I’ve been attending SXSW since 2009.  Every year, it’s a hot mess of people and ideas.  But this year, as a consequence of social media, the festival exploded in size. The city of Austin struggled to manage the influx but snarled traffic andiStock_000014285229XSmall.jpg long lines persisted.  Torrential rain didn’t help matters, either.

Still, I left Austin inspired.  Here’s what stood out:

1.    B2B brands, especially start-ups, are starting to look more like consumer brands.  They have bright, engaging identities and strong brand narratives.

Insight:  Strong branding of B2B startups helps them sell into big, and middle market businesses that sign up for the solution but say “yes” for the cachet of affiliating with a cool, social media savvy startup.  Furthermore, venture money has been trained to appreciate branding after a decade of betting on consumer focused start-ups.

Opportunity:  B2B brands will start to pay for better branding.

2.    Geeks are from Venus; marketers are from Mars.  Game and platform developers have subtle, but profound insights into what makes users buy. Marketers weren’t the ones leading the most enlightening sessions about consumer behavior I attended.  Developers were.  I walked away with a head full of cutting edge ideas.

3.    In an age of social, with its emphasis on personal brand building, jerks really stand out.  I witnessed amazing acts of kindness at SXSW, such as the man who chased after me when he overheard that I had lost my shuttle pass and gave me his because it was his last day.  I also witnessed a kind of extreme posturing among the digerati that smelled like teen spirit.

Overheard in the badge line:  “Try not to think of yourself as socially awkward; think of yourself as a snob.  That’s what I do.”

Tip: Be nice.

4.    Social media is changing campaign dynamics.  Think patterns, not spikes, in marketing activity.  Big launches no longer deliver the same punch and are just too costly.  Instead, winning brands will make sincere, persistent interactions between themselves and their customers.

Point taken:  “Brands that make persistent emotional deposits will have more success.”  Adam Keats, Weber Shandwick.
It’s impossible to take in all that SXSW Interactive has to offer with over 1,000 sessions and hundreds of parties.  To give you a flavor for the experience, here’s my take based on what I sampled:

Quick hits:

Trending:  FOMO, standing for Fear of Missing Out, is a user motivation driving frequent Twitter and Facebook check-ins.

Emerging leader:  Thor Muller, CEO of Get Satisfaction, the fast-growing solution for managing and scaling customer relations that builds trust among customers while cutting the high cost of help desks.  The service is gaining traction among clients such as Microsoft as well as investors.  During my interview with Muller, he talked about ways that social media is affecting planning cycles for companies.  “It’s never been harder to plan. Traditional planning is no longer useful when there is this much disruption.”  Muller advocates for “planned serendipity” that allows a company to put itself into close proximity to positive, serendipitous opportunity by recognizing a few key patterns.  Look for Muller’s book, appropriately titled Get Lucky:  How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work, due out later this year.

Most surprising:  Lisa Ling from the daytime talk show The View gave a revealing look at how social media has eroded her self-confidence.  “Will they re-tweet me?  What do they think of me?  The more I share, the more insecure I feel about myself.”  The poised Ling even dropped the f-bomb for emphasis!

Most ubiquitous App:  Highlight.  During a packed panel on the State of Social, a quick show of smartphones proved that most people in the audience were using the handy app Highlight, which lights up your phone when you are in proximity to someone else with the app, displaying their profile.

Most talked about talk:  Reformed con artist Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me If You Can fame, gave a moving talk about the importance of family.  An unlikely choice for SXSW, but the digerati loved his heartfelt story.

Biggest anything:  Besides the endless registration lines, there was documentary maker Morgan Spurlock’s debt.  During a panel, Spurlock admitted to racking up $250,000 in credit card debt ramping up to his documentary Super Size Me.  He was there to talk about a new partnership with Hulu as the rerun repository seeks to create original content.

Unique Gen-Y giveaway:  A session with a notable mentor.  The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts uses mentorship sessions with alumni to motivate students in its interactive program for first-year students.

Best party:  Austin is party city during SXSW.  The Downtown NOLA party, hands down, is one of the very best parties. People attend for the live music. The smaller scale of this party also helps.  Most SXSW parties occur against a wall of noise, so the networking is throat killing. But at this party, people are too busy dancing to network.