Preview: Marketers should expect the unexpected at SXSW 2016

Later this week, tens of thousands from the marketing and technology world will descend on Austin for the 23rd annual SXSW Interactive Conference. SXSW has seen a lot of change over the years, leading purists to lament that brands have “taken over” the event, which was traditionally dominated by startups.

Yet the continued popularity of Southby indicates that it still stands as a beacon for what’s ahead when it comes to marketing innovation and digital creativity. And while it’s tough to predict which platforms and personalities will own the conversation, here are a few themes that are likely to rise above the noise:

Balancing non-broadcast social media with viral fame

Most millennials will fondly recall the beginnings of Facebook, when the aim was to amass as many friends as possible. Twitter later emerged, where follower counts became the de facto measure of authority and expertise. However, with the rise of platforms like Snapchat and Peach, there’s a marked trend among Gen Z-ers that appears to favor more “narrowcast” networks. Instead of posting generic updates to the masses, they are instead sharing more personalized content with close friends.

Interestingly, parallel to this trend is the consistent surge of everyday people who are amassing giant followings in social media using only their mobile phones. Consider the “Damn Daniel” meme that blew up the Internet last month. The premise here is simple (and somewhat head-scratching): a pair of high school students achieved viral fame through a series of Snapchat videos chronicling 14-year-old Daniel Lara’s daily outfit choices. Incidentally, Daniel happens to be a fan of Vans, so the company was quick to jump into the conversation and gift him a lifetime supply of sneakers.

Prediction: in Austin, buzzy, narrowcast platforms like Peach will grab attention at the same time content creators and influencers are tapped for brand activations, causing marketers to rethink their approach to word-of-mouth across a broader spectrum of influence.

The intersection of politics & tech

On Friday 11 March, Barack Obama will become the first sitting president to keynote the conference. As digital technology becomes fully engrained in culture and daily life, the political world is continuing to catch up with brands. Ahead of the 2016 Presidential Election, something as simple as a retweet is playing a significant role in political discourse.

Here’s some more evidence: Hillary for America is actively recruiting for several ad ops and digital data analyst roles via marketing trade websites and LinkedIn’s job portal. And John Oliver’s viral rant about the fallacy of Donald Trump has racked up 56 million views on Facebook alone, and another 15 million on YouTube. For context, the February GOP debate was the highest-rated of the year with just 13.2 million viewers.

Prediction: Politics will be on the brain in Austin – and not just because of the highly-anticipated presidential visit. This year’s election season proof-positive that social media has the power to make or break brands of all kinds in the digital age.

Leveraging cultural movements as a marketing opportunity

Ad blocking is no longer a problem marketers must grapple with in the future. It’s happening right now. Nearly two-in-three Millennials utilize ad blocking software and Europe’s first mobile carrier just announced that it will be blocking ads on its devices to deliver a better customer experience. This all begs the question: what exactly does marketing in an ad-free world look like?

Today, brands aren’t built through traditional advertising alone. As the Harvard Business Review recently pointed out, branding in the age of social media is about aligning with discrete sub-cultures and then empowering people to promote that culture as a full-fledged movement. Look no further than Chipotle’s championing of non-GMO products, Old Spice’s celebration of hipster culture and Under Armour’s dedication to empowering female athletes – at the foundation of each campaign is a brand-relevant “crowdculture” that was tapped to help create a broader movement and drive relevance.

Prediction: the increased presence of brands on the ground at SXSW means that more and more marketers are vying to align with tech culture and digital media. Brands investing in SXSW activations will get the most out of their investment by enlisting influential conference-goers to help tell their stories via user-generated content that’s easily created and shared in social.

Matthew Scott is SVP of business development & strategy at Crowdtap

Attending SXSW Interactive? RSVP here to request an invite to Crowdtap’s People-Powered Party on Saturday, 12 March. Use the code “THEDRUM” to request your spot at one of Southby’s most-anticipated events.

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