Highlight: Why did SXSW 2012’s most-hyped app fail to take off?

Highlight (http://highlig.ht/), an ambient location-based social network and social discovery tool, was poised to be the breakout app of SXSW 2012.[1][2] Highlight is a mobile app that runs in the background on users’ smartphones, alerting them to interesting people nearby–friends, friends of friends, and people with similar interests–using push notifications. Highlight promises to help users meet interesting people in a frictionless way.

Given the level of hype surrounding Highlight ahead of the conference, the general consensus was that Highlight and similar apps like Glancee failed to breakout at SXSW[3], and may have missed their chance to succeed entirely. Why did Highlight fail and what could they have done differently?


Highlight screenshot



 Highlight exhibits strong network effects; as more users join the service, users are more likely to discover interesting people using the app around them. To help facilitate interactions despite a small early user base, Highlight made their service extremely sensitive (i.e., they would send notifications even for the most tenuous of connections). At SXSW, a conference filled with tech early adopters that had almost all signed up for the service, this level of sensitivity proved overwhelming for users, who were flooded with notifications. Outside of SXSW, users found that notifications, when they did pop up, were uninteresting and unactionable.

Highlight also quickly developed a reputation as a battery killer, despite the app’s use of Apple’s battery-conserving background location services[4]. This dampened the app’s appeal[5], especially at a conference where people rely on their phones to stay connected throughout the day. Even outside of SXSW, people with smartphones rely on their phones to stay connected while out and about, and will be reluctant to use an app that reduces battery life.


Highlight can overcome network effects in its early stages by providing standalone value independent of network effects. Perhaps Highlight could provide info about interesting places nearby, sourced from a robust location database like Foursquare’s Venues Platform (https://developer.foursquare.com/overview/venues). Highlight might show popular landmarks nearby. It could even go a step further, showing only landmarks most likely to be interesting to users given their interests, incentivizing users to input their interests during signup. Though Highlight’s long-term goal would still be to facilitate social discovery, the addition of standalone value could keep users coming back until a critical mass of users is reached, and incentivize them to input valuable data in the process.

With standalone value established, Highlight can keep the bar high for notifications, only notifying users when a truly interesting and actionable person is nearby (i.e., someone with a significant number of friends and interests in common). This will ensure that the social discovery feature is actually useful and compelling, and will rarely be a nuisance.

Finally, Highlight should make it easier for users to take action once they’ve discovered someone that they want to meet. Users should be allowed to silently “tap” nearby users that they find interesting. In the event of a mutual tap, Highlight should reveal the mutual interest to both users, reveal richer information about each user, and allow the users to set a meeting place and time and/or actively guide them to each other using GPS. Without such a feature, it might be too overwhelming to approach another stranger discovered through the service, and notifications might simply go ignored.

Closing thoughts

Highlight is an exciting concept, and it’s not dead yet. In fact, the team released an updated app with “expanded profiles, ‘high fives,’ and improved notifications” just yesterday[6]. The prospect of more easily discovering and interacting with interesting people nearby (in a non-creepy way) is an exciting one. But maybe Highlight needs to try a different tack to succeed. Or, maybe it’s just ahead of its time.


[1] Foursquare And Glancee Are Cool, But Here’s Why I’m So Excited About Using Highlight At SXSW, Eric Eldon, TechCrunch, http://techcrunch.com/2012/03/03/myhighlight/, written 3/3/12, accessed 11/21/12
[2] The two hottest apps you’ll “run into” at SXSW, Robert Scoble, The Next Web, http://thenextweb.com/apps/2012/02/24/the-two-hottest-apps-youll-run-into-at-sxsw/, written 2/24/12, accessed 11/21/12
[3] How Glancee And Highlight Are Fixing Those Background Location And Notification Problems, Eric Eldon, TechCrunch, http://techcrunch.com/2012/03/13/locationsignals/, written 3/13/12, accessed 11/21/12
[4] Location Awareness Programming Guide – iOS Developer Library, http://developer.apple.com/library/ios/#documentation/userexperience/conceptual/LocationAwarenessPG/CoreLocation/CoreLocation.html, accessed 11/21/12
[5] The Real SXSW “Winner” Is The Mophie Juice Pack, http://techcrunch.com/2012/03/17/the-real-sxsw-winner-is-the-mophie-juice-pack/, written 3/17/12, accessed 11/21/12
[6] Highlight Launches Android App And New iOS App With Expanded Profiles, “High Fives,” And Improved Notifications, Ryan Lawler, TechCrunch, http://techcrunch.com/2012/11/20/une-autre-version-de-highlight/, written 11/20/12, accessed 11/21/12


  1. Great post, Nick. Your suggestions would go a long way towards helping Highlight grow its user base. Highlight certainly provides a promising service, yet it's not all that surprising that to date they have encountered significant mobilization challenges.

    While adding additional functionality to the app may help increase adoption, it is possible as you alluded that Highlight may be concerned about the potentially dilutive effect of offering standalone value that isn't directly related to its social discovery function.

    That said, I would add one additional suggested function that is quasi-social in nature. Highlight should offer a special function for users looking to share rides from a venue. Users could post where they are heading and users heading to similar destination could discuss ride-sharing. While some Highlight users already use the app for this purpose (facilitated by the November update that you mention, which includes a "Let me know if" function), Highlight could do more by, for example, offering special notifications targeted exclusively for rides. By facilitating this valuable service, Highlight could hope that users will be willing to experiment more with its app. In addition, this service will help users who aren’t necessarily all that closely connected socially, which would help Highlight even before it achieves broad adoption.

  2. Daniel English

    Nick, you raise a number of excellent points. I downloaded Highlight after reading about the hype at SXSW. However, I never found myself using it, or other similar apps such as Banjo, Roamz, Kismet, and Glancee that I downloaded at the same time. I think that this is part of the problem, potential users faced a coordination problem to sign up for the same app. While signing up for them is easy making multi-homing costs low, their drain on battery life and its concomitant decrease in connectivity with people I know makes it difficult to justify having them open just for the chance to run into someone I don’t know. My understanding is that Foursquare originated within New York, and I believe that these apps should have taken a similar location based approach to launching, as opposed to what became an essentially interest based approach by launching at SXSW. Once all of the users left, they were then alone in each of the local networks when they returned.

    I also think it is interesting that Waze, which also requires a network of users to get real-time traffic data, has not suffered from similar problems despite launching at a similar time. It has substantial standalone value as a navigation app, only requires clusters of people on busy roads which is exactly when people use it so the network is reaches critical size when it needs to, and, perhaps most importantly, is used in a car so that individuals can have it plugged in without destroying the battery life. Being able to exploit these differences in the type of network required, solving the battery life problem, and the creation of standalone value shows that a changes like the one you highlight could make Highlight a success.

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