In years past, SXSW Interactive has been marked by breakout stars that rise above the noise to own the conversation – after all, the launches of apps like Twitter and Foursquare took place in Austin. But in 2016, marketers saw a shift from apps to digital culture overall and the ways in which technology is changing marketing, music, politics, and just about everything else.
We asked a few of our friends in the industry to share their biggest takeaways from SXSW 2016. Here are their thoughts on tech’s biggest festival:
2016: The year without a killer app.
"What I took away was the lack of any new buzz-creating killer app – I didn’t see one, didn’t even hear anybody talking about one. What I did see – that I loved – was marketing people getting serious about virtual reality. Of course VR isn’t an app; it’s an entire technology. But that’s what’s so exciting: when you take that headset off, you’ve actually been somewhere else. Marketers seem to agree that Millennials really value experience – and now here’s a medium to deliver it. Some marketers are just now learning what video can do, and we’re already at the next big leap."
– James De Julio, president and CCO, Tongal
It’s ALL blowing up.
"More than ever, SXSW demonstrates that the competition has competition, and it’s coming from all sides – consultancies, production companies, technology partners and agencies. So, it’s less about what the hot new technology is and more about how we get ourselves ready for what’s already happening. Those who embrace solid problem-solving fundamentals will thrive by identifying what drives human behavior (e.g. fear, excitement for what’s new, etc.) and how we can use all of this new stuff to resolve ancient concerns."
– Lee Maicon, chief strategy officer, 360i
Virtual reality may be buzzy, but it’s not for everyone – at least not yet.
"SXSW 2016 was dominated by virtual reality. For example, IBM got into the action by including a VR bike-riding experience at their lounge – and on the trade exhibit floor, there was an entire section dedicated to VR. Despite VR being the “it” experience, there was lots of conversation about why, how and when to strategically integrate into programming. Just because VR is hot, doesn’t mean these kinds of experiences are a fit for every brand or campaign. The key to making the call is authenticity. Do you have an experience worth telling through VR? If so, go forth. If you’re unsure, find another tactic."
– Jenny Heinrich, VP, digital strategy, EdelmanDigital
Authenticity is key to the art of brand storytelling.
"Mr. Robot made its world debut last year at SXSW where it won a Film Audience Award. In bringing the show back, we wanted to pay tribute to the fans who have been critical to the success of the series. To do this, we recreated the Coney Island headquarters of “fsociety,” the fictional hacker group depicted in “Mr. Robot.” The activation included several iconic visuals, including a 100-foot ferris wheel, a hacker arcade, a T-shirt press and photo booth installation. All paid homage to the world of “Mr. Robot” and its timely themes while celebrating fans and driving word of mouth about season two coming this summer."
– Alexandra Shapiro, EVP of marketing and digital, USA Network and Syfy
Some social behaviors are moving from broadcast to “narrowcast.”
The shift to dark social is something all marketers should keep an eye on. Users are utilizing Snapchat, Facebook messenger, Instagram chat and other private messaging social platforms to conduct conversations below the radar. Brands are already considering how to combat this and are staying ahead of the curve. This trend stands to create a significant shift in how marketers talk to consumers and will make it even more difficult to collect user data.
– Shae Carroll, social media director, Saatchi & Saatchi NY
The battle for consumer attention is heating up.
The lines between digital culture and mainstream culture have blurred. Consumers are becoming more advanced and expect brand communications to evolve with their changing behaviors. In a world where the average consumer has access to virtual reality experiences, simply putting a message on TV and replicating it on digital will no longer move the needle.
– Sarah Monson, sr. associate brand manager, Kit Kat, The Hershey Company
Brands are rallying around marketing’s fifth “P” – purpose.
Amongst all the hoopla around new technologies like VR and the usual hype (I call SXSW “the Olympics of Good, Bad and Ugly” marketing), there seemed to be a new trend: an increased focus on deeper purpose, whether it was First Lady Michelle Obama's powerful keynote about girls’ education, or the workshops and sessions about mindfulness and meditation. SXSW is now thinking more of the heart, not just the head.
– Afdhel Aziz, brand director, Absolut LABS, Pernod-Ricard & co-author of “Good Is the New Cool”
As VR goes mainstream, the future of SXSW (and personal interaction) hangs in the balance.
My biggest SXSW take away came from the sidelines, not the mainstage. Someone at the table next to me at breakfast put on a VR headset in the middle of his meal, presumably to escape boring company. It got me thinking about the implications of VR going mainstream: What will life be like if we can transport ourselves from any mundane situation into an thrilling immersive experience? Could SXSW be held virtually to save a lot of jet fuel and carbon emissions? What if the guy at breakfast was using the headset to be at more interesting virtual breakfast meeting?
– Gregory Galant, CEO of Muck Rack and The Shorty Awards
Authenticity over everything.
Authenticity was the SXSW buzzword of the year. We witnessed VR make experiences authentic, heard talks on the importance of companies aligning CSR initiatives with their authentic missions, and saw a move towards less produced and more authentic branded content.. According to Wired’s Kevin Kelly, VR and AR experiences will be second nature to us in just a few years, and I’m excited by the power of these tools to spark empathy for causes and social issues via immersive storytelling. Oh, and the two hour-long wait for Samsung and Six Flag’s recent VR collaboration was totally worth it.
– Kat English, Director of Public Relations & Social Media, The Ad Council
SXSW has grown up, paralleling the maturation of digital in the marketing world.
Serious digital topics like programmatic and privacy – which were rarely uttered at previous Southbys – are taking the place of “fluffier” content, drawing highly-engaged crowds. Brand marketers were out in full force this year – and not just for large activations. For instance, the IAB Games Committee panel audience was composed of 36 percent brand marketers. This being my fifth year at SXSW, I see this as a positive change. And, without doubt, the event is still a ton of fun. Tacos, anyone?
– Susan Borst, director of industry initiatives, Interactive Advertising Bureau
Diversity in tech is a competitive advantage.
In his keynote, Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams emphasized the importance of hiring diverse people in the creative space and how that environment fosters great work ethic and better output. His company, Bad Robot, hires people of diverse backgrounds, not only because it’s necessary, but it makes for a better product. Different voices, more perspective, better products.
– Erica Reid, social media coordinator, Shell Oil Products US
SXSW is one of the few times of the year marketers can step outside of the day-to-day cycles of planning and campaign management and think of what lies beyond the established ways of doing things. If trends like VR, creator culture and purpose-driven brands are any indication, immersive, authentic experiences that connect with consumers beyond the impression will be central to marketing’s people-first future.
Matthew Scott is SVP of business development & strategy at Crowdtap
Photo credit: Gary He/Insider Images