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SXSW Interactive is the largest digital conference in the world, attracting over 300,000 people from all over the globe. Creative directors, marketers, filmmakers, and executives clamber to see talks by Hollywood royalty like Jessica Alba, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Brian Grazer when not sipping free cocktails on Tex Mex themed resto-bars bought out by Samsung, Fast Company, and Mashable. I spent five days at SXSW Interactive documenting a photo journal about creativity and innovation. Where I had participated as panelist and participant in the past, my role this year was as an observer, watching for creativity in whatever way it wanted to reveal itself to me this year in Austin. What surprised me was the unique perspective this gave me of SXSW compared to my experiences in the past, and I think as a digital planner and creative director it brought some real insights to light. These are the 4 things I learned about digital marketing at SXSW Interactive.
1. If content is advertising, then authenticity is at risk
The new mantra in advertising is that content is advertising. Branded content and sponsored content is everywhere and it's driving commerce in very real ways. And nowhere is that more on display than at SXSW. Every concert is sponsored, every bar and restaurant is branded, and every talk or experience is “brought to you by”. I don't know if it's my Gen X attitudes reeling in a millennial world, or if branded content has truly reached a peak at SXSW, but I found myself desiring anything that didn't hold an agenda or call-to-action. If SXSW is any indication, we may have reached the tipping point where culture is endangered and content-is-advertising may just be poaching our lives. The impact in digital marketing is still unclear but I witnessed consumers in Austin vocally seek out authentic culture experiences as a break from the branded content experience of the official SXSW. It's more important than ever for brands to focus their content in their own brand stories and authentic brand threads, and not just to make a check mark against the content-is-advertising movement.
2. Digital is hyper-local
We've been moving to a regional play in digital for years. Facebook, Google, Waze, Walmart, Uber, Taco Bell...digital brand engagement is now local first. But at SXSW in Austin it's hyper-local, and it's clear where we're headed in the next year or two. Proximity messaging, beacons, geofencing, WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, and RFID turned Austin into a minefield of digital solicitation in ways I knew was possible, but I had never actually experienced. Digital at SXSW in Austin was hyper-local. Proximity messages at private parties pushed to your handset and the SXSW app notifications would alert you to brand installations or points of interest at the festival as you walked by them. Beacons pushed out party alerts for that evening at the venue you were in, and hidden technology installations seemed to inhabit every booth and conceivable brand location. Digital marketing is now beyond local, it’s down to the 5-10 feet that you’re in right now, or even down to the inches around a single item you’re interested in. If SXSW is any indication, then providing value with a digital layer that consumers seek out (vs spamming broadcast messages to anyone in the vicinity), is clearly the path forward for smart, hyper-local brands.
3. Experiential is digital's secret sauce
This isn't new, but wow, it was amplified at SXSW. Digital has a mirror, a twin, the yin to its yang – and that’s experiential. Events and places fit digital in a natural, organic way that was incredibly apparent at SXSW. Concerts are filmed and broadcast on social media channels as they happened. The hot new breakout app at SXSW this year, Meerkat, (which has received no shortage of coverage) broadcast live video from events at SXSW as they happened. And 1.22 social media posts about #austin were tracked every single second of South By, documenting every place, experience, talk, and brand integration over the five-day festival. SXSW and the city of Austin are both a destination and an experience, and that drives digital content at an unprecedented volume. When I think about how many marketers still have social media managers who write posts from cubicles in lofty office towers – far apart from their counterparts who work in event and experiential or shopper marketing – and not in the streets or at the events where their consumers are, it feels like we have it completely wrong. Seeing brand managers talk to their consumers at the experiential level, where real brand conversations were happening, was clearly the secret sauce of digital.
4. The next generation is creating a new digital language
One small part of SXSW was the SX Create show at the Palmer Event Center. In stark contrast to the middle-aged khaki'd crowds of the Austin Conference Center, this event was filled with kids making stuff. Soldering irons, Arduino units, electrical boards, LED lights, wiring, home made 3D printers, and robot tinkering... there was a generation playing with technology, as if it was just a toy, unlike any previous generation has had the opportunity to do. These 11…9…even 6 year-olds were making Internet connected things, and they were everywhere. I saw it with my own eyes: the next generation is made of engineers, hackers, and makers, and they are creating their own digital language. This is digital on a level we have yet to tap into, and for digital marketers who are thinking ahead, providing ways (and the tools) to hack, customize and personalize on a whole new level is undoubtedly the key to the future.