At the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) last week, messaging start-up GroupMe gave away 2,500 grilled cheeses branded with the company logo, and drained 13 kegs of Shiner Bock beer. It also saw over 2 million messages sent during groups created specifically for communication during SXSW, too, co-founder Steve Martocci told CNET.
"Things are going very well," Martocci said of the start-up's promotional efforts at SXSW, which included the "GroupMe Grill" strategically placed across the street from the Austin Convention Center for the distribution of the aforementioned free beer and grilled cheese to anyone who could prove that they were using the GroupMe app. "I had never been (to SXSW) before. I knew it was going to be cool, but I had no idea it was going to be this cool. The grilled cheese stand blew away my expectations for what was possible. The thing was so fun, it was such a great centralized meeting place. I met so many great people and set up so many meetings through it...more importantly, the user feedback we got just being at the tables with the users while they were enjoying their beers, it was great."
Yet while GroupMe's showing at SXSW was impressive, there still has been no resolution to the pumped-up "group messaging wars" that some of the annual Austin, Texas, festival's attendees were anticipating--nor is it clear that there will be one anytime soon. Groups were created on GroupMe for sure, but they were also popping up on rivals like Beluga (newly acquired by Facebook), Fast Society, Kik, and one called GroupedIn that seemingly no one had heard of before SXSW but whose sign-toting volunteers were unmissable outside the convention center. The question for these companies now is not just which one, if any, will "win," but whether users will keep up the manic messaging.
The truth is that social SXSW-goers spent the week getting invited to group after group, on multiple services, with a blend of push notifications and text messages buzzing throughout the day and night. They didn't have to be restricted to one service--no, the "Karaoke Meetup" group could be on Beluga, and the "Saturday Brunch" group could be on Fast Society, and the "March 16 Airport Carpool" group could be on GroupMe. Unlike last year's much-touted Foursquare vs. Gowalla geolocation service matchup, using more than one group messaging service actually doesn't cause too much dissonance.
"With all these group messaging tools, there was no winner," Fast Society co-founder Matthew Rosenberg told CNET, adding that Fast Society had seen a 25 percent uptick in usage throughout the festival; though it did not distribute any grilled cheese, Rosenberg said that Fast Society's SXSW party drained 90 bottles of Patron tequila (some of which had been used to spike tequila-flavored ice cream) and 4,000 cans of Dos Equis beer. "At the end of the day, no one stood out. What I think happened was, at the end of the day the people that loved us, loved us, and they loved us even more at SXSW."
A digital marketing firm called Pop Agency did some basic number crunching--e.g. analysis of how much each company's name turned up on Twitter--and found that GroupMe prevailed at least in that category. There were 6,417 mentions of GroupMe, 5,422 of Beluga, 1,811 of Kik, and 1,303 of Fast Society according to an infographic that Pop Agency put together; the whole thing made TechCrunch writer Alexia Tsotsis quip, "If we're judging the winners by Twitter mentions, doesn't that mean Twitter actually won? Well, welcome to tech."
But for all these start-ups, perhaps the most important goal of SXSW is not "making it big," but seeing first-hand how their apps are used in an environment that can only be described as hyper-social. "I think that the ongoing debate, the big one, and that's the one that we're having sit-downs with people and discussing going forward, is managing the interruptiveness of text messaging, and making that a really seamless and solid process," GroupMe's Martocci told CNET. In other words: Yes, group messaging can be annoying in Texas-sized doses, and even the people who build the technology understand that and are working on ways to solve the problem.
Fast Society's Matthew Rosenberg said that the company is working on a feature that he was not yet willing to disclose, but said that it's "so rad." He also stressed Fast Society's pride in bucking tech-startup trends. Instead of millions of dollars in venture capital, it's running on less than $300,000 in angel funding, and instead of using the Twilio platform to power mobile messaging, it's built an in-house technology in the hopes of cutting costs long-term. "We not only kept up with our competitors, in a lot of ways we pushed out features ahead of them," he said. "Raising a ton of cash and giving up your whole company, it's just not the same as trying to struggle and prove yourself."
But things for Fast Society, which eagerly brands itself as "built to party" and filled a sprawling back yard outside of Austin's main drag for its SXSW soiree ("We killed it. Our party was nuts. I mean, our party f***ing rocked, dude. There's really no other way to put it"), it may soon feel pressured to keep up with the bigger GroupMe rather than simply offer a slicker, more contrarian app that's more finely targeted toward the young and hip. There are "tons of app updates" coming soon, Rosenberg said, and "we're figuring what's next for our company in terms of funding, in terms of next steps with that."
Both Martocci and Rosenberg--and, presumably, other CEOs in the group messaging world--seem to understand that courting users with the help of grilled cheese and tequila-spiked ice cream is very different from keeping them around once the party's over. They may realize that they should prepare for a user base that will consist of a small number of very active users and a bigger base of sporadic members who tune in every few weeks, or maybe even only a handful of times per year. The behavioral patterns for how these services will be used in the real world (because, let's face it, SXSW is not the real world) haven't panned out yet.
Granted, after Twitter and then Foursquare exploded at SXSW, critics wondered whether people would actually keep using those services when the festival closed up shop for the year, too. At this point, group messaging companies' fates are really in the users' hands.