How Snapchat won this year's SXSW

The Austin Convention Center during the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, March 12, 2016.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Austin Convention Center during the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, March 12, 2016.

This year, the app that everyone was talking about at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival wasn't something that debuted at the event. The platform didn't throw a massive party, or even have an official presence.

Still, for some reason, everyone couldn't stop talking about Snapchat.

"With SXSW you have people who tend to experiment with technology and a place where people are running around having unique experiences," said Josh Rickel, vice president of media and entertainment for social media marketing platform Spredfast. "Snapchat is perfectly designed to share these ephemeral moments."

There's no exact reason why so many people decided to download Snapchat for the first time during the festival in Austin, Texas. (While the platform didn't provide any official statistics on the number of downloads during the event, an informal survey of more than a dozen attendees by showed many people believed that Snapchat was the most used app this year at SXSW. Many of them had downloaded it for the first time as well.) Some noted it may have been because many teens running around were snapping, piquing curiosity.

"Snapchat has definitely hit mainstream in 2016 with audience demos expanding. This has been marked by traditional publications and political campaigns sharing content on the platform," said Tom Edwards, marketing agency Epsilon's chief digital officer of agency. "Snapchat inherently is also a great event platform. With SXSW music starting soon, you will see even more from Snapchat as they create Live Stories consisting of event-based user content and of course brand opportunities."

Others noted that talk about the number of geofilters — image overlays available to people in a specific area — made nonusers curious. This year, Spotify and Samsung bought sponsored Geofilters for anyone in Austin to use, said a Snapchat spokesperson.

Samsung's geofilter for SXSW. Photo courtesy of Tom Edwards.

Other companies like Gatorade and Vevo bought on-demand geofilters, which were extremely targeted and usually only available inside a company's event space.

"For an environment like SXSW, leveraging the filter's geotargeting capability allowed consumers who went through our experience to enhance their social sharing with a filter connected to what they were experiencing in real time, and we believe it may have applications across things like sports camps and with our retail partners," said Kenny Mitchell, senior director consumer engagement for Gatorade.

Gatorade previously bought a brand-themed lens during Super Bowl 50 that made it look like the user was being doused by the sports drink. The company said it was viewed 165 million times. It's also worked with Snapchat's Live Stories around sports.

"For our core consumer target Snapchat is definitely one of their most used apps," he said. "We are currently working closely with Snapchat in the develop of our strategy to best leverage the platform to engage our primary consumer: Teen competitive athletes."

People who went through the Gatorade Fuel Lab experience at SXSW in 2016 were able to use this custom on-demand Geofilter. Photo courtesy of Gatorade.

Advertising agency RPA's director of growth and innovation, Tim Leake, downloaded Snapchat for the first time this weekend but said he wasn't convinced that Snapchat was for him. Using it at SXSW, however, showed him how it could potentially be a great vehicle for advertising because of how engrossed people got when they used it.

"I'm still just as baffled generationally about its appeal, but I also have a sense of how engaged people are when they use it," he said. "I still don't like it for me, but it appeals to them. That's important."

With more company and agency leaders downloading the app, it could mean good news for business, said Spredfast's Rickel. More familiarity could lead to advertising buys, which some brands have been hesitant to do in the past. Giving company leaders the ability to play with the platform during the festival allowed them to see how engaging Snapchat can be, even though it also brought up the difficult learning curve when you first use the platform, said Rickel.

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"It's certainly not the easiest platform to use, but that by its nature leads you to talk to other people you know who are using the platform," Rickel said. "In some ways, the 'social' part of Snapchat is the onboarding experience as a user. You need a friend to teach you how to use it. From there it transforms into a one-to-one or one-to-many broadcast platform."

Epsilon's Edwards said now is the time for the company to try to turn the buzz into advertising dollars.

"Snapchat is organizing their approach to monetization through the addition of audience targeting capabilities and more robust analytics," he said. "This is a key move to ensure advertising dollars continue to shift to the platform. Snapchat can continue to gain momentum by continuing to focus on features and experiences that enhance and entertain their audience while also empowering brands to connect with their audience base in a relevant and contextual way."