Social Discovery Apps Strike Out at SXSW

Why there wasn't a breakout app at this year's SXSW

An emerging class of “social discovery” apps—which monitor your location and alert you when you’re in close proximity to people who have similar social media contacts or interests—dominated the hype cycle last week at the South by Southwest Interactive conference. But despite incessant cocktail party chatter about apps like Highlight, Sonar, Glancee and Banjo, none ended up enjoying a SXSW breakout along the lines of Twitter or Foursquare—when they worked at all. Many attendees were left wondering whether these apps could really be worth brand advertisers’ time.

“It’s just not useful,” said Daniel Hou, a technical product manager and strategist for digital agency Huge. The idea of connecting with friends of friends could be valuable, he said, but for these apps, quality is still lacking. For example, you might want to meet your best friend’s good friend, but not so much the friend of a high school buddy you haven’t spoken to in more than a decade.

However, Sonar co-founder and CEO Brett Martin sees potential for brands to forge deeper connections with their social fans by linking personal preferences to offline experiences. For example, in December, a Wired magazine pop-up store employed Sonar to deliver personalized product recommendations to shoppers.

“I think people always want to connect,” said Martin. “There’s always this hope that something magical’s going to come along and technologies like Sonar can make it less random.”

The technology to subsegment friends for specific messages and actions is built into the apps (think Facebook groups and Google circles), but until more strides are made and adoption numbers rise, social discovery isn’t going to grab brands’ attention, Hou said.

“I think the space is interesting,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ve seen anything that was compelling enough to recommend to my clients right now.”