How To “Win” SXSW: Hint – It’s The Same Answer Every Year

sxswi parties - sunday nightphoto © 2006 Liz Henry | more info (via: Wylio)Editor’s Note: René Pinnell is CEO and Co-Founder of Hurricane Party, a free iPhone app that makes it easy and fun to create spontaneous events with your friends. He has lived in Austin for the past 28 years, experiencing SXSW as a film director, tech entrepreneur, and music fan. His favorite moment at SXSW was in 2010 when Bill Murray poured shots behind the bar at Shangri-La.

Speculation as to which app will be the most used at SXSW this year is already well under way. No doubt, this is a question that is dominating any number of conversations among reporters, investors and start-ups, and is certainly a subject of increasing speculation here in Austin.

Let’s be clear: we do this every year before SXSW. But, this time the question would seem to hold an even greater level of importance. The difference this year is not which app or technology SXSW will help surface above the start-up noise, but rather which app will help SXSW take back control of the chaos it has unleashed.

The trouble with SXSW reached a tipping point last year. The interactive portion of the conference has grown so much that people are beginning to question its value, or at least what SXSW Interactive now stands for. As Jolie O’Dell pointedly critiqued: “Too many people, not enough tech.”

In fact, I think it’s safe to say everyone agrees that SXSW has gotten out of hand.

But, really, it’s not about the size, as Robert Scoble pointed out recently; It’s about the tools to properly manage it.

The Myths of SXSW

SXSW is not the real world (unless of course you consider thousands of nerds jumping up and down as Kevin Rose throws Apple gadgets into the Diggnation crowd, a normal thing).

The actual reality is that while SXSW may be some odd, fantastical microcosm that hints at possible mainstream success, the conference and how services perform here cannot be taken as any kind of barometer of scalable success.

Why? Because the pain points of SXSW are magnifications and exaggerations of the real world, rather than the other way around. SXSW is about scaling down rather than scaling up, which is precisely why every year we speculate on which service will be the one that everyone needs to use.

Twitter was successful in 2007 because so few people were using it. Those of us using it at the time were basically a small band of early adopters, who could follow and communicate with our equally geeky friends.

The same can be said for Gowalla and Foursquare. Disregarding last year’s “location wars,” both apps were actually fun and useful precisely because they hadn’t blown up yet. For example, I didn’t find out about the infamous “Revolving Door” party until the next morning because no one in my small network of friends knew to go to the Hilton and check-in. But for everyone there, this was a defining moment in their SXSW experience.

This is certainly no longer the case with Twitter, which has scaled to become almost entirely useless as an insider communication tool. Remember last year when Gary Vaynerchuk tweeted out the location of his wine party? Within minutes, hundreds of people lined up and Gary stormed out exasperated, in search of a larger venue to accommodate his followers.

So when Scoble declares that we need to create the “MicroSXSW experience,” he’s actually declaring what has always been true. The question is really which service will enable quality over quantity communications and organization this year. Which app will provide the backchannel for you to meaningfully engage with your social network in the real world?

Taking Back SXSW

The app that “wins” SXSW this year will excel at three things:

  • Spontaneity – Help you to find, share and create plans on the fly.
  • Exclusivity – Allow you to communicate and coordinate with a small group of friends.
  • Serendipity – Open enough to reveal serendipitous opportunities and help you take advantage of them.

For example, let’s assume I see everyone talking about the Foodspotting Street Food Fest party on Twitter, so I head that way. A few seconds later, I get a push notification that a friend of mine has checked in there on Foursquare. Chances are I won’t be able to find him in the crowd, so I shoot him a text message to meet at the corner.

So far, so good. But, it has already taken me three different services to meet up with my friend, and there are still any number of barriers just getting there. After all, SXSW moves quickly, plans change, and you have to be able to improvise.

To have a legitimate conversation with my friend, we will likely need to ditch the overcrowded scene and find a quieter place to talk. And once we’ve decided on a spot, I’ll definitely want to round up some of my other friends to meet us.

This all sounds simple enough, and in the real world it may be. But we’ve already determined SXSW is not the real world. While we constantly ask ourselves if a service can scale up, what we’ve come to realize at SXSW is that a service must also be able to scale down.

Neither Twitter nor Foursquare hold the kind of value for users that they did when they garnered their SXSW acclaim. That is certainly not to say that they aren’t useful – only that their usefulness is no longer particularly attuned to the pain points of SXSW.

When I look back on my previous SXSW experiences, I remember the little moments – the 4:00am conversations over migas at Kerbey Lane, plotting new ventures in the Driskill bar, or watching the sunrise as we walked home to shower and do it all over again – these are the moments that define a successful experience at SXSW.

The app and technology that wins SXSW this year will be the same that wins every year – the one that provides the backchannel to achieve actual social value amid the insanity of SXSW.

This year, think small in a big way.