It is widely accepted that Australia is up to three years behind the US in our adoption of new media technology and social media in particular. As a result, I always see trips to the US as a glimpse into the future of this industry. The recent announcement that the Australian government is finally going to bring the country up to world-class speed with the proposed National Broadband Network merely makes an understanding of whats happening in advanced media markets such as the US all the more relevant.

For the bulk of March and early April, I was in the US for the South by South West Interactive Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas and the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.

Between the two events I investigated how web technology is impacting traditional media and how savvy marketers are integrating the latest ideas into their strategies.

South by South West (SXSW) is the most significant event of the US digital and interactive conference circuit. It attracts A-List bloggers, the biggest and best tech companies, ambitious start-ups and thousands and thousands of the brightest minds in the online community to Austin, Texas for an amazing week of information, presentations and evening events. Meanwhile, the Web 2.0 Expo showcases examples of business models, development paradigms, and design strategies to that are enabling mainstream businesses and new arrivals to the Web 2.0 world to take advantage of this new generation of services and opportunities.

Here are some of the main things I noticed:

Social Media

Call it what you want folks, but social media is here to stay. Rather than being a philosophy, fad or movement, social media appears to be transcending the web. With blogging, social networking and Tweeting becoming ubiquitous, social media is becoming ingrained in online communication and subsequently business communication. Its fair to say that we are now in the era of the social web. Few other aspects of the web seem relevant anymore. Its all about conversations and harnessing the best available platforms in order to either start a conversations or participate in one.

Online shoe retailer Zappos has built an entire company around this approach. Tony Hsiehs keynote address to a full-house at SXSW provided an amazing insight into how modern companies are doing business in a more transparent and open manner. 400 of the 700 Zappos employees in Las Vegas are using Twitter. They use it internally for social networking as well as for communication with customers. They claim it improves company culture and customer relations.

Zappos was born just 10 years ago and today is a billion-dollar sales company. They are truly the product of the modern, social web. At a time when economies are crumbling due to corporate greed and short-term thinking, the Zappos message is great medicine.

Having said that, explaining and justifying social media to business is a challenge to the experts as much as it is for conference attendees. The first panel I attended at SXSW aimed to address this topic but failed to really present any convincing conclusions despite the quality of some of the panel, including the very impressive Peter Kim and Englishwoman Rebecca Caroe.

Twitter

Twitter is a major topic on everyone’s lips. Two years ago Twitter was launched at SXSW, but this year it was the main form of digital communication for the attendees. Everyone was tweeting their whereabouts, tracking each other down, announcing flash-parties and recording their thoughts and observations. It was almost impossible to think how SXSW would have existed prior to Twitter, it is such an integral part of the event. Likewise, at Web 2.0 Twitter was the dominant form of communication.

I heard someone say at SXSW that Twitter is the most important website since Google. Its hard to argue. While Facebook has just reached 200 million users, Twitter, with a reported 10 million users, appears to be the most dynamic social networking tool on the planet. Its open API, clean simple interface and low barrier to entry means that new third party applications and uses are appearing on an almost daily basis Twitter, like Google, will become an important tool for businesses in the next few years. Its starting to go mainstream. CNN and other news television sites are running Twitterfeeds on air, while the press have been discussing it endlessly.

Dont block it in your office, embrace it or be left behind.

New vs. traditional debate

The new versus traditional media debate wasn’t really on the radar at SXSW and Web 2.0. It seems to be accepted that change has happened in the US and the debate has ended (compared to Australia where it still rages on). The fact that yet another venerable newspaper, Seattle Post Intelligencer, ceased printing during SXSW, only a few weeks behind the closure of Rocky Mountain News, was further confirmation of the changing of the guard. Seattle Post Intelligencer will move to an online only format with only a few staff to remain.

New brands and personalities via new media

The web has enabled a new generation of businesses to emerge and gain substantial audience quickly and inexpensively. Crucially, exponents arent limited to conventional delivery in order to promote themselves as was evident in Gary Vaynerchuk’s hi-energy Q&A session around video blogging at SXSW. Gary’s main message was to stick to your strengths and concentrate on the content rather than the technology. For example, Gary is not a great writer but he’s an incredible speaker so video blogging is the best option for him. It has helped him turn a small local bottle shop into a $60 million business within a few years.

Interestingly, brands are becoming blurred by the power of the Web 2.0 personality. Is WineLibary the brand or Gary Vaynerchuk? It seems likely that Vaynerchuk will parlay his weblebrity status and audience into other successful and profitable ventures.

Cloud Computing will transform business

The Web 2.0 Expo had several strong sessions on cloud computing and numerous exhibitors working in this area. It seems clear that we will increasingly be conducting our business in the cloud. Google is already making this a simple reality with their various Docs and Apps, but many others are doing their best to help us store and share information online. Most attendees agreed that this is a truly transformational time for IT. The current economy makes it even more compelling to investigate the savings and speed of cloud computing.

So what’s next for the web?

Tim O’Reilly, co-founder of the Web 2.0 Expo and the person who coined the term Web 2.0, wanted to talk about Web 2.0 five years on in his Keynote Address in San Francisco. He said that the term Web 2.0 was meant to explain what happened after the original dotcom crash; the second life of the internet. It was never meant to signify new stages, like Web 3.0 and so on. O’Reilly is totally fascinated by the way the web is beginning to incorporate sensor technology, in the way the iPhone now allows you to have a more sensory, interactive experience. He feels this will spread rapidly throughout the web and can be used for good. O’Reilly also explained that the web is now growing up. It has moved beyond a curiosity, and a play thing to a serious aspect of work and life. It is now being used for greater good of the world and humanity, in politics, science, medicine and more. O’Reilly went on to introduce a new formula for how he feels the web and world are interacting for greater effect:

Web 2.0 + World = Web Squared

Web squared illustrates the viral and exponential effect of the world using the web. Im not sure that term Web Squared will be adopted in the way Web 2.0 was, but the reasoning behind OReillys concept is sound. Sensor technology is taking web interactivity to a new level. iPhones were clearly the most popular smartphone devices at both SXSW and Web 2.0, while Microsoft was very busy spruiking their Silverlight project. It all points towards a greater interactive experience.

Web and television merging

Finally, it was clear that the merging of the web and traditional media is well underway in the US. While SXSW and Web 2.0 largely focus on the future, the following examples are already reality.

TiVo, the ad-skipping, time shifting digital television recording device, is now delivering web video to televisions. Rather than download and watch longer format video on small screens, TiVo allows video to be viewed easily through your television. TiVo have begun working with YouTube, Amazon, Netflix and over 50 other sources to deliver web video to television. So far TiVo have had over 30 million downloads by 60% of their broadband-connected customers.

Google has launched a television advertising division. It employs a similar auction system to their online advertising approach, allowing customers to bid on ads up to the day before rather than the traditional model of buying months in advance. Some of Google’s television partners allow advertisers to type in keywords to determine which programs will best suit their targets. It results in what Google claim is content contextually relevant to your brand.

And its done in minutes. After your advertisement runs you receive a report detailing what spots ran, the audience delivered and how much budget was spent. ESPN, the cable sports station, now has an online version called ESPN360. They consider it a full-fledged TV network that is delivered through the internet. ESPN360 is covering 3,500 live events this year and have more than 25 rights deals with various sports. So far ESPN360 has 24 million subscribers.

Ffwd (Fast Forward) is providing viewers with the ability to create their own television station. Ffwd was created to bring order to the web video. It allows you to create a channel for any interest you have and receive related content. Once a user subscribes to about seven channels, Ffwd takes that information and uses algorithms to create a personalised channel. The system makes intuitive add-ons to your programming stream. Its like Last.fm (the intuitive music site) for TV.

Australian media and marketing has much to look forward to in the next few years if the latest developments in the US are any indication. The governments proposed hi-speed National Broadband Network will mean that this is only the tip of the technological iceberg.