Beaconfire Survey: What we learned at SXSW and NTC

Periodically, we do a survey of Beaconfire staff to get impressions on a variety of issues. All opinions expressed here are solely those of their authors.

March has been a busy month for us: with SXSW Interactive and NTC happening back to back, it felt like all conference, all the time.  Now that we’re all settling back into our regular routines, we asked staff: what’s your favorite thing that you learned or saw at a conference this month?


Rebecca, Functional Consultant:

My favorite UX-related sessions had three things in common: they were entertaining (even completely hilarious at times), shared specific stories or case studies, and gave very actionable advice. Check out Jared Spool’s Anatomy of a Design Decision, Joshua Porter’s Metrics-Driven Design, and Lou Rosenfield’s Site Search Analytics for a Better User Experience.


Ashleigh, Marketing Consultant:

My favorite thing was learning about the new web made movie tool by Mozilla Foundation. It’s an open source HTML5 video framework that allows you to intersperse web pages, Google Maps, etc throughout your video. The platform is free and offers the ability to use it right away or customize it with coding. The goal of Popcorn and Butter are to make videos more interactive vs. them being stand alone boxes that just embed into a page.

See more at and


Jo, Functional Consultant:

It’s hard to pick my favorite session from SXSW, but the highlight was probably hearing Clay Shirky explain why social media is playing a huge role in revolutions in the Middle East: not because it’s helping protesters coordinate in the present, but because it’s been a channel for protest groups to organize and grow stronger for years, long before the recent protests started in Tunisia and Egypt.  It’s their long-term relationships that social media helped to develop.

Another great session was a Q&A with representatives from Google and Bing about how SEO works. The key takeaway: if you have good content, and it’s properly formatted, that’s the most important thing you can do. Once you have that, focus on building links from other sites to your site (which other sites will be happy to do if you have valuable content).  This is what we’ve been doing all along, but it was very nice to hear it put so concisely, by the people who make it happen.

Mark, Functional Consultant:

At NTC, I attended the Managing Stakeholders: the Art of Managing Up, Down, and Across, where there was an interesting discussion around using and managing “backlogs” in organizations. Typically a document that helps to drive “sprints” in Agile development, a “sprint backlog” is a running list of features/functionality that you use to prioritize and manage what you try and tackle in each sprint. What doesn’t get addressed in the current sprint gets kept in the higher level “product backlog” as a starting point for deciding what will be in the next one.

However, backlogs as a concept can be applied to different types of projects and situations as well, to keep track of features, functionality, ideas or decisions ongoing. Be it from phase to phase, project to project, or just over a period of time, the backlog can be used to actively track and document the conversation, and continually help prioritize what’s next.

I found the idea interesting in that it’s a tool meant to help prevent anything from falling by the wayside. In the backlog, you never delete but only continually prioritize what to focus on next. It’s also seems an interesting way to help organizations think bigger picture than just the current project and by revisiting it, continually be looking down the road.


Rob, Marketing Consultant:

Convio hosted a session on personalization of emails, and a presenter from the American Cancer Society discussed the impact of personalizing emails. Clickthrough rates grew enormously with just a little bit of customization. Appending“in [YourState]” to the subject along the lines of “Making a difference” nearly doubled clickthroughs. Mentioning the specific interaction that a person had with the organization (walk-a-thon versus donation) had a similar impact. A small difference in wording made a huge impact!


Jeff, Principal:

The two best sessions I went to both involved HTML5/CSS/JavaScript topic.

One was a good discussion about the future of flash in the new world where some mobile devices don’t support it and on others the performance isn’t quite there yet. The conclusion was that for cross platform considerations use flash for additive features rather than core features unless you can’t do what you want to do any other way. The emergence of HTML5/CSS3, and JavaScript JQuery allows you to do ‘most’ of what flash is normally used to do. But flash will also evolve and likely stay relevant but just for different uses.  (session was Flash is dead / Long live flash)

The second (HTM5 Hack) was about the convergence of HTML5/JavaScript powered web applications with the mobile app development. There are an increasing number of projects and platforms that will allow mobile development in core HTML5, JavaScript, CSS3 that can then be deployed cross platform and into native apps. This is exciting for web development shops who can focus on these foundational tools and not have to create completely separate teams who know the languages for iOS, Android and other competing mobile platforms.


Neal, Software Engineer:

I learned that you can follow along via Twitter and get fairly good coverage.


Scott, Functional Analyst:

The Future of the Map panel showed how easy it was for technical novices to setup a map, using either Google maps or Ushahidi’s new hosted mapping platform, explored some fantastic collections of data, and gave examples of best practices for making your data useful and discernable.


Amadie, Marketing Consultant:

SXSW provided so many takeaways – in fact, each day was chock full of learning with very little time to process and integrate the new knowledge. It’s only now that I’ve had the time to step back and reflect on what was discussed in the panels and in the hallways. But it’s the basics that stick with me, particularly advice around engagement and relationship building. “Today nobodies are the new somebodies,” said Guy Kawasaki, noting that marketers need to reach beyond the usual suspects. He advocates for a broad-based approach to influencer outreach, noting that influencers are at all levels of companies and that you don’t necessarily know who your evangelists are. But it’s also important to understand what activities truly engage supporters – as one of the panelists in “The Future of Philanthropy: Social Giving Takes Off” session noted, “pushing an action button isn’t loyalty.”

In addition, a few personal takeaways.

  • True popularity at SXSW does not come from introducing hot new products, hosting hip parties, or rocking awesome panels. It comes from being the person who has remembered to bring the power strip.
  • It is possible to eat grilled cheese for lunch every day, and we don’t even need the Big Cheese Truck (@bigcheesetruck) to come to Courthouse to do so.
  • And finally, from Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project ( “Sleep is the single most undervalued behavior in our lives.”


Were you at SXSW or NTC?  Comment and tell us about your favorite part!


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