Times have changed and so has one of the largest, most innovative technology and social events of the year. What was once an intimate, small-scale weekend filled with unveiling new technology and discussing how a new social platform has changed the game is now dominated by global consultancies, entertainment companies, multi-billion dollar social platforms and feminist conversations supported by the #MeToo movement. This year, the new faces of SXSW came out in force – with HBO’s Westworld experience gaining buzz as the “must do” highlight of the weekend, large-scale consultancies investing in mass-takeovers of event spaces, and social platforms opening their local office spaces to give attendees a peek into not only new product innovations, but also their culture.
To provide additional perspective, we’ve asked our Global Leadership team to provide their insights. Grab a coffee or a glass of wine and enjoy!
Five Takeaways From SXSW
SXSW 2018 felt a little less concentrated, a little more female, a lot more experiential and just as hit and miss as it always tends to be. Here are five takeaways I had from SXSW:
Experiences Are Content
SXSW has always innovated when it comes to creating immersive experiences that are worth sharing across all media. This year, it was off the charts. Some activations such as Land ‘O Lakes combined both Experience and content with a National Geographic partnership and a large takeover space that included interactive experiences which educated participants on modern day agriculture practices and Instagram friendly photo ops of massive heads of lettuce and other farm fresh vegetables you could pose with. HBO pushed the envelope with a massive offsite activation that gave participants an authentic taste of the Westworld experience with actors who never broke character and of course encouraged sharing it all on social media.
AI, More Talk Than Action (For Now)
AI was one of the hotter topics at SXSW and it was discussed or mentioned both in panels, hallways and dinner tables. I shared a coffee with Louis Rosenberg, founder of Unanimous AI which won Best In Show at this year’s Innovation Awards. His perspective was that there is a lot of academic conversations around AI but the practical uses of things such as machine learning and smart algorithms are still limited. Rosenberg participated in a panel titled “What AI reveals about our place in the universe” and pointed to it as an example of an esoteric conversation that while interesting—was also intangible.
Platforms Lose Luster With Tech Crowd
Many of the participants at SXSW are now starting families of their own or are at various stages of parenthood and dealing with how their kids interact with technology. Others are closely monitoring issues such as “Fake News” often spread through social media, fueled by mobile adoption. I participated in an invite only dinner with tech journalists, social media influencers and generally people who are on the cutting edge of culture and tech. A significant theme of the conversation spanned between tech addiction, the state of uncivil discourse across social platforms and the impact of all of these things on our collective mental health as well as geo political impact.
Women Empowered and Everywhere
Hands down, this year’s killer app was women. Panels had more inclusive representation, women were more present in attendance, were more influential in driving conversations and there was no shortage of ‘women in tech’ focused discussions. SXSW 2018 had its #metoo moment but not in the way you might think. Instead of scandals, there was simply multiple proof points that women are a meaningful part of the SXSW experience and future. This was actually a continuation of last year’s SXSW but this year the content (and coverage) of female inclusion and leadership in the tech world was palpable.
A Less Concentrated Event
I found the content this year to be hit and miss as it usually is. Panels such as “The Anatomy of a Trend” by World Global Style Network’s Carla Buzasi was excellent and a version of a talk she’s given at Cannes. The distinction between macro and micro trends alone was worth the attendance (i.e. Food trucks are a micro trend while Artisanal anything is a macro trend). Other panels on topics such as “Data Journalism”—for me at least, were a little more mixed and some of the most practical sessions remain offsite (such as the brands on Instagram panel hosted at Facebook’s Austin office. SXSW 2018 didn’t feel less impactful, but it did feel a bit broader, less concentrated and more diverse in topics, attendance and intensity.
Data and the Power of the Consumer
SXSW, the conference that converges technology, creative, and business with data as the common currency that connects everything. Data has long been held the currency of the future – it is the trade that consumers make for free content, the “product” that publishers disclose for premium advertisers, and the pressure for these transactions to be transparent, consistent, and open is increasing.
At SXSW the data conversation was the underpinning of most of the sessions and the availability, flexibility, and “state” of this currency was a common theme. For example, Pinterest is using consumer data to serve better content experiences across their visual search and discovery platform. Pinterest’s Taste Graph will use algorithms and AI technology to translate consumers’ likes and interests to serve up unrelated content that others like them engaged with. Additionally, Pinterest is expanding its visual search technology of image search and buyable pins to serve deeper more relevant discovery and commerce experiences across the platform.
At another session, “More Data, More Problems: Transparency in 2018” brands (Sony and Dell), and agencies’ representatives seem to agree that a standard data regulation and governing entity is needed to ensure that marketers could trust that the data partners they are working aren’t selling them a bill of goods or an unvetted product. The topic that was not mentioned in this session was message delivered to consumers against their data buying targets. Will consumers agree, or will behavior and actions taken from advertising and messages dictate which data is accurate and messages that are effective?
At the “2018 Emerging Tech Trends Report” session, presented by Amy Webb, the importance of data and how it’s leveraged across technological innovations was the difference between an optimistic view of the future and pessimistic view. A head in the sand approach to sharing data, innovation, and technology leads further regulation and stagnation in our ability to advance our technical economy. GDRP, new regulations for data sharing in Europe, will have ripple effects to other markets and may put pressure on governments to further regulate data and content across the internet. These trends are all developing but one thing is for certain, data is the fuel for advancement for innovation and products that will improve our lives.
Consumers are at the center of this debate and our willingness to continue to share our personal data in exchange for content, experiences, and improvements in our lives will drive the value exchange and determine if open data goes too far.
What Marketers Can Learn From SXSW
Grabbing attention at SXSW is no small feat. With an endless sea of sessions, networking opportunities and events, marketers need to think of innovative ways to get people to pay attention to their content – and to share it. So, how can you break through the noise to create a lasting impression (while increasing brand awareness) to a highly social SXSW audience?
By giving them an experience they won’t forget that goes beyond the screen.
This was my first year attending the festival and I have to admit, there was a lot to take in. I wasn’t sure what to expect but knew that I’d go home feeling inspired being among the first to hear about the latest emerging platforms and tech that would influence the industry and be a hot topic of conversation. But beyond the realm of VR and AI technology – which were very much a part of key discussions at SXSW – were surprising venues that transported attendees to truly immersive experiences.
The combination of an experiential and digital marketing strategies to elevate brand awareness and generate buzz during a competitive festival was highly effective. This approach packaged with impactful messaging extended beyond Austin’s city limits. TV networks and brands alike leveraged experiential pop-ups to draw audiences in and encourage capturing the moment for social sharing, with hashtag reminders and photo ops throughout the space. This allowed participants to connect with the brand on a different level than simply reacting to posts in algorithmic timelines.
This concept can be applied outside of SXSW when developing comprehensive marketing strategies to engage with audiences. Creating unique experiences makes for exciting content that is too good not to share and helps develop stronger brand connections – especially when enhanced by the appropriate social media platforms.
Whether transforming a few acres into the town of Sweetwater or escaping to an immersive zero gravity dome, innovation is key to standing out in crowded marketplace.
SXSW & Multicultural Inclusion
It has been a decade since I first became involved in SXSW. Ten years ago, I recall my surprise to find so few Latinos attending the conference, let alone acting as speakers. But, I understood the weight of my participation, and that understanding has driven my commitment to giving this community a voice.
This year, I was thrilled to see that SXSW was more diverse than in years past. Walking down the streets of Austin, I heard Portuguese and Spanish. I met several women from Colombia and Venezuela. Moreover, the presence of Latinos at SX represented not only attendees, but also speakers. My panel Latinas Removing Barriers in Tech was in good company with panels on Latinos: At the Intersection of Culture & Influence; Latino Entrepreneurship: Scaling to Excellence; Defending Dreamers: Resisting with Art & Activism; Universal Music Latin Entertainment; A Latino Film & TV Creators Meet Up and parallel events like Hustle House @ SXSW 2018 and #FullColorFutureSXSW.
2018 marks progress. But we still have a long way to go. The reality is that, even though our presence has increased overall, it still does not reflect the population in technology. Given the $1.7 trillion purchasing power of the Latino community, Latinas make up only 1% of working tech professionals.
The tech world and SXSW specifically are only beginning to scratch the surface on latino inclusion. It is up to us to not just sit and wait for the world to notice us or to invite us to participate, but we must understand the weight of what we bring to the table, as I did in 2008, and bring that forward with conviction and commitment so we may do our part in raising visibility for all those Latinos that come after us.
Experiential Trends at SXSW
Whilst SXSW is of course about emerging technology, creative shifts and the latest from Elon Musk, it is also a place for brands to flex their creative muscle and bring to life their brands for the discerning SXSW participants. Whilst over the past 5 years the number of brands showcasing their wares has declined, what has increased is the focus and quality of the experiences with a number of really exceptional activations this year from the likes of HP (disclosure, Edelman client), Dell and Panasonic. The two real standouts however on not just scale but also buzz would have to be Sony and HBO with their Westworld experience.
Sony has built on previous activations and focused on a number of technologies, from VR football and A(i)r Hockey showing off some the creative applications of their current tech through to some genuinely awesome experiences – capturing 360 images using Sony’s “Free-Viewpoint Visual Technology” to drop participants into their very own superhero film trailer for example. Cherlynn Low at Engadget summed it up best, “Sony has the right idea for tech demos at a show like SXSW. Focus less on explaining the tech or convincing people why you’re here – just wow your audience with magical experiences.”
Without doubt, the biggest hype around any experience is that of HBO’s Westworld – and not just for the nine hour wait. It took over five weeks to build the town of Sweetwater, a completely immersive experience with 60 actors and stunt performers that replicates the notion of the show; participants travel to a park to live out their wildest fantasies. SXSW is an incredibly cluttered environment – arguably the real world on steroids – so for HBO to cut through and stand out deserves all the kudos it has received.
But what does this mean for brands? Following the panel, Create magic: 6 Experiential Storytelling Secrets, here are some top tips:
- Audience insight first – make sure it’s actually what your audience wants to partake in
- Business driven outcomes – what is the end result you want from a business POV?
- Emotional bond – how are you resonating beyond the rational?
- Multi-sensory experience – use everything in your power to break through to the audience
- Exceptional hospitality – have great staff who are friendly, knowledgeable and reflect your brand
- Secret sauce – what is that little extra thing that goes the extra mile?
If you only take away one thing from brands activating at SXSW is that that the brands that cut through are the ones that don’t just take big risks but also focus on executional excellence, regardless of the scale, if this is your focus you will have an execution that engages your audience.
If in doubt, follow Vice’s example and just get baby goats…
SXSW & Austin – Made for Each Other
SXSW – much like the city it calls home – has enjoyed healthy amounts of praise and criticism over the past three decades. In fact, the trajectory and cultural reputation of both the festival and Austin seem somewhat intertwined. A tech startup darling, the live music capital of the world, a hub for creativity and innovation… or… a corporate sellout, an overrated spring break for adults, a congested mess of a place. All of these could be said about both SXSW and Austin. Whether it’s jumped the shark or not, here we are in the 31st year of the festival, with more attendees than ever taking in the sights, sounds and experiences of all that is SXSW – and Austin. Why? It’s the experience. Where else can you experience London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s pleas for tech companies to take on hate speech? Melinda Gates and other powerful women continue to propel the #metoo movement forward (while issuing a stark reminder to us that it will never be over)? See Elon Musk in a surprise appearance declare that we’ll be taking short trips to Mars by 2019? But it’s not just celebs and star power. From AI to BioTech to Privacy & Security… innovation is still brewing and being recognized at SXSW.
And we were proud to take part in these important conversations about social responsibility and tech innovation at our own Panel on Trust, helmed by our CEO Richard Edelman. With our new Trust + SXSW data as a backdrop, Richard and the legendary Dan Rather, our client Heather Brunner and our very own Jess Clifton talked to a packed crowd about the tax on truth, the prevalence of fake news, the important distinction between social platforms and social media and our responsibility as a tech and marketing community to be brave.
SXSW has come a long way since 2007 when a little company named Twitter was discovered here. And while it may seem that there wasn’t a singular “find” this year, I’d argue that the Interactive portion of the festival (which has officially wrapped – while music and film rage on outside our doors) was a representation of our broader tech and social environment. And it’s this intersection of technology and social responsibility that keeps SXSW and its Austin home thriving.
New Ways to Interact Offer New Ways to Tell Stories
As ever, SXSW was packed with macro and micro trends, some more obvious than others. But while the 31 panels on Blockchain and ever-present AI discussion probably made them the trends that stood out, it was another growing trend that, often building on advances in machine learning and AI, offers more immediate creative opportunities.
The changing nature of the user interface is not new, but the speed of change (20% of US households now have smart speakers) and the breadth of new interfaces (touch, voice and gesture) allowing us to develop new experiences and create new approaches to storytelling. And these new interfaces were the subject of a number of panels and sessions.
Conversational design is fast becoming the new UX; whether it’s the incredible variety of chatbots being discussed, voice search or the increasingly complex conversations and requests we are making of our virtual personal assistants, the boundaries of what is possible (thanks to AI) is developing all the time.
It’s not just conversations, through text or speech. Our computers have eyes, and they are learning (thanks again to AI) how to use them; whether it’s the Camera enabled Alexa or the rapid growth of visual search, especially on platforms like Pinterest where it is exploding.
And then there is the slow burn of AR. While VR may have hogged the spotlight in recent years, AR is very much on the rise. It’s one of the fastest growing App categories and Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services, Eddie Cue, was clear that this is where they see the future.
Combined with gesture control and even the early stage mind control technology on show, these rapidly changing user interfaces were even suggested by futurist Amy Webb to be signaling the beginning of the end for the smartphone. But more immediately they continue to offer new ways to deliver stories and experiences opening up completely new creative opportunities for communication.
The Emerging Voices of SXSW
Similar to the woes of Hollywood, tech is one of the most affected industries when it comes to a lack of diversity and inclusion. For many years, attending SXSW would mean watching countless panels featuring male executives asserting their opinions to the captive audience. The change to include more women has been happening slowly over the years, and many female leaders have been at the helm of the movement. But this year, there was an underlying bravery, and acknowledgment of this challenge, that has never been so prevalent.
Panels, events and featured speakers included confident, intelligent women who provided brilliant POVs about all topics tech, marketing, education, diversity and so on. Panels felt more balanced and the “voices” of the major moments carried through an undertone of equality like never before. This year was a moment women unapologetically stood up to offer their opinions, bravely injected themselves into the conversation and most importantly, stop saying, “I’m sorry.”
Having started my career in technology, the #metoo movement has given greater permission and a greater platform for not just women, but everyone who ever felt excluded and this feels like wonderful progress. And as an advocate of diversity and inclusion, I’m thrilled we have a platform and set of role models committed to keeping the movement alive – well beyond the walled gardens of Hollywood.
I give this year’s SXSW a “B” for being more conscious and looking critically at the representation of female and minority inclusion. But we can still do better. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to giving everyone a platform to share their voice in every forum.
This was my 9th year attending SX for recruiting. I have observed a significant change in the last two years – with the greatest change being there aren’t as many people attending. In past years when we hosted Edelman’s Annual Nightcap event, it was a great opportunity to invite potential talent under the guise of a party, rather than a recruitment event. Nightcap became a huge success and while we were still able to entertain potential talent, it morphed into a client centric party and partner-focused party so I started pursuing alternative strategies.
One of my favorite networking events is the annual #SheInspiresBrunch hosted by Twitter. At this event, I made several key contacts that will be potential future targets as well as incredible networking partners. I also had the opportunity to attend a Facebook event that highlighted some great new features of the platform and was able to meet our internal relationship manager who will be an excellent person to network with as I continue to source for the best-of digital talent.
I had the opportunity to connect with several recruiter colleagues from other companies that echoed the observations about how it’s changed, with veteran attendees mostly connecting the drop-off in attendees to the pull back in brands and marketers producing large events at SX.
Regardless of the drop-off in attendees, there is importance to being on the ground and making those in-person impressions. The real recruiting work happens post SX with follow up. I still have candidates who reach out to me to connect because they met me/others in Austin and are now ready to talk. It’s a long game in some ways.
About Edelman Digital
Edelman Digital is the digital advisory and integrated marketing arm of the world’s largest communications marketing firm. Our global staff, in over 65 offices worldwide, is built to manage the complexity of modern marketing and online reputation, using a data-driven social-first storytelling approach designed to deliver real-time business results. We believe in exploring future-forward technology to advance the stories we tell. The output of our work delivers experiences that transform culture, reputation and relationships to inspire real-world action between brands and consumers.