The Breakout App of SXSW and What It Means for Events

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When Ed Gala, global head of events and sponsorships for Philips, arrived at South by Southwest on March 12, he had not heard of Meerkat. That's not surprising since the free live-streaming app only launched on February 27. But what a difference a day--and an event full of avid techies--can make. Gala became a believer in the potential of Meerkat Friday morning while showing the C.E.O. of a digital strategy company around the Philips exhibit in the Austin Convention Center.

"She said, 'I'm going to Meerkat this, do you mind?' So we engaged in a live-streamed exhibit tour using Meerkat. There were about five people watching, and I was so impressed with the fact that we could take our message out and show in real time all the exciting things happening in the exhibit. Shortly after she left I thought we have to experiment with this because it's a really important tool for us to leverage moving forward," Gala says.

Meerkat has become the breakout app of SXSW, both despite and because Twitter cut the app's access to its social graph on Friday, the first day of the festival. That move, which means the app no longer auto-populates with a user's Twitter followers, generated widespread media attention and, according to Mashable, a 30 percent jump in users.

"You can't go two feet without seeing someone on Meerkat here [at SXSW]," says Bryan Kramer, C.E.O. of digital marketing agency PureMatter. Kramer used Meerkat for the first time from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this month and is now using it in Austin.

So why all the hype? After all, Ustream and others have offered mobile live-streaming for years. "There's something about the simplicity of it. People just took to it, and it reinvigorated this notion of 'hey we can stream online,'" says author, entrepreneur, and consultant Joel Comm, who has been "meerkatting" (or "meercasting") daily from SXSW, taking viewers on a tour of the trade show floor and traveling with him down city streets.

"It has to do with timing, it has to do with the fact that mobile data streams can support mobile video now and then also really the cuteness of the meerkat [logo], the fun features they've put in there, the design, the name," Kramer says.

While the app--currently only available for iOS--is required in order to broadcast a live stream, the session can be viewed without the app, on any mobile device or from the Web. The app generates a tweet that announces the start of a broadcast, and the link can also be shared on Facebook and other social media. Viewers cannot save someone else's stream, but hosts can save sessions on their devices and then share them elsewhere, such as on YouTube. Anyone viewing a broadcast in the app can "like" it by clicking a heart, retweet a link to the stream, and post a comment, which is visible to other viewers and to the host.

Gala says he sees a lot of potential to use Meerkat to create exposure for Philips. "Our strategy is all about creating world-class face-to-face experiences, but at the same time extending those experiences beyond the walls of an exhibit, and far beyond the location that we happen to be in physically. The tools available to do that are growing all the time, and this availability of live-streaming is one of the latest ones that, because it's so easy and because the power is in the hands of any attendee to extend their personal experience out to their network, creates a great opportunity for the attendees and the companies," Gala says.

As can be the case with any crowdsourced content, video streams on Meerkat can be unpolished--without a tripod the video is naturally shaky--but Gala believes audiences accept those limitations. "The appetite and the suitability for home-grown, user-generated content is high now and only growing. This won't necessarily replace the professional live-streaming capabilities, but it dramatically broadens them," he says.

Whether Meerkat will prevail as the app for mobile live broadcasts is yet to be seen. Twitter's action to limit the app's access to its social graph coincides with the announcement of its acquisition of Periscope, a similar live video-sharing system. But the buzz about Meerkat has sparked a renewed interest in streaming and Comm says planners should expect to see attendees experimenting with it, for example streaming keynotes, panel sessions, booth tours, product demonstrations, parties, and more.

"Clearly it's not just the large cameras that are walking in the door anymore. Everybody has a device. So I think we'll see a lot more, whether it's Meerkat or Periscope or whatever--it's here to stay," he says.


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