South by Southwest (or SXSW, or “South By”) has come and gone for 2014. Having been my second festival, I thought I knew what better to expect this time. Much of it was as I had planned carefully, with lessons learned from my virgin experience. I only packed a few comfortable shoes. I planned for Austin’s schizophrenic weather and brought mittens and a coat, as well as a bathing suit and flip-flops. And (aspirationally), I packed running shoes “just in case” I’d have time to run on the treadmill – which, of course I did not. SXSW is the kind of event that once you leave your hotel in the morning, you’re not coming back for anything except a warm bed in the wee hours of the night.
What I didn’t expect was how many new and incredible opportunities there were to consume content that were not a part of the sanctioned festival. Brands have learned that the influx of marketers, digital leaders and creative thinkers provide the perfect opportunity to deliver smart content to their audiences, without the necessity of a festival badge. I dined one morning on breakfast at the W Hotel at the Social Media Today event, which featured social executives from Whole Foods, IBM and MasterCard. I spent another day at Lamberts BBQ at the Brand Innovators Summit, hosted by social maven and author @TedRubin and jam packed with 20-minute presentations from big brands like Mondelez International (holding company for Oreo, Nabisco and more). Even the pop-up shops and takeovers surrounding the Convention Center had plenty of content to offer. Esurance scanned special gold badges for a chance to win prizes. HBO’s Game of Thrones pedaled pedicab “Thrones” around the streets of Austin and over to their special exhibit of props and costumes from the show (of which I did not tour, due to the consistent hour plus wait time to get in.) Even Grumpy Cat, last year’s top Internet Meme, made his way into the party. Content at SXSW is EVERYWHERE you look, every hour of the day and night. Overwhelming? YES.
The collective hours of planning and money spent by these brands has got to be in the billions. Months of ideation, construction, shipping, assembly, amplification and tear down. As impressive as this is, real-time marketing was conspicuously absent. I am very surprised that any of these brands didn’t take advantage of this massive opportunity to do something so simple – a la “You can still dunk in the dark” Superbowl Tweet from last year – yet so – yes I will say it, the center square in SXSW Bingo – disruptive, that it won the day. Oreo came close (again), crowdsourcing cookie flavors from Twitter and dispensing them on the spot using special machines created for the event. Maybe it’s just too busy, too crazy, too fragmented, or brands just plain run out of gas by the time they’re there. But also there are 100,000 people using their phones to take pictures and check Twitter, and even more not there watching the social stream to feel they’re a part of the action. My bet’s on seeing more of real-time marketing attempts next year.
So, common themes of SXSW 2014:
- Disruption (I said it again): Brands are very aware they need to do something unexpected to get people’s attention.
- Real time marketing: Brands are dying to be first with a witty Tweet or to market with something that’s hot. My sense from the sessions I attended was the larger the brand, the harder it is to pivot. IBM Social Business is doing some really innovative, cool things with social analysis and analytics. Here’s one they did at the very hip CMO Clubhouse outpost (it was the agency space used to photoshoot Grumpy Cat!) Social Command Center with my own Twitter handle. This new software analyzed every Tweet I’ve ever sent and applied the sentiment of my content with characteristic traits similar to Meyers-Briggs. It turns out I rate very high in Adventurousness and Imagination, which I’ll take! Where brands could go with this, especially as we move into more sophisticated social selling models, is really interesting.
- A Return to Being Human Marketers: Dynamic Signal, an up and coming tool for brands wanting to become true social businesses inside and out, hosted a roundtable panel at the Brand Innovators Lounge for clients and prospects to openly share successes and insights. It was really great to hear these brand marketers talk about connecting their employees with easy to share content, because they get that their best advocates are inside their own walls. It’s not that your employees don’t want to tell everyone about the exciting things happening at your company; it’s that they’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing. “Employees want to know what they can do right,” said Susan Emerick, IBM executive and author of The Most Powerful Brand in the World. “They want to have a positive experience and want to make sure they’re not doing anything wrong to put themselves and their company in jeopardy.” Dynamic Signal makes it easy to share, a tenet Bryan Kramer, the president of our agency PureMatter calls “#H2H”. Bryan sat on the panel to share his expertise about how important it is to bring back the simplicity, empathy and imperfection in how we market today, discussed further in his new book There is No B2B or B2C: It’s Human to Human, H2H. “We’re selling to humans – not businesses – no matter what,” he says.
This year’s SXSW did not disappoint with both filling my brain with new ideas and killing my brain cells with endless open bars. If it sounds like Spring Break, you’re right (and thanks to Mark Cuban for inspiring the title). But now, after 5 days of walking, talking, brainstorming and partying, I’m ready for a serious break from the madness. It’s one of those events that you don’t realize how magical a time it is, until you return back to sanity and feel full of creativity – and inspired to start planning for Austin 2015.