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March 11, 2009 2:37 PM PDT

What to expect at SXSWi, part 1: Marketing and launches

by Caroline McCarthy

This is part one of a four-post series.

It was a sort of worlds-collide surprise when I heard recently from a few guys from my hometown whom I've known since college. They wanted to talk to me about this month's South by Southwest Interactive Festival, that annual everyone-goes-there digital culture bacchanalia in Austin, Texas, which runs from Friday through next Tuesday.

You see, these friends of mine had recently started working at a company called JagTag, which creates barcode-based marketing campaigns for clients like sports teams and apparel brands. They're hoping to spread the word about the start-up at SXSWi by strategically placing postcards around the festival: take a picture of this barcode with your camera phone, e-mail it to them, and they'll send you a digital list of all the SXSWi parties.

It's a cool idea. Everyone at SXSWi always seems confused about exactly where the parties are.

Basically, South by Southwest is the ultimate petri dish for testing out new apps and gimmicks since the entire city of Austin is more or less taken over by tech enthusiasts who are eager to try out innovative ways to meet up, socialize, and the ever-important "consume media." That's how Twitter broke out among the digerati in early 2007. It's also a hot spot for marketers, because SXSWi is the kind of conference where people don't just want to swap around business cards--they are eager to hear what digital mavens are talking about and get a glimpse at the next big thing.

That's why a lot of the high-profile efforts on behalf of big tech companies are focused on those companies' start-up outreach and small-scale innovation arms. You won't see a big marketing presence from the likes of Yahoo or Google, except for a party hosted by Google's Reader and Blogger products. But Microsoft is doing a bunch of stuff: Windows Mobile is sponsoring the TechSet Blogger Lounge at the convention center and holding a Rat Pack-themed party on Friday night, its BizSpark start-up resource division has joined up with music service Imeem to hold a barbecue "meatup" (ha! ha!) on Monday, and SXSW also marks the finals of its Phizzpop design challenge.

Given the dismal economy, there won't be a whole lot of new companies launching at SXSWi this year. There are a few: Social search company Aardvark and answer-outsourcing service Standard Answer are both making their official launches at SXSW (the latter with a party). So is mobile networking app FourSquare, created from the ashes of the blogger-beloved Dodgeball. Another location-based app, Whrrl, is releasing the second edition of its iPhone app in conjunction with SXSW; concert listing company BandLoop is debuting its first iPhone app, conveniently also tying into the SXSW Music Festival that immediately follows Interactive.

There will be loads of marketing campaigns bombarding Austin for those five days, even with budgets slashed this year. Expect to still obtain some unwanted swag and other bizarre free stuff. And never forget Red Bull, the energy drink company with a seemingly bottomless barrel of marketing dollars at its disposal. It's the big sponsor for Facebook's hotly anticipated party on Sunday night: and nerds love energy drinks, after all.

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos. E-mail Caroline.

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About The Social

CNET News' Caroline McCarthy is a downtown Manhattanite who believes that, despite popular opinion, the Web can actually help your social life. She's happily addicted to fun social-media tools from Twitter to Yelp to Facebook, sends an inordinate number of text messages, and has a tendency to waste time at the office reading restaurant blogs. Here, she explores all facets of the Web's gregarious side, as well as the unique tech culture in her home city of New York. (Don't call it Silicon Alley.)

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