As SXSW Approaches, Event Networking Apps Go Head-to-Head

Event networking is bound to be a hot topic at SXSW Interactive, which kicks off on Friday. There hasn’t been a super-effective way for attendees at events to network in a way that requires minimal effort and consolidates information in a centrally accessible location. QR codes, contact card transfer tech like Bump, and optical character recognition scanners for traditional paper business cards solve some of those woes, but given the prevalence of mobile devices and software, you’d expect by now that something would’ve emerged as a go-to standard that avoids the clumsiness and limitations of those solutions.

This year there are an abundance of serendipitous discovery apps, like Banjo and Glancee. Buzzed-about app Highlight tells users when Facebook connections who either are in your extended network or share your interests are nearby. Sonar, another similar app, is based around checking into and exploring who’s nearby, but it’s tied more closely to venues, so there’s definitely a networking angle. And since both start with a user’s existing social networks, there’s a jumping off point that’s built-in to the product.

We spoke to Sonar VP Katie Smith-Adair about the app and its potential in terms of networking, especially as it pertains to events like SXSW. “No app works better than Sonar for professional networking, in part because we are one of the few apps to leverage LinkedIn,” Smith-Adair said. “Not surprisingly, we’ve partnered with a lot of events, and we have a lot of event partnerships at SXSW this year as well.” To that end, Sonar announced a new Android beta app just in time for the event, and also an overhauled back end featuring new sources of location data to help it more intelligently identify a user’s location.

Smith-Adair says that Sonar’s long-term plans are all about helping its users and brands to network more effectively by highlighting themselves through paid upgrades. “At some point, we will enable users to pay to increase their visibility,” she told us. “We’ve also had tons of interest from brands that see the value in being present at the point and place where their fans and customers are connecting with one another, which could involve content delivery, special offers, or simply generating brand affinity and awareness.”

But Sonar still faces a big challenge, in that it has to work from the bottom up by convincing users that it should be the service of choice when it comes to event networking. The challenge comes in building a community and then maintaining consistent, steady growth, mostly by attracting individual users. Event networking competitor Qrious, which is based in NYC recently won Startupalooza, will attempt to become ubiquitous by targeting event organizers first, which skips a step by making conferences and conventions themselves the marketing vehicle for the product.

“There’s basically two kinds of companies in the [event networking] market today,” Qrious co-founder and CEO John Federico told me. “There are apps, which when launched show you people to meet. We don’t agree with that model, since they have a cold start problem, e.g., you launch the app a few times, nobody’s there, you lose interest.” The other model involves companies buying their own white label solutions from companies, which Federico says is also problematic.

“That doesn’t work, because they typically ask people to fill out these profiles for this event, and then at the end of the event, because its a silo, that event ends and all that data ends,” Federico pointed out. Qrious solves both problems, first by integrating with conference registration systems (organizers can populate the app through Eventbrite integration, or CSV and Excel database files, with future service additions to come) so that there’s a built-in user base that’s independent of community adoption, and users carry their data with them.

Qrious’ approach is limited strictly to events only, which negates casual use at locations where contacts might happen to be nearby, but Federico is skeptical about the value of that kind of serendipitous discovery anyway. He points out that occasions where you’re actually free to meet up with someone randomly while you’re going about your day are few and far between. Qrious is also an HTML5-based cross-platform web app, which means it will work across a range of devices.

Highlight takes almost the exact opposite approach from Qrious, since it works in the background and is tied to location, not events. By alerting you when people you may know are nearby, and showing you how you may know them, it acts as a kind of persistent virtual introduction manager, giving users a little extra insight potential relationships of all kinds at the outset. Highlight founder Paul Davison told BetaKit in an interview that its biggest advantage as a networking tool is the fact that it doesn’t specifically aim to be one.

“The biggest and most successful social networking tools aren’t aimed at networking, but they can be used for that,” he said. He cited Twitter and Facebook as perfect example, noting that in-person networking is something people use them for, but that’s far from their only purpose. Similarly, Highlight doesn’t have a narrow focus. “We’re about surfacing data about the people around you,” Davison explained, and what users then do with that data is up to them, and might include starting a business relationship, tracking down an old friend, or sparking a romance.

With SXSW just a few short days away, event networking is a top of mind issue for a lot in the tech community. The startups listed above represent a good cross-section of the spectrum in terms of how companies are trying to solve the problem, and this SXSW and the year to come will likely be be key to figuring out which approach resonates most with users. But the bigger question is how location-based networking apps like Highlight will gain popularity outside of tech centres like San Francisco, and away from big events like SXSW, since user adoption will dictate how useful they are.