Takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2011: Winners, Losers, and a Remainder


The biggest challenge for a company at SXSW Interactive is getting noticed. Now drawing 17,000 registrants and with heavy-hitting corporate sponsors, there are plenty of companies that come to the event and spend plenty of dollars. With so much going on, the winner is the company that can turn heads and get people talking during and after the festival. The losers are the ones who just get ignored.

The Winners of 2011:

Groupon won the battle of hearts and minds with empanadas. Dispensed from a bright green truck or a plucky cart, Groupon gave out free food to the drunk, the aimless, and the hungover alike. Delicious charity, combined with a general awe at their recent decision to turn down Google’s $6B offer, snagged Groupon the People’s Choice at the Interactive Awards ceremony.

Chevy did a lot of things right. First, they showed up to SXSW to promote a killer product, their new hybrid electric vehicle, the Volt. Then they started to make SXSWers happy by ameliorating two pain points commonly experienced during the festival: getting around town and smartphone battery life. To help attendees move around, a small fleet of Volts cruised around downtown Austin and gave free rides to wherever people wanted to go. To help people stay charged, they had a lounge with plenty of outlets centrally located in the convention center lobby. As a result, the Chevy Volt was a centerpiece of the SXSW 2011 experience.

Uber was similarly clever. Normally a mobile app-slash-private car service startup operating out of San Francisco, Uber took Austin by storm by deploying the same low-friction mobile architecture they use for their car service and wrapping it around a nearly ubiquitous pedicab service.

GroupMe was, more or less officially, “the hot new app” of SXSW 2011. While it remains to be seen whether group texting will chart the same meteoric path as microblogging services, it was widely acknowledged to be a “pretty cool, and pretty useful” tool for coordinating ad hoc groups.

foursquare garnered at least 5x as many check-ins logged as local competitor Gowalla at SXSW in 2011, emerging as the front runner of the location-based service battle for two years running now.

The Losers of 2011:

AOL is feverishly trying to rebrand itself, but no matter how many adorable steampunk octopi they put on SXSW swag bags, it seems like it’s still going to be a while before nerd culture stops thinking of them as a relic of an era when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were cute. This is something of a shame, since their portfolio now includes some interesting projects like Seed and Phoenix that might actually demonstrate a newfound capacity to innovate. On the other hand, few attendees were convinced that AOL’s current strategy of “buy popular blogs, try not to ruin them” will turn out to be anything substantive.

I do not envy the job of HP’s marketing agency, Porter Novelli. They had a tough assignment. Getting people excited about a company whose website is a decade behind the times is difficult, especially when the hot new product they bring to the table for a SXSW marketing push is e-printing. Not the new tablet debuting this summer, or their unlocked GSM Palm smartphone, but a service that is essentially a cloud version of network printing.

Still, the folks at PN put together a pretty respectable, and expensive, experiential marketing play with their HP Mobile Park, replete with retro trailers, astroturf and free booze. Not enough to put them on the winner side of the tally, however, especially when one also considers that HP bought space as a loading screen for the SXSWGO mobile app, but designed the screen so poorly that few understood who or what it was advertising.

The Remainder:

It’s difficult to say whether SCVNGR should chalk up SXSW 2011 as a win. On one hand, CEO Seth Priebatsch’s keynote speech was widely acclaimed, though not quite as much as Jane McGonigal’s talk. On the other hand, the flagship SCVNGR mobile app saw little traction amongst the attendees. Perhaps this doesn’t really matter to SCVNGR as much as their new daily deal app LevelUp.

Ryan W. Cohen is an MBA candidate and graduate fellow at Babson College, where he studies information markets and digital strategy. Follow @

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