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Looking back at #SXSW: 3 ideas that dominated this year’s show

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Digital Technology

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The South by Southwest Interactive Festival has a bit of a reputation as a coming-out party for hot new social technologies. Twitter and Foursquare rose to prominence after making waves at the show in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Last year saw Foursquare and Gowalla duke it out for the location-network crown.

But this year was a little more complicated. I’d love to tell you that I have been to Austin and I have seen The Next Big Thing — but I didn’t see one big story this year. Instead of one hot technology, I felt like there were three conversations that kept popping up at this year’s panels, parties and meetups.

I expect to be talking about these three areas again and again over the next year:

Small-group networking: If any one network came close to breaking out at this year’s conference, it was GroupMe, a service that allows users to send text messages to predefined groups of people. The network was a popular choice for conference goers looking to make sure they ended up at the same party as all their friends. It’s a great tool, no question. But I feel like it was just a part of a larger conversation about small-group networks.

GroupMe faces its fair share of direct competitors, such as the Facebook-owned Beluga. And there was decent buzz around a handful of other applications that use the small-group concept in other ways, such as the photo-sharing application LiveShare or Locaii, which lets users create conversations based on their physical location. I felt like the conversation wasn’t so much about GroupMe as it was about the notion that social networks aren’t one-size-fits-all anymore. Instead of treating everyone you know as one big online family, you can segment your conversations to fit your life.

Games are great, but… : I felt like there was a sea change in the conversation about games and marketing at SXSW. In his keynote speech, SCVNGR CEO Seth Priebatsch proclaimed that the next 10 years will be the “Decade of the Game Layer” — but that’s not the same as saying games are The Next Big Thing. In fact, Priebatsch’s talk wasn’t about traditional games at all; it was about game mechanics.

The drumbeat of social gaming has gotten louder over the past year — but the tone of the conversation at SXSW was markedly different from what I’ve seen at other social media conferences. The question on everyone’s lips wasn’t, “Where will the next Farmville come from?” but rather, “How can we use ideas from the world of gaming to build engagement?” That shift makes the conversation much more universal. Games may not make sense for every organization, but engagement is something everyone can benefit from.

Yet that conversation is still theoretical for many brands. I didn’t get the sense that Priebatsch or anyone else had a concrete notion of how to marry game mechanics to organizational goals in a holistic fashion. The questions are getting more interesting, but we may have to wait until next year’s show for someone to put forth a compelling answer.

Topical marketing: This is my dark horse pick for the year. The notion of latching on to current events to drive social media marketing isn’t new; yet it’s a topic that seemed to be increasingly popular at this year’s show. These conversations about responding to trending topics and riffing on viral memes weren’t being driven by new technology so much as a more sophisticated understanding of viral content. It’s harder to get people to talk about your brand on its own than it is to be part of a conversation people are already having.

Being able to react to the Web at large in real time can be a challenge for most brands, but based on what I heard at this year’s SXSW, it wouldn’t surprise me if we saw more companies work to develop faster, more agile processes for capitalizing on Web memes and other popular discussion topics.

Of course, lists like this one are subjective. These are observations gleaned from panel talks and chatting with fellow attendees, not hard data. And I didn’t go to every session or talk to every attendee — that would be impossible. You could easily have attended the same show and have come away with a very different list. So let’s hear it. Sound off in the comments and tell me what I missed this year.

What were the big trends you noticed at this year’s SXSW?