Reflections From 12 Days of Conference-Jumping: SXSWi and NTC

15 Comments 25 March 2011

Whew, it’s been a heck of a month for the nonprofity tech folks in the world. First there was South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) March 11-15, followed by the Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) March 17 – 19). I attended SXSW and NTC, and I’m pretty wiped. I attended both conferences last year as well. This year, I paid a lot of attention to trends, commonalities, and differences that I saw between the two conferences. Here is my summary:

1. Measure, measure, and measure again

This is the year of measurement in social media. Every session I attended talked about measuring success, measuring ROI, measuring engagement. In prior years, I’ve seen more emphasis on how to do social media, or emphasis on relevant case studies alone. This year, at both conferences, these were all substantiated with statistics, returns on influence or investment, or methods of measurement. The SXSW session on measuring the value of a Facebook fan was so full that I was shut out, and after waiting 35 minutes to go in, I finally gave up. You could say that’s a measure in and of itself.

2. Location-based software is still hot, and getting hotter

I asked Jenn Howard (@Jenn4Good) what she thought the commonalities were between NTC and SXSW this year:

One visible expression of the interest in location-based software (LBS) at SXSW was the sheer amount of Gowalla and Foursquare place check-ins and specials offered by SXSW vendors and local Austin vendors. Every place you could think of to check-in at SXSW had been created, including the Austin Convention Center lobby and parking garage! It seemed obvious to SXSW attendees that we were all on the bandwagon, but waiting for everyone else in the world to figure out how important LBS will be to organizations. I attended a “LBS 101” session at SXSW that was very basic, and wish that I had attended the “Building Fences in the Sky: Geo-Location Has Arrived” session – it sounds interesting and very bleeding-edge!

At the NTC, there were at least three LBS sessions: Location Goes Local, Using “location-aware” Web and Mobile Applications, and Is the Road to Success Paved with Location-Based Services? There were a lot fewer check-ins on Foursquare and Facebook Places at NTC, but that may have been due to issues with the internet being down some of time during the conference. I got the sense that a significant minority of nonprofits want to know how to harness LBS for their organization, but that it isn’t something they think about often. I think uses of LBS, and interest in it, will grow dramatically in 2011.

3. Online fundraising is…HUGE. And so are the number of vendors

The opening day of SXSW Interactive coincided with an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. That same day, it seemed like every online fundraising platform created an online fundraising page/portal/campaign just to raise money to for disaster relief in Japan. (Notice of transparency: I work at FirstGiving and we also created a disaster relief event.) At SXSW, the start-up CauseVox created almost immediately the campaign that took SXSW Interactive by storm. Within hours of the first day of SXSW, the SXSWCares (which redirects to SXSW4Japan) campaign was mentioned everywhere: speakers were telling their audiences about it, people were tweeting it, the hashtag #sxsw4japan was being used, and people were tweeting to influence others to donate using SXSW4Japan. I asked Rob Wu, co-founder of CauseVox, why he thought the campaign was adopted so quickly and widely. He responded that “the SXSWi community is a fertile ground of influencers and press. There is a mass of power when these people are in the same proximity. We leveraged their power to focus attention on the Japan disaster. SXSW4Japan was able to reach a tipping point quickly because we leveraged influencers, social media, and community.” You can read more about how it all started and watch a video interview here. To date, SXSW4Japan has raised $105,000.

At NTC, the interest in online fundraising was apparent and highly visible. There were numerous sessions devoted to online fundraising and online giving: online giving reports by Blackbaud and Network for Good, trends in online fundraising, game theory and online fundraising, social media fundraising, peer to peer fundraising and…you get the point. The NTC Science Fair (the trade show) was packed to the gills with online fundraising vendor booths; I would think any nonprofit trying to choose from among the online fundraising software vendors at NTC would be completely overwhelmed by the choice and the eagerness of the vendors.

4. Different crowd interest, different levels of tech knowledge

My sense both years has been that the SXSW crowd, including the “nonprofit tech” crowd, is most interested in learning about “what is the next big thing,” and broadening its tech knowledge. The general crowd expectation at SXSW is that we are there to push our knowledge and think outside of the box. The sad thing is that SXSW can disappoint in that way. I have always found the sessions uneven in quality and vision, and some of them to be very beginner-level.

NTC-ers, on the other hand, know that they represent the entire gamut of tech users, from early-adopters to “accidental techies” to new users. The conference is geared for all knowledge and use levels, with an emphasis on “how to,” data reporting, and understanding tools. That’s not to say that there aren’t bleeding edge sessions – I was on a panel talking about social CRM, there was a mobile LBS session, to name a few. I have heard it said that NTC may have disappointed the more technology-oriented types with many introductory-level sessions and few advanced-level sessions this year.

I’ll leave you with these tweets from Noland Hoshino (@NolandHoshino), who sums up two of the differences that he saw (he attended both conferences):

What did you think?







  • Great post, Debra! You really nailed the highlights and the differences between SXSW and NTC.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Thanks, Susan, for your help thinking about it!


  • Great post! I definitely agree about the quality of sessions at SXSWi. I found a lot of sessions discussing current problems, but lacking in any sort of solutions!


  • Jleigh4

    Any suggestions for a basic overview of LBS for the layperson?


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Howdy – there’s a good slide presentation created by (B)cause Media on LBS for nonprofit organization, which includes a definition. My “go to” LBS-for-nonprofit people are @joewaters @charityestrella and @johnhaydon.


    Joe Waters Reply:

    Two great authorities on LBS are @schneidermike and @aaronstrout. They are writing Location Based Marketing for Dummies, which is due out in July. I’m sure if you follow them on Twitter and ask them for a suggested primer they’d be happy to help.



  • Helpful post for those folks that were not able to attend NTC but are hoping to dig through the slides and notes for the over 100 sessions. Nice guide to getting some of the key areas to dig in on.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Thanks, Ash! Did you see any trends in nptech at NTC?


  • Holly

    Thanks Debra -It was great to see you at #11NTC, albeit too briefly!


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Holly, I feel the same. Congrats on a very successful conference!


  • Melinda Lewis

    I’m interested, Debra, in what you’re seeing in nonprofit social service organizations using location-based applications, especially the smaller organizations that are perhaps somewhat newer to the social media scene. I’ve been doing some thinking and talking with folks about this, but I haven’t found many good examples of folks integrating these tools into their overall strategies. What can you share?


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    I haven’t seen a lot of smaller nonprofit organization using location-based marketing (apps) except I do know of a great case study from a very small (with an early tech-adopter founder) organization called Big Love Little Hearts. The founder, Estrella Rosenberg, wrote a guest post for my blog about their unconventional use of Foursquare about a year ago: https://www.communityorganizer20.com/2010/06/02/a-foursqure-experiment-gone-right/.

    I honestly do not think nonprofits are integrating LBS into their strategies – yet. The National Wildlife Federation has, and I think Central Park has as well (along with an interesting QR code campaign), but the smaller ones are just trying to get “the basics” down first: Facebook, blog, twitter, YouTube. Also, LBS isn’t for everyone – it obviously is best suited to nonprofits that are linked to a physical space of some sort.

    I am betting that some of the other commenters to this blog have a few other examples, which I am hoping they will share!

    Thanks for stopping by, Melinda. Nice to see you her again!


  • Pingback: 11NTC Round-Up: Your Posts, Highlights, and Take-aways | Philanthropy()

  • Great post Debra!

    Having survived #SXSWi and #11NTC I was amazed how different the conferences were, but encouraged by the enthusiasm.

    At #SXSWi there are a ton of early adopters trying to be the “next big thing” with their social media tools. It was all about “me, me, me.” SXSW felt like walking on a used car lot where everyone was trying to push, push, push their products. However, when you are amongst a sea of early adopters your “stuff” has to be extremely different that can rise above the noise — or else BFD (Big F’n Deal). Nothing stood out. I did see a few cool gadgets, but nothing earth shattering.

    I didn’t go to SXSW to be solicited by used car sales men and women, but to connect and reconnect with friends that I’ve admired through social media. To me, that’s the value of going to conferences is to turn your online relationships to offline friendships. Priceless!

    The #11NTC conference was totally different from #SXSWi. No longer were we amongst the flash mob of teckie techs and product pushers, but with the community of Do-gooders, Nonprofit leaders, Community managers, and cause enthusiasts. These were our peeps — from beginners in the #NPtech space to veterans who have led the community.

    What I really like about NTEN is that no one is competing to be “the next best thing.” (However, I heard in Kivi’s session she had to shut some people out for broadcasting their services too much. I missed it, but good for her for acknowledging it and considering the rest of the audience). We all want nonprofits to succeed. Especially in these rough economic times where we are scrapping for every penny from our donors. All for one, and one for all.

    Kudos to the NTEN staff for putting on a great conference and for their continued education in #NPtech. It is our responsibility as individuals in this community to help the beginners learn the ways of social tech. Like Yoda was to Luke Skywalker. Teach them The Force.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Debra.

    Now where is our t-shirt “I survived #SXSWi and #11NTC”

    Noland Hoshino


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Noland, someone should have created that t-shirt; I certainly would have paid money for it! (As would my husband, btw, who was with the kids the whole time…)

    I think you nailed it – NTC is where “our people” hang out. One of the things I loved about The Beacon Lounge at SXSWi was being where the nonprofit technology crowd hangs out because, outside of it, was the for-profit/vendor/sales crowd and we didn’t have a lot to say to each other. I spent a lot of time at The Beacon Lounge because it was an intimate place to connect and create relationships with the nonprofit tech crowd at SXSWi.

    I also think you nailed the collaborative vs. competitive nature of NTC vs. SXSWi. However, the stimulus of thinking about “the next big thing” at SXSW did inspire me. I did not find anything at this years SXSW to call to me as the great new app that will reinvent the way I see the world, but I often thought about how they could be used for good. For example, I used the group texting Group.me there, and because other early adopters were using it, I got to try it out and think about how this would be fantastic for nonprofit events.

    Thanks so much for your long and very thoughtful comment. I look forward to seeing you again next year. Will you be at both?



Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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