Race for SXSW's 'big app' was over before it started

Has the PR industry put the cart before the horse at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Conference?

Has the PR industry put the cart before the horse at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Conference?

Late last week, I approached our chief innovation officer and asked him for some advice about getting the most out of my first visit to SXSW. Don't roll your eyes. Yes, it is my first time here, but I am not alone. I just met New York 1 technology reporter Adam Balkin, and it's his first SXSW, as well.

According to sources familiar with the situation, SXSW expects almost 25,000 attendees for the interactive portion of the conference this year, significantly up from 19,000 last year. So you do the math.

Of course my colleague shared with me important information such as:

  • “Always call it South by, never South by Southwest.”
  • “Don't over share with your social network.”
  • “Have a breakfast taco for me.”

As well as his many party and event invitations.

He also said something that struck me: “This year, the most hyped app of the conference is Highlight.” To be accurate, my colleague wasn't suggesting that Highlight was going to the next Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare, all darlings of past SXSWs, or even a Gowalla or GroupMe, the previous darlings of past SXSWs that no one really talks about any more.  He was simply telling me that Highlight, which incidentally is about one month old, was receiving a lot of attention, even before the conference. The app tracks an individual's general location through GPS and then alerts them when they are near friends of friends or individuals with similar interests.

I took a look myself, and he was certainly right. Bloomberg BusinessWeek writes, “Highlight conquered this year's South by Southwest, the Davos of tech, before it starts on Friday.” TechCrunch, Robert Scoble, and Business Insider also covered the app well in advance of SXSW - and to be fair, in advance of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

I really shouldn't have been surprised that the SXSW hype war was won before I even knew that it started. As PR professionals, it's our job to be both the generals and the foot soldiers fighting that war on behalf of our clients. 

For Highlight, whatever it seems to be doing is working, well sort of. I downloaded the app before I even left New York, and I turned it on once I arrived in Austin. But I won't keep it once I go home — who wants the real world to know their every move? And while it did work, I still find myself a little disappointed because I was really looking forward to being a participant in the collective experience of identifying the “next big thing” at this year's conference. 

Of course none of this would have been possible without the help of journalists, who are often complicit in our mission. This is not to say for one moment that they can be manipulated, “spun,” or coerced to write anything that they believe to be untrue. But they do have a very vested interest in being the one who picks the winners first, especially here at SXSW. I was told that approximately 37,000 journalists approached SXSW for press credentials this year and more than 90% were granted them. If brands feel like SXSW is a glutted and noisy environment, think about how it must feel to be a journalist. How can they possibly differentiate themselves from their 36,999 competitors, which doesn't even include the 25,000 other “citizen journalists” in attendance, “reporting” in the social cloud (don't even get me started on the re-tweets)? Wrapping up the conference before it has even started is certainly one way to do it.

But if everything is determined beforehand, then it raises the question of whether or not anyone really needs to attend SXSW. Of course the answer is still “yes.” The networking opportunities are second to none. It feels much more friendly and accessible in comparison to a show like CES, and so far the parties have been a lot of fun. Hopefully the rain will stop and I will get to enjoy The Daily's pool party on Sunday. And it's only day one, so hopefully there will be some exciting real discoveries in time for my next post on Monday.

So far, the biggest technology discovery of SXSW for me took place in my hotel room. I discovered Lodgenet's new mobile app, which enables your smart phone to function as the remote control for your hotel TV. It was just launched in early February, and as far as I am concerned should be heralded as the mobile app innovation of the year. I can finally watch TV in my hotel room without fear that I am contracting a communicable disease!

If you see me pop up on Highlight, at least through this week, please say hello!

Jason Schlossberg is president and partner at Kwittken & Co. The agency won honorable motion for Small Agency of the Year at the 2012 PRWeek Awards. You can follow him on Twitter @JSchlossberg.

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