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SXSW - Heading Home

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The Flight Home: Reflecting on Key Themes

I’ve landed back at Heathrow this morning. The SXSW Guantlet is over. On the flight home I finally had a chance to begin collecting my thoughts, digest a weeks’ worth of barbeque and get some much-needed shut-eye (as they say in Texas).

So here now is some of my final thoughts coming out of #SXSW2012:

Ambient Social Location is the Future.

Ambient social, passive social, ambient loc-awareness – whatever you want to call it – is the future. These apps track your location and (through connections with your Facebook, Twitter, whatever accounts) tell you when your mates (or like-minded strangers) are around.

Even six months ago, things life Foursquare felt a bit too nerdy to break the mainstream, with early adopters confined to small networks and meaningless check-ins and virtual “badges”. However, in Austin, with all the early adoptors in one place, we saw the potential for what happens when location awareness reaches a critical mass.

And that’s how we saw the future of location awareness.

Foursquare, the app that started the loc-aware trend years ago, has just undergone some serious upgrades that have the network poised to stay a leader in the ambient social transition. Foursquare is moving on from its gamification elements of “checking-in” and earning badges and is now focusing on providing real value to users with features like Radar – an ambient social feature that alerts you when friends are nearby or you’re near something on your to-do list.

Highlight is the other SXSW-favourite ambient social app. It’s a simple app that alerts users when they’re near other Highlight participants with common friends or interests. For example, I could be walking down the road and get an alert that I was standing outside a bar that 3 friends were at or where people with similar interests to me are.

What’s the end goal of all of this? Newcomer Geoloqi is going to usher in the era of “geo-fencing” – where people use the app to set perimeters that enable actions when crossed. That means you can set the kettle and stereo to switch as you walk up to your front door. Sign me up.

The main drawback to ambient social is that constantly running and checking the apps can drain an iPhone dead faster than anything. This will be something that needs to eventually be rectified. Thankfully, at SXSW, we saw brands like FedEx and Samsung stepping up to the plate and offering a variety of “charging stations”. Expect to see more brands doing so until the hardware catches up with the software.

There’s More to Life Than Just Facebook

Facebook is still obviously the king of reach, but the constant surge of startups means that there’s now a network for every niche.

There’s the obvious new players like Instagram, Pinterest, Highlight and Geoloqi, but watch out for Path, Glancee, Sonar, Forecast, Ban.jo as location-based apps spring into the forefront. It will be interesting to which of these will be the one to succeed and which we will have forgotten by next year’s SXSW.

The influx of networks means that brands can experiment and test out new platforms and audiences, without a big investment or long-term commitment . As always, research and listening are key to finding the best network to test and I would always suggest trialing with a private undercover profile before jumping in feet first with your brand.

Social TV

The other big topic was Social TV. Everyone buzzing about Social TV knows that it’s going to be huge, but everyone is trying to figure out how customers want to engage with it.

The trick? Matching content to interests, just like in other formats. Is a viewer watching reality programmes? Let them vote and gossip along with them. Sci-Fi thriller? Get them deeper into the world they’re viewing. Game of Thrones? Don’t say anything while the show is on-air, it’s too confusing already, just wait until the show is over to start the discussion.

What’s most interesting to me is how Social TV effectively makes room for a new format where producers recruit editorial teams to layer high-quality social content over top of broadcast media. And, as with any new format, this brings excellent new models for advertising.

Google Goggles

They are coming, they won’t be stopped and they’re going to turn us all into cyborgs. Ray Kurzweil has predicted their rise, and he’s almost never wrong about these things. I am part-excited, part-afraid.

Something that Jamie and I realized on the flight home was that we spent just under a week in a city built on tech and culture with 25,000 fellow digital geeks – and we didn’t hear anything about the recession. Not once.

It seems that the tech space, fuelled by innovation and big ideas, is still booming.

In his lecture “Create More Value Than You Capture”, Tim O’Reilly said that if brands want to succeed in the digital space they have to constantly create more value than they take from customers. By constantly focusing on creating value, you build a sustainable business and a sustainable economy. That’s why Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are still booming.

Let that be a lesson to us all going forward.

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