How to Stand Out at SXSW? Lessons From GroupMe and a Pushy Lemonade Stand Guy

Getting a Startup Noticed Is No Small Feat, Especially Against Marketing Heavyweights PepsiCo, Chevy, AOL

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Kunur Patel
Kunur Patel
Getting a startup noticed at SXSW is no small feat -- especially when 6-month-old companies are up against the marketing heft of PepsiCo, Chevy and AOL. Since there are about three different apps for any single service, marketing is crucial for startups to both grab attention and claim a new market. It's the difference between Gowalla and Foursquare, GroupMe and GroupedIn, innovator and copycat.

On the sunniest day at SXSW, I traded my time for free ice-cold lemonade. Chatting on the phone, basking in the grass, a pop-up lemonade stand to the left looked like a gift from the geek gods. Without hanging up, I reached for one glorious, perspiring bottle. The lemonade guy stopped me, annoyed: "You're not going to hear my pitch?" I sheepishly hung up the phone and learned about Lemonade Stand, a neighborhood commerce app -- like Craigslist, but mobile, and no classifieds -- that was built on the startup bus from New York to Austin.

While all that guy had was a t-shirt, some ice and folding table, I still remember the app and could recommend it to any friends back in Brooklyn looking to unload some homemade pickles. Goes to show that in Austin, startups can leave the big money and big name acts to the big marketers. Later that week, I gave my email address to social commerce company Wantlet to enter a drawing for a free iPad 2 -- fingers crossed.

Some of the bigger-budget stunts fell flat -- I saw giant GroupedIn billboards on trucks just about everywhere in town, but I still have no idea what the app does. Thanks to the name and a little Googling, I know it, too, is a group-messaging app, like GroupMe. For what it's worth, that meant GroupedIn has been relegated to GroupMe copycat in my mind.

GroupMe is no doubt now among the SXSW darlings -- and that's definitely thanks to smart marketing. The group-messaging app had some traction with the press coming into the weekend. It didn't hurt that SXSW veteran Brooke Hammerling, founder of BrewPR, had a major hand in its marketing.

The app's presence was a perfect example of budget stretched well. One Brew staffer is a University of Texas grad and knew of a small burger stand across from the convention center. It wasn't tony or impressive, just intimate and fun. Hundreds visited GroupMe's small grilled cheese and Shiner Bock stand during the conference. There were picnic tables and umbrellas so people could sit down and enjoy the Austin weather. There was a cost for free food: Visitors had to show that GroupMe was on their phone before they could get a bite. But about 90% of visitors were already using the service to keep track of friends in town, said Ms. Hammerling.

Brew employees and GroupMe staff was on hand to demo the app -- bodies in branded T-shirts, for me, was the most important tool during SXSW. They were everywhere and I noticed more new apps or brands by simply people-watching at parties or noticing herds all donning the same logo.

GroupMe didn't hire evangelists; however, another hot app, Hashable, did. I met one shiller-for-hire at a party both startups held: She was an attractive, hilarious actress from L.A. In exchange for airfare, hotel and conference badge, she had come to Austin to talk about Hashable, and just hang out. But sounds like Hashable was lucky it snared such charming foot soldiers. "It can go wrong because evangelists have to truly know the product inside and out while at the same time have the skill set to be social and engaging rather than annoying and invasive," said Ms. Hammerling via email. However, "Hashable was totally effective with that."

Wantlet could have used a funny California actress. When I asked its free iPad lady what exactly Wantlet was, she said I could just find out in the email that was coming.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kunur Patel is a digital reporter at Ad Age. Follow Kunur on Twitter at twitter.com/kunur.
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