key Takeaways

The annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival wrapped up over a week ago and I am finally starting to feel caught up on sleep and missed work.  I have had the time to reflect on the experience and learning with a semblance of organized thought.  Here are the themes and my key takeaways from SXSWi 2011.


Gaming is more than just entertainment.  The extensive gaming topics at SXSWi were really all about game mechanics and incorporating those into work, play, education and general problem solving.

Seith Priebatsch, the founder of location-based game SCVNGR, made the point that game mechanics can be used in any situation to drive results from the targeted audience: incorporating a different rewards system, involving team/communal aspects and instilling time limits all are ways of changing the way people engage in various activities, thereby making them a game rather than a chore.

Gaming is being talked about even outside the uber-techie audiences of SXSW: the March issue of Wired magazine, in an article titled “How Games Make Work Seem Like Play,” Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken says:

“‘Games are the future of positive psychology’…Games, she says, bring out our better angels: When we play a game, we think creatively, collaborate, and persist. ‘You can apply game design,” she adds, ‘to anything.’”

It is time to start thinking about game mechanics and how those can be leveraged in marketing communications and outreach.

Location, Location, Location

Location-based services will continue to evolve.  It is no longer just about finding your friends and announcing to your friends that you are at someplace that is cool. It is going to be about discovery and expanding the users’ worlds. Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, believes that users will ultimately want recommendations through location-based applications rather than the coupons or promotions.

Location-based services will continue to grow.  More users are joining every day.  Foursquare has 7.5 million users. SCVNGR has 1 million users.  There is an assumption that Gowalla has approximately 1 million users. Facebook has 600 million users and the approximation is that 30 million of those have tried Facebook Places.

Businesses need to be exploring and experimenting with these tools.  Their customers are already checking in and leaving tips and recommendations.  It is time to become part of those conversations and even enhance the experiences.


Marketers talk a lot about social networks and social media.  And many tend to erroneously think of social networks as another channel for “pushing” messages to a target audience.  But what social networks are really about is community: groups of like-minded people coming together to share experiences.  It is time to remind brands that this is what consumers want and stop social media from becoming just another advertising channel.

Social Behavioral Norms Applied to the Social Web

One of the most interesting presentations I saw at SXSWi was done by a design team from Frog Design that used a dinner party as the analogy for social media and our interactions through those social channels.  The point was this: we understand how to behave at a dinner party with varying types of audiences and relationships, but we have no idea how to translate those behaviors to social media.  And brands are especially bad at this.  Their advice was to humanize brands and think about social media interactions as simply social interactions:

  1. Pull back the curtain and give people access to the information they want and need.
  2. Stop selling and start sharing.  Self-promotion is awkward in social situations.
  3. Stop talking and start listening.  What are people saying about you and what can you learn from that?

This seems so obvious, yet no brand is doing this really well yet.  It is time to consider the space and act like we would act in a social world in which we were physically present.

Trans-media Storytelling

Trans-media storytelling is about taking the viewer through a story in a more interactive way, jumping from channel to channel across video, mobile applications, websites and even print.  These channels are used both simultaneously and independently.  The varying channels can work together while playing to each of their individual strengths to make the user/viewer experience richer and more entertaining.  Many brands and storytellers are already doing this; now it has a name.  For those that have yet to dip their toes into this method of storytelling, it is time to start experimenting.

Keep the User Experience in Mind.  Always.

Marketers, designers, developers, and people in general are too inwardly focused.  We all tend to think about what we want and what we understand and what we need.  Yet, we are typically communicating, designing and developing for others.  We all know, intellectually, not to do this.  But, practically, we do it any.  It is time to stop that and consciously make the effort to consider the end user.


The number of entrepreneurs, authors and innovative people in general present at SXSWi was awe-inspiring.  Through the power of the internet and technology, starting a business is easier than ever before which, of course, leads to a flooded market.  But there are some great ideas floating around.  I can’t wait to see what next year brings.

In addition to all the education and thought-provoking sessions that contributed to the experience, I also had some learning about how to manage my days and log my experience at SXSWi.  These are my notes to myself when planning for next year:

  • Don’t carry computer and accessories around all day; the iPhone and iPad are more than sufficient for taking notes.
  • Pack snacks.
  • Get a good camera and learn how to use it to document the experience in photos.
  • Figure out how to document the experience via video.  More video, less words.
  • Take a wingman.  A week at a conference is more fun with a friend, preferably someone you can riff with.
  • Buy Red Bull for the hotel fridge.

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