Toronto's Tech Aim FTW at SXSW Interactive
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Toronto’s Tech Aim FTW at SXSW Interactive

Lucia Mancuso and Michael Dolan of The Blog Studio. Photo by Jaime Woo.

Austin’s SXSW Interactive Festival has been in full swing for the past week with an estimated fifteen thousand registrants, a healthy 50% bump over the previous year. Interactive began as part of the SXSW Film Festival, but grew quickly enough to justify an offshoot. With tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Digg, and Twitter having used SXSW as a launchpad for new ideas and products, SXSW looks likely to soon outpace the better known Music Festival in numbers and significance.
“SXSW is the only event worldwide where brands of any size can connect with the media, investors, and public all in one place, and to connect on a global scale,” says Lucia Mancuso, managing director of The Blog Studio, a Toronto-based social media strategy and development agency.
Toronto’s involvement at SXSW has grown over the past few years, corresponding to the growth of the city’s tech and social-media scene. “This year the community has gone from just being attendees to actually giving panels and events, bringing Toronto onto the global stage,” says Mancuso.

An obstacle for Hogtown’s hopefuls is the sheer volume of competition. In addition to four-hundred sessions occurring over five days, the nights are filled with countless parties lining Austin’s 6th Street from the likes of tech media darlings Digg and io9. Michael Dolan, who heads up strategy and outreach for The Blog Studio, believes Toronto has a fighting chance to break out, not only because of the large proportion of Torontonians attendees, but also because of the city’s reputation for social-media-savvy citizens.
One trend at SXSW Interactive is to create a game to engage attendees. Torontonian Jay Goldman is behind the marketing and community of Rypple, a site built to help users give and get fast feedback and quick coaching at work. The site recently launched Workplace Hero at SXSW, which rewards players with stickers and T-shirts when they send “kudos” to recognize the good work of others. In effect, Workplace Hero has players unwittingly trying out Rypple, which also emphasizes passing on praise in a workplace environment.
Mancuso and Dolan have also launched an online promotional game called SXSW Geek Yearbook, which “is a lot like an electronic version of a high school yearbook,” says Dolan. There are categories such as Prom King and Most Likely To Be Found In The Gutter, and people nominate their friends for a category by snapping their photo, which appears on the site in a yearbook format. The nominees are shared and then opened up to public voting.

Mancuso and Dolan’s SXSW Geek Yearbook.

A game seems at odds with a conference, but Dolan notes: “SXSW is about business, but it’s also a giant party for geeks. Games are popular at SXSW because it’s a way to meet new people, provide a fun ongoing distraction from the conference, and share whatever product you happen to be promoting.” It works to share a business message because it appears innocuous and non-intrusive, because of the game mechanic.
For The Blog Studio, these games aren’t just for conferences but could also help brands and businesses interact with customers. Very soon, the game creators will find out if their gambit at SXSW will be a smash. Even if it isn’t as successful as expected, Mancuso still sees the value of being in Austin: “We’ll see over the next few days several of the big new launches in tech, and the Toronto people here will bring these new ideas back to the city, ensuring that we stay on the cutting edge of tech.”
In this way, the way games work proves instructive on SXSW attendance: playing bears no guarantee of a win, but not playing is the surest way to lose.
Jaime Woo is a tech and social media writer, and was a panellist at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference. He’s also a former Torontoist contributor.