Takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2011: Winners, Losers, and a Remainder


The biggest challenge for a company at SXSW Interactive is getting noticed. Now drawing 17,000 registrants and with heavy-hitting corporate sponsors, there are plenty of companies that come to the event and spend plenty of dollars. With so much going on, the winner is the company that can turn heads and get people talking during and after the festival. The losers are the ones who just get ignored.

The Winners of 2011:

Groupon won the battle of hearts and minds with empanadas. Dispensed from a bright green truck or a plucky cart, Groupon gave out free food to the drunk, the aimless, and the hungover alike. Delicious charity, combined with a general awe at their recent decision to turn down Google’s $6B offer, snagged Groupon the People’s Choice at the Interactive Awards ceremony.

Chevy did a lot of things right. First, they showed up to SXSW to promote a killer product, their new hybrid electric vehicle, the Volt. Then they started to make SXSWers happy by ameliorating two pain points commonly experienced during the festival: getting around town and smartphone battery life. To help attendees move around, a small fleet of Volts cruised around downtown Austin and gave free rides to wherever people wanted to go. To help people stay charged, they had a lounge with plenty of outlets centrally located in the convention center lobby. As a result, the Chevy Volt was a centerpiece of the SXSW 2011 experience.

Uber was similarly clever. Normally a mobile app-slash-private car service startup operating out of San Francisco, Uber took Austin by storm by deploying the same low-friction mobile architecture they use for their car service and wrapping it around a nearly ubiquitous pedicab service.

GroupMe was, more or less officially, “the hot new app” of SXSW 2011. While it remains to be seen whether group texting will chart the same meteoric path as microblogging services, it was widely acknowledged to be a “pretty cool, and pretty useful” tool for coordinating ad hoc groups.

foursquare garnered at least 5x as many check-ins logged as local competitor Gowalla at SXSW in 2011, emerging as the front runner of the location-based service battle for two years running now.

The Losers of 2011:

AOL is feverishly trying to rebrand itself, but no matter how many adorable steampunk octopi they put on SXSW swag bags, it seems like it’s still going to be a while before nerd culture stops … Next Page »

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Ryan W. Cohen is an MBA candidate and graduate fellow at Babson College, where he studies information markets and digital strategy. Follow @

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7 responses to “Takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2011: Winners, Losers, and a Remainder”

  1. Gene Babon says:

    Hi Ryan. Nice inside view. Most of us were not at SXSW. Here is my view as an outsider . . .

    SXSW Interactive Awards | 2011‏

    I welcome your perspective on the buzz around “The Wilderness Downtown” and “Collapsus.”

  2. Priya says:

    You make all of us at Babson very proud. Go Ryan!

  3. @Gene Thank you. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I don’t have much insight into the music or film side of SXSW. A shame, I know, but this was my first time at the festival so I was focused on trying to absorb as much as I could from the Interactive conference. Maybe I’ll widen my scope a little in 2012.

    @Priya Thanks!

  4. Great insight and thoughts on SWSX!!!


  5. Allen says:

    Ryan, is there a clean tech presence at all at SXSW? Or is it more geared to the Wired/tech nerd crowd?

  6. Gene Babon says:

    @Ryan. Interesting. What I presented were the award winners from the Interactive conference. So, apparently the SXSW Interactive Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, March 15 was not a part of the Interactive conference.


    Interesting, indeed.

  7. @Zaarly Thank you.

    @Allen There wasn’t much of a clean tech presence. It’s very much focused on the software side, and there were only a handful of “green” companies on the trade show floor.