The Future Will Be Twittered

The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, Texas is a showcase for geeks and their new toys, but the event held earlier this month broke new ground in another way. Anyone who runs corporate events or works in a time-dependent business should be fascinated — and maybe a little scared — by what transpired there.

The highlight was the keynote interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by BusinessWeek’s Sarah Lacy. Evidently, a lot of people in the audience didn’t much care for Lacy’s rather interruptive questioning style or her cozy familiarity with the subject. They were also put off by her failure to involve the audience more directly in the line of questioning.

So they started Twittering about it. And as the interview went on, the comments passed between attendees took on a life of their own. By the 50-minute mark, the emboldened audience was actively heckling the moderator. Lacy was a bit flustered, but she finished the interview. When she walked out of the auditorium a short time later, bloggers armed with a video cameras were there to record her reaction to the audience’s behavior. Here’s a video of the entire interview, annotated with audience tweets.

Sarah Lacy is a professional, and she will be just fine. She posted a response on her BusinessWeek blog and noted that the incident was actually good for pre-sales of her forthcoming book. What struck me about this incident is how it portends change in the speed of customer feedback.

The Feedback Conundrum
Veteran conference organizers know that getting audience feedback is like pulling teeth. They’re lucky if 20% of the attendees at an event even fill out evaluation forms, and it can take months to tabulate those results. Events are intimidating to audience members; they don’t control the microphone and they can’t communicate with each other very well. Services like Twitter change that equation.

The reason events at SXSW unfolded as they did is because audience members were able to communicate with each other. That’s the scary part. No speaker likes to think of a scenario in which his or her performance is judged in real-time, although I can certainly think of times when I wished I could pull a speaker off the stage.

The potential upside of this trend, however, is enormous. Imagine if you could stage an event — whether a conference, media campaign, product demo or something else — and get real-time feedback from the people watching. Or what if you could tie promotions to timely responses: “Text this number now in order to receive a 20% discount.” The technology to enable this interaction is here right now. I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the possibilities. What potential do you see?

Blogging, which started life as a rapid form of candid customer feedback, has now evolved into a near-real-time medium. When audience members feel they can comment directly to each other about a shared experience, their honesty is disarming. Marketers can learn to leverage tools like Twittervision, and Tweet Scan to tap into these conversations or to initiate new conversations themselves. All it takes is familiarity and imagination. An excellent list of third-party Twitter applications is available at the Twitter Fan Wiki.

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