Margie Chiu’s 15 Minutes Ahead: Observations from SXSW – Checking Into Geosocial

SXSW 2010 has come and gone, but to the dismay of press, attendees and those who yearn to claim “I was there when … ,” there was no sign of the next breakout app at this year’s event. Instead, the consensus was that geosocial – the convergence of location-based data and social networking – was the unexpected star of the event. 

What’s the big deal with SXSW?
South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) has become the must-attend annual event for the digerati. Some of the brightest digital starlets in recent years, including Twitter and foursquare, were first “discovered” at SXSW. Those in attendance at Twitter’s launch in 2007 and foursquare’s in 2009 still delight in having the bragging rights to “I knew them when … ”

So what created the buzz this year?
SXSW 2010 has come and gone, but to the dismay of press, attendees and those who yearn to claim “I was there when … ,” there was no sign of the next breakout app at this year’s event.

Instead, the consensus was that geosocial — the convergence of location-based data and social networking — was the unexpected star of the event. Take, for example, the thoughts of one venture capitalist interviewed by The Wall Street Journal: “One thing that was interesting was it ended up being a little of a social experiment with everybody there. All 17,000 or 18,000 people were connected on Twitter, Foursquare and Gowalla. It served almost as a big test for what would the world be like when people start adopting all these social tools.”

There was definitely no shortage of tweets and foursquare check-ins. In fact, foursquare set up 16 new badges and other exclusives for the event. Gowalla, foursquare’s rival location-based social network, also put its best foot forward. (Side note: Gowalla was also launched last year at SXSW, but like Jan Brady to Marsha, Gowalla has largely been in the shadows of foursquare. But Jan got her day; Gowalla beat out foursquare this year as SXSW’s best site in the mobile category.

So what actually happened?

I decided to dig a little deeper into this delightful microcosm of SXSW where “everybody” was connected.

First of all, most SXSW venues only had foursquare check-in rates in the double digits. On average, SXSW tagged locations registered a lackluster 35 check-ins. The Austin Convention Center had the highest number of check-ins at 4,634, but that also included 2009 numbers. So let’s say 75 percent of those were in 2010. With a base of 18,000 attendees, that’s a participation rate of just 19 percent. Gowalla didn’t fare much better (sorry, Jan), with 2,634 check-ins at the Convention Center — about 15 percent of total attendees.

And Twitter? Well, using Wunderman’s Listening Platform to sift through the retweets and mentions from nonattendees, we estimated that just over 5,000 unique individuals were actively tweeting from the event. Not bad at about one in four attendees, but definitely falls quite shy of “everybody.”

What’s the takeaway?

Even among the early adopters, usage of geosocial clearly hasn’t yet caught up to the hype.

But the real story that’s still writing itself is how eerily similar all of these services have become. Let’s see: You can post tweets simultaneously to Facebook and Twitter. Gowalla lets you tag your check-ins with comments and photos, not unlike Twitpic. Twitter is now rolling out geo-tracking, bearing an uncanny resemblance to foursquare and Gowalla. And there are rumors that Facebook is getting into the game by integrating with Gowalla and foursquare.

Who’s going to win?

My money is on Facebook as this year’s gorilla in geosocial. Its user base dwarfs that of every other social networking service. In fact, it’s recently eclipsed Google as the most visited site on the web. It already serves as the default cc: for many who are broadcasting Twitter updates, check-ins and mobile photo uploads via other services. A partnership with Gowalla and foursquare will place Facebook squarely in the sweet spot of geo-based social networking — without the fuss of building its own technology.

If you haven’t done so already, take a closer look at geosocial marketing. Once Facebook gets into the mix, it’ll explode. Guaranteed. Anywhere your company has a physical presence — retail locations, local events, industry conferences, etc. — is a great place to test the waters.

Recently my company tested foursquare and Twitter for a consumer product client’s local events. It’s been consistently seeing participation rates of around 10 percent or higher. Certainly not “everybody,” but definitely a respectable showing for a mass-market play.

Time to get on it. Perhaps you can be the one to say, “We knew about geosocial when … ”