What If the Real 'Winner' of SXSW Was … AmEx?

162 and Building the Commerce Engine Beneath Social Services

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Have you heard about the hottest startup to announce a new product at South by Southwest Interactive? It had the most ubiquitous new product, it threw the biggest party with one of the world's top celebrities, and it may change how we think about social commerce. Presenting the winner of the SXSW 2012 buzz bowl: American Express.

In the year that AKQA's Rei Inamoto presented a keynote talk on why ad agencies should act more like tech startups, a 162-year-old financial services company acted like a tech startup, and stole the attention away from the thousands of startups represented there. Here's how AmEx did it:

It debuted an innovative product. AmEx Sync now allows merchants to offer special offers that consumers can redeem by tweeting an offer to Twitter. There have been enough attempts at Twitter commerce before to warrant some using the shorthand t-commerce, but no company – Twitter included – has done so with such a broad reach, an aggressive marketing campaign, and major brand partners like McDonald's, Whole Foods, and Gulf Oil.

It expanded on a pilot, giving it a launching pad. AmEx actually introduced Sync in Austin last year, but with Foursquare only. At dozens of locations around the city, AmEx offered consumers a way to earn $10 in statement credit when they loaded the deal through Foursquare. AmEx already had credibility with these early adopters, so it didn't have to sell the concept of this brand innovating with social commerce.

It was digitally ubiquitous, at least for the target audience. Sync now works with Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook, but AmEx hasn't been pushing Facebook at SXSW. Why? Even though Facebook has a major advantage in terms of user numbers, the SXSW audience is obsessed with Foursquare and Twitter. It's possible that Facebook will wind up being the dominant platform for Sync, but that wouldn't have gotten the attention of the Austin crowd.

It offered a clear value proposition. Consumers with an AmEx card can get $10 credit at a wide range of local businesses, and there's the potential to receive more credits through Facebook and Twitter.

It was the loudest marketer in all of Texas during SXSW. The initial campaign for AmEx Sync with Twitter was a Jay -Z ticket giveaway. Nothing came close to that in Austin for generating excitement. It helped that he put on an excellent show.

AmEx had plenty of competition. Before the festival even started, most pundits -- myself included -- declared Highlight the hottest technology to launch at SXSW 2012. We were wrong.

What's even more jarring is the next-most-buzzworthy product debut, from a baby of a company 48 years young. It was the Nike + FuelBand, a product that attempts to encourage people to be more physically active, also with social underpinnings. The $149 gadget sold out quickly whenever the limited supplies were restocked, and Nike created high-tech, interactive experiences centered on some of the most central real estate in downtown Austin.

Last year, SXSW die-hards were concerned that corporate brands were taking over Austin. This year, brand marketers were far more prominent, but no one was complaining. Next year, startups should spend less time courting major brands and more time acting like them.

David Berkowitz is vice president of emerging media and innovation, 360i.
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