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Notes from Austin: This year’s SXSW Interactive

This year, the conference was all about improving customer experiences.

South by Southwest Interactive is the Super Bowl, or maybe the Olympics, of the web-based tech world. Each year, thousands descend on Austin for a chance to hang out, learn from industry thought leaders and discover the next big thing in tech. Or at least that's the promise of SXSW. But like all things, the conference is evolving, and over the last decade we've seen a gradual, but steady, move away from the bleeding-edge early adopter and toward the general tech enthusiast, social media marketer and corporate advertiser.

As someone who's seen the conference evolve over the last several years, it's clear to me that it's no longer simply a technology conference aimed at generating buzz for new tools. It's now a people-centered event, where the value of these new tools isn't measured solely on technical merit, but also by the extent to which they make our human connections and web experiences more meaningful. Is it still the greatest event for showcasing the best and brightest new technical innovations? No. But there's still plenty to appreciate.

These three themes from the conference show how the industry is becoming more customer-focused, improving our experiences on the web and beyond.

The tools themselves

New applications and web-based services are still the technical foundation of SXSW, but this year the currency is less about technical innovation and more about providing clear value to a community — from hyper-local to global.

  • Group texting – The pre-conference buzz was all about which of these services would emerge as the leader of the pack. And while there's no clear-cut winner, the underlying theme is clear — in a noisy, busy world, we need tools that help us connect and communicate easily with close-knit social groups.
  • Localmind – Last year, location-based services got our attention by introducing a game layer on top of real-world locations. This year, Localmind took it a step further by allowing people to ask questions about specific places and get answers by people who are actually there. As we see services like Gowalla and Foursquare struggle to gain mainstream traction, a service that offers a value in the form of real-time recommendations may be the tipping point that brings location services to the masses.

Giving back as a business unit

Giving back is quickly moving from something that businesses and individuals do as a side project, afterthought or only during holidays to a dedicated and sustained effort in making the world a better place. This year's SXSW saw everything from individuals pledging relief money to Japan via Twitter, to a keynote address that told the story of how an entire business was built by their giving initiative.

  • HelpAttack – This service allows you to pledge a dollar amount for each of your status updates. They facilitate the transaction at the end of the month and work with you to determine a per-update rate that fits the amount you want to give in a month.
  • Thank-you economy – Gary Vaynerchuk gave a rousing speech dedicated to the idea that saying "thank you" to your clients, in whatever way you can, is the key to building meaningful relationships in business. In a world with ever-growing marketing noise, it will take a vocal community of evangelical fans to make your brand stand out.
  • TOMS Shoes – At the extreme is TOMS. Blake Mycoskie has built his entire business around the story of "one-for-one." You buy a pair of Tom's shoes, and they donate a pair to a needy child. Blake explains that without the story, TOMS would never have grown to become the organization it is today. His word-of-mouth marketing by people who bought his product has been his most valuable business asset. And even though he didn't set out do to do something philanthropically great as a marketing strategy, the results speak for themselves in the continued success of the business.

The customer voice is stronger than ever

Even the way we build applications is changing. How? By inserting the voice of the customer in the build-and-release process. From methodologies to best practices to applications, the voice of the customer has a larger role than ever before in shaping the tools that help businesses grow.

  • The Lean Startup – The Lean Startup movement has taken the startup world by storm and even had a day-long track at SXSW this year. The key principals are building products and services as efficiently as possible by involving the customer at the earliest possible stage, and then building to the market using your audience as the rudder for features, value and price. These ideas mirror the conference direction as a whole by emphasizing concepts like feedback and value over simply building the newest shiny object.
  • User-centered design – From websites to applications to registration processes, user-centered design is the future of the way we conceive, prototype and build new features and applications. The very definition of design is evolving from something that needs to look great, then perform, to something that has to meet the needs of users intuitively, then be styled to make that experience fun and visually engaging.
  • Get Satisfaction – This year's winner at the conference for best business app, Get Satisfaction facilitates user feedback by embedding a friendly link and interface into websites, allowing users to post comments and suggestions on-the-fly as they use a product.

What made SXSW especially fun this year is that the trends we saw there are very similar to how we work here at Emma. We preach engagement and relevance, segmentation and availability. Also, giving back is important to us, and we make it a part of our day-to-day operations.

I know lots of you are thinking about the same things. So how are you making your product or service more meaningful? What ways are you finding to engage people in a personal way? Please let us know in the comments. After all, we don't have to wait for another SXSW to roll along – there's plenty to talk about all year long.

Grey is Director of Market Strategy at Emma, connecting our view into the online marketing landscape to Emma's product roadmap.