Recap: Mobile Technology, Geolocation, and Singing in the Rain at Mobile Saturday

Today’s post comes from Ben West, co-founder of Xomo and @benjwest on Twitter. Xomo creates official mobile apps for some of the world’s biggest events including the 2010 and 2012 Olympics, Sundance Film Festival, South By Southwest, Lollapalooza and hundreds more. Ben is also the co-founder of Intergalactic, a digital agency specializing in mobile development, interactive installations, web, and visualization.

I had the good fortune to speak at this year’s SXSW as part of Urban Airship’s Mobile Saturday and came away learning as much as I had imparted during my presentation. Somewhat reminiscent of SXSW’s secret music shows a massive line had formed at the venue a full two hours before sessions began resulting in a queue nearly two blocks long. For someone like myself who is employed in the mobile industry this is a reassuring sign of the robust and growing interest in our field. Our 12:30 p.m. presentation was focused on geolocation and geofencing and I was joined on stage by two industry leaders: ABC News’ Peter Roybal and Redbox’s Roe McFarlane. We kicked off the session with an overview of my company’s history and how this reflects the changing face of the mobile audience.

Four years ago Xomo launched its first app at the Vancouver Jazz Festival amidst high expectations that the entirety of the audience would hungrily download the new digital version of the program. What soon became apparent was that there was a huge disconnect between the early adopters of mobile technology (ourselves) and the general public. We spent most of the event roving the fairgrounds looking out for any attendees bearing a smartphone so we could walk them through the process of installing an app. Overwhelmingly the audience was both unaware that a digital program guide existed and how to go about installing apps on their smartphone.

Fast-forward to 2013 and we have seen mobile technology evolve rapidly from the realm of early adopters to that of ubiquity. This is particularly evident during SXSW where we now see more downloads of our official app than there are attendees. Four years is a remarkably short time period to adapt to this new means of communication and content consumption, and as an industry we are playing catch up and learning how best to use the medium.

In my presentation I used the analogy of “Singing in the Rain” in which an industry is coming to grips with the transition from silent films to Talkies to highlight that any new medium brings with it both technological and best practice challenges. Mobile devices have made their way into our homes at a blinding pace but we are still in the Cambrian-explosion stage of this technology. We can expect that our understanding of how best to deliver content to our audience with this technology will evolve for some time through a process of trial and error. Additionally we can assume that the audience’s behavior and perspectives will change over time on everything from privacy concerns to UI expectations; content producers need to be aware of this shifting landscape and adjust their approaches accordingly.

The crux of our panel discussion surrounded one of the key differentiators of mobile technology over traditional mediums; that is, the ability to leverage geolocation data for the purposes of delivering highly relevant content. In a world where we are bombarded with a growing cacophony of messaging the way to reach your audience is not by shouting above the noise but instead by becoming increasingly relevant. Geolocation offers content providers a way to dramatically boost their relevancy by creating on-the-fly geofences. Need to communicate with users of a specific Chicago neighborhood ahead of an inbound storm? Want to thank attendees as they leave your event’s venue? Geofencing and the pervasive connectivity of mobile devices means that your message will arrive immediately and to the right user group.

Mobile technology has experienced dramatic and widespread adoption over the past few years and it has become a requisite extension of how users communicate and consume information; however judging by the size of the lineups at Urban Airship’s Mobile Saturday at SXSW there exists a huge thirst from content creators to understand how exactly to leverage this medium. Just as with the advent of Talkies we will initially make mistakes using this new technology, but in doing so we will gain an understanding of how to deliver highly relevant, meaningful content to our users.