While the weather could have been better in Austin, Tex., SXSW Interactive remains the premier venue for gauging the biggest and smartest trends in digital innovation. The cold, pouring rain and an utterly erratic shuttle system made the first few days difficult, but the sun finally arrived and the panels, presentations, and parties were jammed as always.

[PW’s SXSW coverage Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4. Also SXSW New Ventures. ]

The show was as focused as ever on social media—Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, with an added look at the rise in popularity of Pinterest, the image-sharing network—and the importance of recognizing the utility of online communities of interest, both targeting and partnering with them to spread the word about content and other things. There was an emphasis on content sharing and the rising phenomenon of “curation,” content sharing’s more elevated and professionally self-conscious iteration. There was also lots of discussion about content consumption on mobile devices as more people use their phones like desktop computers; then there’s the coming world of near field communications, or mobile wallet technology, that will eventually turn your phone into a credit card. And not to be overlooked, even for for-profit publishers, is the power of technology, social media, and other networked online communities to drive social change and influence the world beyond a simply commercial venture.

While it’s difficult to determine how many book publishers—or content producers, if you prefer—were on hand at SXSW, the industry was well represented. An informal headcount of publishers PW encountered as either part of the programming, in general attendance, taking meetings, or in the drink line at a crowded party included HarperCollins, Random House, Perseus, Penguin, Harvard Common Press, Round Table Comics, Other Press, Open Road Media, Disney/Marvel, Peachpit Press, John Wiley, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Startups proliferated as well (see new venture story next week), offering new and interesting ways to structure a business to deliver content. In fact, PW’s first SXSW panel, “Publishing Models Transforming the Book,” surveyed a lineup of unconventional business models (including one from a conventional house) offering distinct views on how to deliver content and make money doing it. The panel featured Molly Barton, Penguin’s global digital director and founder of Book Country, an online writing community and self-publishing services vendor; Brian Altounian, CEO of Wowio.com, a freemium/advertising-driven e-book retailing site; Jefferson Rabb, CTO of the Atavist, a multimedia-infused journalism publisher; and Swanna MacNair, founder of Creative Conduit, a new wave intellectual property management firm specializing in multiformat content and transmedia projects. Moderated by senior news editor Rachel Deahl, the panel focused on a new world of splintered and remade digital content and new ways content can be released and monetized. (PW managed to form an informal content block on Sunday morning after this reporter was invited to moderate the panel “Discoverability and the New World of Book PR” in the time slot immediately following the “Publishing Models” panel.)

Perhaps one of the most bracing of the new realities for publishers to understand is that most of their competition in the coming years won’t be from companies we think of as publishers today. At “Branded Content: We’re All Publishers Now,” a panel of social media specialists discussed how brands generate all manner of original content they in turn circulate through social media platforms with the hope of it engaging readers and raising the profile of their brands in unlikely places by going viral. American Express v-p Audrey Gray discussed how its Small Business Saturday promotion helped Amex by driving business to small retailers, without actually using the American Express name very much. The campaign generated all kinds of original content—from videos to infographics—all focused on small businesses, with content posted across all the social networks. “Work on your content, make things that are beautiful and delightful, things that make people feel smart,” Gray said. In turn, consumers purchased about 26% more goods from their local retailers during the promotion that took place the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Thinking About Isis

At O’Reilly Media’s one day Mini TOC Austin, mobile developer Josh Clark emphasized the importance of developing content and Web sites designed with mobile devices in mind, noting that 85% of shoppers want a mobile site to have all the content and functionality of a full site. One of the more compelling presentations on mobile wallet technology was, “Creating a Mobile Wallet Worth Having,” a surprisingly engaging, detailed conceptual outline of an ideal mobile wallet tech infrastructure--both commercially effective and consumer-friendly and even enriching--given by Omar Green, director of strategic mobile initiatives at Intuit. Green’s entertaining presentation offered a vision of a kind of ultimate mobile wallet--beyond credit card transactions, his envisioned, AI-like wallet software would learn to help guide a consumer’s financial decision-making--and he managed to combine deep research into human/consumer behavior with a savvy grasp of the global financial transfer system and admiring references to the identity disc from the sci-fi/gaming film, Tron.

Isis, a joint venture between AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile USA, and Verizon Wireless, which is launching a mobil wallet, was a sponsor at SXSW. Mobile wallet technology will allow consumers to pay for products with their phones, and Isis plans to launch a pilot program by the summer with 100 stores in Austin and another 100 in Salt Lake City. Among the stores, there’s a good chance there’ll be at least one book retailer—Austin’s Book People. Store owner Steve Bercu told PW he’s been talking to Isis “for a while. I like the idea, I like working with the Isis people, and we’re supporters.” Bercu also said there are technical obstacles due to “POS and software compatibility issues. But if we can work out the tech issues, we want to be a part of it.” Bercu said he would know for sure if Book People will be a part of the launch by the time BookExpo America rolls around in June.

Also compelling about the business/technology/culture mashup characteristic of SXSW is the critical role of technology-driven social mobilization and the ability to direct it toward social issues and change. Any publisher marketing to teens should be paying attention to the problems and solutions that address teen issues. The panel “Reaching Teens on the Digital Streets” profiled an array of teen-focused social Web sites like WeeWorld.com, an online social gaming and virtual environment that teens also use to mobilize around issues important to them; ReachOut.com, an online information service aimed at teens suffering from tough times or mental health problems; the Partnership at Drugfree.org, with all manner of resources aimed at helping teens and young adults deal with drug issues; and the Harry Potter Alliance, an unusual alliance of hundreds of thousands of Potter fans around the world that has donated medical supplies to Haiti, donated books around the world, and organized the legions of Potter fans around human right issues.

Not to be confused with marketing, these sites are after bigger game and often leverage entertainment value through technology and social media to mobilize teens online to address the most serious issues facing them. One of the panelists, Andrew Slack, creator/founder of the Harry Potter Alliance, said he’s planning to reach out and mobilize fans of the Hunger Games to address hunger. “Online and offline are integrated into teenagers lives,” Slack said. “This is the real world impacted by activism online. What we’ve been able to do says a lot about teen communities and the power of the Internet.”

In a similar vein, Baratunde Thurston—comedian, director of digital at the Onion, author of the bestselling memoir/humor book, How to Be Black, and a keynote speaker at SXSW—gave an overview of the ways comedians in the U.S. (Laughter AgainsttheMachine.com) as well as in Nigeria, China, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Iran are all using humor and technology to address, challenge, and hopefully change their social reality. Using a giant screen, he projected a series of phrases during his talk that highlighted much of what SXSW is about: “change = constant,” “everyone can create,” “unusual is usual,” and “everything is connected.”

“We’re creating magical tools here,” he said to a hall full of tech-savvy attendees and entrepreneurs, “and people around the world are using them.”