For SXSWi, Chevy plugs into social media

An ambitious load of marketing initiatives from the GM division, which is preparing to launch its Volt electric car, emphasizes that brands increasingly see the digital-culture fest as a place to test campaigns.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read
This black Chevy Tahoe hybrid is being driven by a team of New York-based bloggers on their way to Austin for SXSWi. Nick McGlynn

For certain brands, a "social media strategy" consisting of a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account is last year's model.

One of the trends you tend to see at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi) in Austin, Texas, is that it's where big, nontech brands show up to test edgy social-media marketing initiatives in the ultimate geek test bed. A brand we'll be seeing a lot of at this year's SXSWi, which starts Thursday, is the General Motors-owned Chevy.

A sponsor of the festival, Chevy is going all-out with just about every variety of social media campaign imaginable: it's commissioned eight cars full of prominent bloggers and Twitter users to drive from their hometowns to Austin, naturally tweeting and TwitPic'ing their every move. (One of the members of the New York team, ubiquitous downtown party photographer Nick McGlynn, has been posting updates from the squad's Chevy Tahoe hybrid like "PANCAKE ON A STICK!")

For the SXSWi festival itself, Chevy is experimenting with some of the most buzzed-about mobile technologies: location-based networking, barcode advertising, and augmented reality. It's partnered with Austin-based geolocation app Gowalla to scatter around a variety of virtual goods, accessible by Gowalla check-ins, which can then be redeemed for free Chevy rides. It's also using quick response (QR) barcodes to provide access to mobile sites with information about vehicles (presumably these QR codes will be distributed around promotional posters and the like), and has launched an augmented reality app called "iReveal," which will "unlock three-dimensional models of Chevrolet vehicles," according to a release.

Testing this stuff out with eager SXSWi-goers is a preliminary move for Chevy, since launching a Gowalla tie-in or an augmented reality app isn't the sort of marketing campaign you can introduce to the mainstream just yet. A year or two down the road, the situation may be very different; it was a full two years between Twitter's impressive debut among the SXSWi crowd and its appearance on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, after all.

This big social-media push comes as Chevy draws closer to the launch date for the Volt, the electric sedan that some pundits say is essentially tasked with saving the beleaguered General Motors. SXSWi attendees, who are generally well-educated, early-adopter types hailing from digital industries headquartered in major cities, may not be representative of the general U.S. population. But they sure are the kinds of people who might buy electric cars.

As a tie-in, Chevy will have Volt-branded electrical charging stations around the Austin Convention Center where SXSWi attendees will be able to plug in their various mobile devices. Clever.