Staying Immune to the Hype Virus at SXSW

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This post originally appeared on my blog at Harvard Business Review.

I’m heading off this week to SXSW Interactive, the annual geekfest that remains the only place where I have actually danced with robots to the music of theremins. Isn’t that exactly how you imagine that geeks party?

But SXSW isn’t (just) a big programmer party. It’s one of the marquee events in the tech conference calendar, the place where shiny new tools get unveiled and new social networks get heralded for their revolutionary features, while established social media brands brag about the business models, technologies and people that are supposed to give them an edge over all these johnny-come-lately types.

In other words, it’s a conference where you need to be vaccinated against the virus we call hype. Take it as read that you’ll hear about groundbreaking applications that that you simply have to experience. And you’ll read about mind-blowing social networks that you simply have to join. Let’s count tweets that combine “SXSW” with words like “future” and “revolution” and “next big thing.”

As a compulsive early adopter, I have to be especially vigilant about resisting the hype virus, and I’m here to help you avoid symptoms, too. Here are the five questions that any new social media product or service company has to answer before I’ll even consider it anything other than hype:

Can I see its potential value without signing up? If you want me to believe that your new app is worth adding to my ballooning collection of usernames and passwords, let me evaluate its value before making me sign up. So many Web services offer little more than a splash screen before foisting the dreaded sign-up page on us. It’s a lead generation world and they really don’t want to give you anything until they’ve generated that lead with your precious e-mail address. That’s more hassle than I’m prepared to take on for a service I know nothing about, and it also suggests the company doesn’t really understand the value of openness on the social web. If your site is too closed for me to try out without a login, it’s too closed for me to integrate into a work flow that weaves together dozens of sites and services on a daily basis.

What does this replace? Frankly, my social media dance card is already full. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn FourSquare, Gmail, AIM, Skype, and then the sites that help me aggregate Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, FourSquare, Gmail, AIM, Skype…do I have to go on? I already have more points of contact that I can reply to, more profiles than I can maintain, and more networks than I can participate in. So if you want me to try yours, you need to tell me what service (better yet, services) it will replace, in a compelling way. A one-for-one switch doesn’t interest me. Is your feature set better? Is it a better user experience. If not, you’re not getting on my dance card.

Are my friends there? There’s a reason we call it social media. I want to see if the people you’re serving include my people, specifically the friends and colleagues I’m already connected to, or would like to know better. The easiest way to answer this question is by syncing with my Gmail, Facebook or Twitter contacts to show me who I already know on your system. But before I take you up on the offer to sync contacts, I need to be sure — 110 percent sure — that you’re not going to spam my contacts with invitations to try out your service. I am not your sales rep!

Does it work with what I already use? The Twitter, Google and Facebook icons you see sprinkled across thousands of websites signal that a web site cares about integrating with the services we already use. Show me that you’ll do the same by offering ways for me to access your service from within Facebook or Twitter, or to post content I create on your site back to my blog or YouTube channel. Web services that complement existing tools amplify the value of the time I spend on the networks I’m already committed to, and leverage the investment I’ve already made in learning how to use sites like Twitter and YouTube.

What happens if we break up? I sample more than a thousand web, Mac, and iPhone apps each year. How many do you think become part of my ongoing workflow? Maybe five to ten? Still, I’m constantly trying new ones for at least a few weeks, which is enough time to create content or generate data that I don’t want to leave behind. Any new Web service I try has to let me go gracefully if I decide it’s not working out. Ideally they’ll let me do that in a form that I can easily import back into the services I continue to use. Just as important, I want to be able to erase any content I’ve created, and remove myself from any e-mail lists or reminders.

These questions are indispensable at a hype-ridden event like SXSW, but they’re always applicable. Take them with you. The next time you’re faced with the decision to adopt some (gag!) game-changing social media app, ask these questions. Save yourself from catching that hype virus.

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