SXSW 2017: Hope versus reality

Credit: SXSW

It’s almost that time of year, when all types of marketers, brand, agency, ad tech, mar tech and publishing executives descend to the great state of Texas for a week of over-the-top experiences, panels and lavish “networking” events. Yes, I am talking about SXSW Interactive 2017.

As a digitally progressive marketer, focusing both on current solutions, while keeping a close watch on the future, I am at a crossroads when it comes to identifying the value I receive from SXSW.

Each year, I have high hopes for the event. I look forward to real discussions about key topics driving digital. I want to be inspired by compelling brand experiences that showcase the latest technology, which may be a precursor to new ways to connect, empower, entertain, or all of the above.

My hopes remain high, but I am afraid of the reality, given my experience as a SXSW attendee the past few years. Instead of deep meaningful discussions, the content, especially outside of keynotes, is either too simplified or so generic it lacks any lasting impact. The other issue is that panels are selected for their title, versus their substance, and more often than not, the content is more opinion-based, rather than truth or research based.

Another area I always have hope for, but the reality has not met my expectations, is the actual tradeshow floor. Most of the key emerging tech players either just invested in CES and Mobile World Congress, so their budgets are strapped, or their own branded experiences are outside of the official SXSW hall.

The reality has been painful at times. I used to think about SXSW as the ideal event to gauge and project consumer behavior-centric tech trends. We saw consumer empowerment and amplification with the launch of Twitter in 2007. We saw the rise of location based engagement with Foursquare in 2009. We saw the rise of live streaming service Meerkat in 2015, and a slew of other disruptive tech over the years. But marketing is quickly shifting from disruptive tech to acceleration through intelligent systems. It’s less about the latest app fad, and more about how quickly the combination of data, intelligent systems and smart environments are going to fundamentally shift how we interact.

This shift was apparent at both CES and Mobile World Congress this year. CES was all about Amazon Alexa, and the shift from “all things connected” to connected intelligence. Mobile World Congress was all about laying the foundation for the emergence of 5G and its potential impact on everything from smart cities to redefining entertainment experiences.

What I want to see at SXSW is not only acknowledgement of what's coming, but additional depth. I don't want to hear more 30,000 foot discussions that talk about "why artificial intelligence (AI) will change marketing.” I want to hear about how AI and machine learning are changing consumer preferences, making decisions easier and impacting the customer journey. I want to see innovation fused back into SXSW. Less VR demos, and more focus on the convergence of mixed and merged reality with artificial intelligence. We should be talking about AI-based systems taking the 2D world and transporting it into 3D within a virtual environment. I want to hear and discuss the rise of the proxy web and marketing not only to consumers, but also to intelligent systems.

What will the reality of SXSW 2017 be? It will most likely follow a blueprint of the past few years. We will see over the top brand experiences and activations that become a sea of sameness. Bigger, better, faster immersive experiential experiences. In order for SXSW to remain relevant, it needs to move past the polished demos, over the top parties and crowning the next big mobile app.

The one area that still gives me hope is probably the most important: the connections and people at SXSW. The proximity to industry players, current colleagues and ex-coworkers, and the knowledge sharing that happens on a 1:1 basis never disappoints. This is where SXSW shines, and this is why I look forward to yet another trek to Austin.

Tom Edwards is chief digital officer-agency at Epsilon. He tweets @BlackFin360

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