Heading to SXSW? 5 Trends to Watch

Social discovery, social TV generating buzz this year

Is it really called work when so much of what you're doing involves barhopping and barbecue? It is when you're in Austin for South by Southwest.

This week, the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference—the five-day extravaganza where techies congregate to opine about social media by day and socialize over beer and brisket by night—kicks off. And it looks like it's shaping up to be as big and busy (and boozy) as ever before.

Over the next few days, thousands of geeks will head to the heart of Texas to attend more than 900 keynotes, panels and workshops on everything from "hacking YouTube" and how to "game online dating" to Web privacy and the future of almost everything. (Clicking through the online schedule itself is an exercise in exhaustion.)

The conference is nothing if not comprehensive, but every year a few trends seem to generate the most chatter. To get a sense of what to expect, Adweek talked to a few techies making the annual pilgrimage to SXSW. Whether you're Austin-bound or just wishing you were, here's a look at what they say could be ahead.

1. Social Discovery/Ambient Awareness

So far, the biggest startup action seems to be centered around this trend. In time for SXSW, a handful of startups, such as Sonar, Highlight, Glancee, Banjo and Kismet, have launched new or upgraded apps meant to help users discover the people around them who share friends or interests. Some apps alert users to connections after they check-in to a location, others more passively ping users when their phones spot a contact nearby.

Jalak Jobanputra, managing director at RTP Ventures, said she’ll be testing the emerging social discovery apps this week. And, what will distinguish the leaders from the laggards, she said, are the ones that most accurately connect her with the most relevant people.

“I think the key is really the utility,” she said. “It’s really about the filtering.”

For social media enthusiasts at a yearly networking event, these apps are a perfect fit. But they also raise another issue sure to attract attention at SXSW: privacy.

“Passive discovery is something that early adopters are really interested in, and I think it can be really beneficial given the circumstances of SXSW,” said Angeline Vuong, senior product strategist for interactive agency Huge. “But otherwise, it can be kind of creepy.”

2. Social TV

As sporting events, elections and celebrity weddings continue to show us, people love talking about TV almost as much as they love watching it. And even though social TV was a big topic last year, expect it to loom large again this year.

Last year, the conversation centered around whether social TV drives tune in, said Kristin Frank, general manager of digital media for MTV and VH1. But, this year, she said, she expects people to talk about who owns social TV, how to bring brands to the party and how different departments at television networks are becoming more integrated to make social more successful.

“I think people will not only be talking about it and thinking about it,” she said, “but, also, hopefully able to share a little of their learnings.”

3. Big data


With panels exploring every corner of our digital lives—from advertising to politics to moral psychology—expect big data to be another big trend at SXSW.

Not only will people be talking about how to use metrics and analytics to achieve business goals and improve marketing campaigns, but they’ll also be talking about how to use data for personal health and fitness programs.

Startups are increasingly deciding against tackling tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter head on, and, instead, building overlaying apps that leverage their data streams, said Huge's Vuong.

“People are taking data and almost hacking it to do what they want to get a more compelling result,” she said. “I think we’re going to continue to see that trend of making compelling experiences out of existing networks and the data you can aggregate from them.”

4. Beautifying the Web


Chances are (especially if you’re female), you’re already in love with Pinterest. But the virtual pinboard isn’t the only startup to attempt prettify the Web. AOL’s About.me, Path, Instagram and even Facebook’s new Timeline exemplify a larger industry move toward visually compelling, aesthetically sensitive apps.

And, said Tony Conrad, About.me founder and CEO and venture partner at True Ventures, that trend will be on display this week.

About.me was launched to give people a bold, beautiful way to express themselves online, he said. And, in the past year, he said, he’s heard from more entrepreneurs hoping to offer similar experiences.

At SXSW, he said, “We’ll see a ton of drop-dead gorgeous apps.”

5. Marketing Meets Tech


In 2007, Twitter made a big splash at SXSW. A few years later, it was Foursquare. The conference has also boosted the profile of many other startups that chose Austin to make their debut. So, it’s really no surprise that marketers want to go where the action is.

“In the last [couple] of years, it’s seemed like the floodgates have opened up,” said Rei Inamoto, chief creative officer for digital agency AKQA. “Especially from the communications and creative industries around advertising—those people started to join the bandwagon to SXSW.”

Between 2009 and 2011, he said, attendance at SXSW from the agency world increased tenfold. And it seems like the numbers will be strong again this year.

But Inamoto said that despite the role SXSW has played in the launch of prominent tech companies, there’s probably still too much weight given to the companies that do well at SXSW. Just because startups do well during one week in Austin, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well for the mainstream.

The question to remember, he said: “Would any of these startups and tools break through the circle of geeks and nerds?”