Even though you may have never heard of it, social discovery is nothing new. It has been at the core of social networking for years and started to gain more visibility before SXSW (South by Southwest) – where it was touted as one of the top trends to keep an eye on. However, its exposure at the annual festival in Austin could be what propels it to a hot topic on the tongues of the internet community for some time to come.

Social Discovery Defined

Social discovery can be described as the process of locating users through social media. It may entail simply finding someone online, learning details such as their name, age and interests, or actually locating them by physical location. The first part is something that could easily take place through a site like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. The second is a little more complex, which is what made the apps showcased at the SXSW event so interesting.

There were a plethora of social discovery apps unveiled at the recent SXSW. Among them were Bango, Glancee, Sonar and Highlight, the latter of which arguably made the biggest splash of them all. Although each application is fueled by the same general concept, they all offer something that makes them a little unique.

For example, Highlight puts together a list of people who pass by the user, giving them the chance to discover individuals they are connected with. Glancee functions in a similar manner, yet prefers to connect the user with people who share like interests. Banjo and Sonar leverage location data from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to compile a list of users who are in the area. All the apps from SXSW run in the background on the user’s mobile phone.

Why Social Discovery Appeals to Marketers

Social discovery can be seen as a natural extension of apps such as Foursquare, Google Latitude and the service formerly known as Gowalla. For brands, the main appeal is having the opportunity to target audience members with timely marketing content based on their location at that exact moment. This goes beyond what is already possible with location-based tools, as apps like Glancee and Highlight are not dependent on internet access, which gives marketers exciting opportunities to engage potential customers offline. SXSW was the right place for social discovery to make an entrance and, needless to say, businesses are taking notice.

The Big Gotcha

Although social discovery certainly has plenty of marketing potential, it comes with some privacy concerns as well. UberLife, another app that debuted at SXSW, says it will eventually incorporate functionality that allows only friends to connect with users, but for now it is set up where anyone can find anyone. This might be unsettling for some seeing that so many people are still iffy about sharing their personal data with location-based apps that have proven to be relatively safe. Privacy is the one aspect that could stand in the way of a concept like social discovery taking off.

There was plenty of excitement in the air at this year’s SXSW, and social discovery played a huge role in creating that electric atmosphere. The event helped the new crowd of apps get off to a good start, but there is still a long road to travel. For the social discovery phenomenon, the real challenge will be gaining interest and spurring adoption beyond the halls of SXSW venues.

What do you guys think about social discovery? Is it the next big thing in marketing, or just the latest buzz word in the tech nerd’s vocabulary? Don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments.