For SXSW Marketers, Smartphone Apps Are Yesterday’s News. Wearables Are What Matter

But brands are waiting for critical mass

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If Roberto Moctezuma was trying to launch a mobile startup just a few years ago, he'd only have to think about use cases involving iPhones and Samsung Galaxies. But as he demonstrates his three-month-old app called ThereThere at South by Southwest this weekend, everyone wants to know how it will work on Apple Watch, Samsung Gear and other wearable devices.

And like most of the other 30,000-plus folks attending the Austin, Texas, conference, Moctezuma is just beginning to get his head around what needs to be done.

"We have to think about wearables and the Internet of Things," Moctezuma told Adweek after speaking on the topic Contextual Applications: The Next Wave. "Because wearables produce a lot of potentially valuable data. They measure your temperature, your activity, etc.

"At the same time, that poses a pair of problems. How do we filter the data and use it at a higher level? I have like 64 metrics on my phone that I track everyday, but what does it mean and how do we interpret it? We have to figure out how we use [wearables] data.

"The second problem is that you [don't want to] only employ data to project into the real world things like push notifications. Instead, it needs to be a very conscious and deliberate interaction. There will have to be very sophisticated rules compared to what we've been accustomed to."

ThereThere is slightly reminiscent of 2012 SXSW darling Highlight in that it lets users see where other people are. But while Highlight was targeted at bar-hopping millennials, Moctezuma's play focuses more on family. So if you want to know that your child is at school while simultaneously seeing that your sister's flight landed safely in France, ThereThere might be of interest. More than a thousand people have downloaded the app since it came out of beta last week, Moctezuma said.

During his wearables presentation on Saturday morning, he discussed the potential problems that data-driven products for the home and body can bring to bear. "We all have smart products that have gone awry," he said. 

Which raises another important dilemma: Can wearables and Internet of Things inventions deliver utilities within proper contexts? It's a huge question that needs to be answered before consumers in droves buy such products, and it's a big reason why major marketers like Campbell's are at the Central Texas tech and marketing conference. Umang Shah, director of global digital marketing and innovation at Campbell's, said the consumer packaged goods giant is keeping an eye on the market before investing in the wearables space.

"We have to reach critical mass first," he said. "Once certain devices get to scale, that will tell us where to invest and inform us how we can play in it.  While I don't know when we get there, I think there's massive potential."

Will Apple Watch get consumers attention when it begins appearing on wrists in April?

"In typical Apple fashion, it won't be the best watch out there," Shah remarked. "But I think it's the watch that the masses will adopt, which I am excited about because it will change the marketplace. I am more excited about what Apple Watch represents and what it will do for the industry than I am the watch itself."

Tinitell, a Norway-based startup that offers wristphones for kids, threw out some numbers during an early afternoon presentation that animate Shah's contention that wearables are a lucrative area. In less than a year, according to Tinitell CEO Mats Horn, his company sold 40,000 units at $129.

"That's $4 million on the table right there," he said.

Tinitell entails just a few buttons that allow a child to easily call his or her family members. It connects with smartphone apps, allowing moms and dads to determine who their child can speak with. "Parents get peace of mind, and kids can be kids," Horn said.

Meanwhile, the wearables discussion in Austin has been incredibly wide-ranging. For instance, implanted brain chips are evidently going to become more normal in healthcare. While no one has implied that brains chips could soon be used for brand marketing research—anything and everything seems possible in the next few years.

"It's the Wild West," said Jonathan LeBlanc, head of global developer advocacy at Braintree and PayPal.

Lastly, Shah of Campbell's describes in the Instagram video below what he's looking for in startup partners. 


A video posted by @adweekreports on

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.