Digital Transformation

Let’s make SXSW great again

By Richard Wolffe | Chief Marketing & Digital Officer

March 7, 2017 | 6 min read

We all know the problems with SXSW. It’s too big, too loud, and too self-promotional.

All that may be true, even if it is the critique most often hurled by those who don’t travel to Austin or think they know it all already.


Credit: SXSW / Aaron Rogosin

But this is also true: there’s no greater concentration of talent than at SXSW, and there’s no greater need for that talent to combine forces than right now.

This is a time of unique challenges facing our politics and our collective industries. The same technologies that have created new businesses and billionaires out of nothing have also helped propagate fake news, deepened divisions of race and class, and elevated demagogues to power.

Social networks have brought us closer together and driven us further apart at the same time. They have empowered nationalists who will chill the kind of international exchanges that bring the best developers and designers to build our start-up businesses.

All this is happening at a time when new media businesses either can’t or don’t want to lead. And the old media businesses can no longer afford to lead, or simply don’t know how to survive.

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The people who can solve these huge challenges converge at SXSW each year, but they generally nibble at these issues because they are too big to digest.

So let’s define these challenges to help create the solutions.

First, we need to channel the power of social networks to help organize political activism. We are still locked in a world of activism defined by the 20th century: fundraising and petitions are the most prevalent and most outdated form of action. So why do they persist?

Petitions are read by nobody in elected office, but they have proved easy for activists and lucrative for email re-sellers. That’s not a great recipe for political success in this century.

Fundraising gives the donor a sugar high, and helps pay the bills for non-profits. But it roadblocks all other communication, squeezing out other forms of action-taking, as activists become full-time fundraisers. This is precisely what we hate about our elected officials. Besides, there isn’t enough small donor money in the world to solve the real challenges facing our planet. For that, we need to change our politics and our government budget priorities.

Second, we need to enlist brands to be part of the solution to these social challenges.

Too many chief marketing officers and agencies are too scared to follow through on what their own millennial staff and research are clearly telling them to do. The largest generation since the baby-boomers want to buy brands – and work for companies – that reflect their values and causes. Everyone else can pack up and go home.

So please spare us your worries about getting too close to political issues, or about diverting too much budget away from television. If you want to stay safe, your time on the golf course is only a few years away.

Third, we need media partners – both old and new – to understand that their audiences want something more meaningful that news headlines they have already skimmed on their phones, or reality TV contests with washed up celebrities. They much prefer to see the celebrity advocates who are using their fame to bring about social change.

At Global Citizen we work at the forefront of these issues every day. We have seen phenomenal interest from millennials who come to our platforms to hear stories of the people fighting for economic justice and freedom from want. They’re engaging with our content in the tens of millions each month; they come both for the stories and to take action towards creating a world that matches their values.

Yes, the political mood of our times is such that millions of people are asking for the first time how they can get involved, and how they can take action. But the elections of 2016 do not tell the whole story: this hunger for change, and the technological tools to bring about change, have been with us far longer.

We cannot solve the world’s greatest challenges on our own. We cannot achieve our vision by just turning Tweets into political currency, no matter what happens on the president’s phone.

We need the best brains and the best brands to join us, and the rest of the non-profit sector, to create the political activism of the 21st century. By doing so, we’re going to help build new media brands and new technology that will help create a new politics.

People don’t come to Austin to be self-engrossed; they come to share and to learn. Now is the time to share our best thinking to do something big that fits our times. Let’s make SXSW great again. Along the way, we might just make the world a better place.

Richard Wolffe is chief marketing & digital officer at Global Citizen. He tweets @richardwolffedc

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