When the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference launched in 1987, it was a music festival with about 700 registrants. Today, the city of Austin, Texas, swells with an influx of tens of thousands of people dedicated to learning, networking, and being exposed to the latest in technology, music and film.

The interactive portion of the program brought a record-breaking crowd to Austin this year. The cutting-edge program has been organized across five days, on topics as diverse as cloud computing, social media and privacy issues.

To be part of "South by," as it is now called, is to be part of the future. In the four square blocks around the Austin Convention Center, there is enough innovation in the air to power the city.

I chose to attend this conference because for me, embracing technology is as core to the way I do business as building relationships. The knowledge and information I walked away with will leave an indelible mark on my company’s business strategy in 2011 and beyond.

Editor’s note: The following is a guest perspective

By SHERRY CHRIS

When the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference launched in 1987, it was a music festival with about 700 registrants. Today, the city of Austin, Texas, swells with an influx of tens of thousands of people dedicated to learning, networking, and being exposed to the latest in technology, music and film.

The interactive portion of the program brought a record-breaking crowd to Austin this year. The cutting-edge program has been organized across five days, on topics as diverse as cloud computing, social media and privacy issues.

To be part of "South by," as it is now called, is to be part of the future. In the four square blocks around the Austin Convention Center, there is enough innovation in the air to power the city.

I chose to attend this conference because for me, embracing technology is as core to the way I do business as building relationships. The knowledge and information I walked away with will leave an indelible mark on my company’s business strategy in 2011 and beyond.

Of course, it was impossible to see and hear it all. However, in the three days I was there, a few key themes rose to the surface. While these themes were wrapped in sessions, panels and keynotes designed to appeal to the world’s most talented techies, designers and software engineers, their simplicity and usefulness most certainly apply to the real estate industry as we look toward our own future.

Technology empowers — embrace it

Marissa Meyer, the vice president of consumer products at Google, explained the power of location-based technology. Google’s mapping functionality didn’t stop with providing consumers with the data to get from point A to point B.

Google layered reviews, photography, video, traffic updates and other context-enriching features to maps and directions to enrich the user experience — and their users’ lives. In short, the digital world makes the physical world better.

In our own industry, we must recognize and embrace the fact that technology has forever changed the way we do business; the way our clients live their lives. Today’s consumer is more empowered and informed than ever before.

To embrace that is to be inspired to find an evolved value proposition that we can bring to our customers. It will involve big changes in our philosophies, practices, and even what we may consider competitive threats.

It’s overwhelming and thrilling at the same time. Just looking at the evolution of travel, retail and manufacturing over the past 10 years should provide enough compelling case studies to spring us all into action. The future is here. Let’s all be part of it together.

Watch, build, iterate

Mark Trammel, design researcher at Twitter, offered a presentation with a provocative title, "Stop Listening to Your Customers." That sounded like absolute madness, so I was compelled to attend. His message was this: Get out of the lab. Step away from the focus group. Rip up the survey.

Instead, learn from your customers on their terms. Give them the right context to give you authentic feedback. If you are in the food industry and want to discover the next great pasta sauce flavor, watch hungry people eat and see their reaction.

If you are developing the next generation of Twitter, watch your customers interact with your platform. Quickly turn those learnings into a new release of your product or service. Do not worry about it being perfect. Just get it out there.

This experience has made me understand that its best to plan and implement a technology strategy as a technology company does: learn, build and release often. Whether it’s a consumer-facing website or a network-facing intranet, we must be nimble and agile in the way we approach our technology infrastructure.

We will not get mired down in multi-month, complex releases that risk being outdated shortly after they hit. It’s a big mindset shift. But then again, that’s where the big results come from.

Share

At a session devoted to the evolution of the legendary TED Conference, June Cohen, executive producer of TED, discussed how the once closed, elite network is now opening its content, conferences and code to adopt a philosophy of "radical openness." The results have whipped up a frenzy of accelerated demand.

Spreading ideas, reaching new people, and embracing open models build your brand. It can be as simple as leading a discussion in social media and next-generation brokerage, or as purposeful as setting up an advisory board of subject matter experts to help steer you along a more innovative path.

The message is this: We all benefit from collaboration. Yes, it’s oftentimes easier to stay closed. But one look at today’s most successful companies should inspire you to rethink that limiting tradition.

Be relevant, and do not get comfortable

Innovative advertising agency R/GA conducted a thought-provoking session, "Congratulations. Your Brand is About to Become Obsolete." This was perhaps the most important session I attended.

The message in the R/GA session, expertly given by William Charnock, chief strategy officer, and Andrea Ring, managing director of planning, reminded me that your past success does not predict your future. Your future does.

None of us can control broader economic, cultural or geographical changes — all of which have a direct impact on our business. We cannot anticipate what breed of new competitors will crop up around us, eyeing our market share.

But there are things we can do to be successful now and in the future that are irrespective of those inevitable, external industry dynamics.

And the most thought-provoking point of all: A brand is at its highest threat of becoming obsolete when it reaches its zenith of success. Those that survive and thrive are those that ask the tough question: "Why am I in business?" This does not mean an answer born from a narrow focus on a product or service. This means articulating what makes the brand unique.

It means not resting on the laurels of what the brand was or even is today, but striving to determine what the brand needs to be tomorrow. Once the purpose of the brand is truly understood, only then is it possible to chart the brand’s path to innovation and differentiation.

The case studies R/GA shared perfectly illustrate some key points:

  • Nike is not in the sneaker business; it is in the performance business.
  • Google is not in the search business; it is in the information business.
  • Barnes & Noble is not in the book business; it is in the reading business.

See the difference?

And now ask yourself: What business will you be in?

Sherry Chris is president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC. She has more than 27 years of real estate experience, serving in a range of management roles for companies including Royal LePage, Real Living and Prudential CA/NV/TX Realty. She joined Realogy in 2006 as chief operating officer for Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC before launching Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate franchise operations for Realogy.

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