SXSW: Choose Your Own Adventure

SXSW: Choose Your Own Adventure

SXSW: Choose Your Own Adventure

By Gemma Craven, Director of Social & Mobile, McCann NY

Every year, South By Southwest gets bigger. It’s a far cry from the small networking event set up 30 years ago. The three-part program kicks off with SXSW Interactive, which wrapped Tuesday.

Interactive was once the place where the latest new thing was launched – Twitter was propelled into the mainstream thanks to the crowd at SXSW 2007. This year, brand activations took center stage, with many brands looking to create a remarkable and unique experience rather than launch their latest and greatest.

Here, we recap our key SXSW 2016 learnings and sharing opportunities and takeaways from all the talks and networking. We also provide some links for deeper dives into your own personal discovery sessions. Call it Choose Your Own Adventure, which is essentially what SXSW is all about.

When @POTUS comes to SXSW, you know it is kind of a big deal  

President Obama keynoted at the event on Friday and called on SXSW attendees to help solve some of Washington's toughest problems ranging from upgrading outdated federal networks to connecting rural classrooms to Apple vs. the FBI. His well-shared quote was about how much easier it is to order pizza in the U.S. than it is to vote, a status quo he is looking to change.

Obama has been heralded as the most tech-proficient president the U.S. has ever had. He recognizes the huge sea of change that technology is empowering as he focuses on his legacy and what happens beyond 2016, You can find his full speech here.

This year is just the beginning of the age of consumer VR

It was no surprise that VR was all over SXSW Interactive as three major new VR platforms come to market - the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR. 

The New York Times hosted events promoting its VR offerings, with headsets to watch its VR projects including "The Displaced," a piece in which viewers follow three child refugees in different nations through their daily lives. Download the NYT app and watch “The Displaced” here.

Google showcased its Tilt Brush 3D VR painting app with an animator in a VR headset painting while the image appeared on a large screen overhead. Also, attendees were able to create 360 images in a 360-degree photo booth, viewable via Google's Cardboard headset.

Samsung's VR extravaganza used moving chairs and Gear VR headsets to let festival goers take a roller coaster ride via a video it developed with Six Flags – similar to the activation on display at Mobile World Congress last month.

Even McDonald's was in on the game. Their branded Loft offered the chance to use the soon-to-launch HTC Vive and controllers to paint a colorful mural on a Happy Meal box and throw paintballs in a virtual world.  

All entertainment is now converged

SXSW now runs events described as “Convergence,” which explore new ways content is being developed and how it reaches diverse audiences.

Standout stars in this track included Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Creators, EPs and stars of Broad City on Comedy Central, who talked about the transition of their show from a web series to cultural phenomenon. Tune in here.

Scandal star Kerry Washington talked about the impact of social buzz on Scandal’s success, specifically Twitter chats on Thursday nights. She deemed social the “great democratizer” as it has created a table that is much bigger and easier to get a seat at and have a voice.

Mr. Robot Creator Sam Esmail and stars Christian Slater and Rami Malek took to the SXSW stage to discuss the breakout hit and how to portray hacking culture in an authentic way. When asked if the show has inspired either of the stars to learn to code, Malek gave a definitive ‘No’ and Slater said he had simply updated his passwords. The talk was accompanied by a huge activation in the middle of Austin: a Coney Island-esque Ferris Wheel and #fsociety pop up that replicates one of the show’s locations.

The balance of culture and cool

At SXSW, brands are constantly trying to tap into what’s “cool” to stand out. On a panel about food halls and the emergence of local markets, speakers discussed foodie culture and how it would be very easy to fall into the trap of the cliché in this sector.

The key takeaway from this group was that “cool” actually comes from the authenticity and passions in niche interest groups. In the food space, there is a movement from food hall to public market, with public markets supporting small businesses within the community. Anthony Bourdain’s Packing House is one example, a new space in NYC that will house over 160 vendors that cannot otherwise afford to set up shop. 

For additional reading on this topic - a phenomenon Harvard Business Review has termed “crowdculture” - check out this brilliant article

Influencers influencers influencers

The many different types of “influencer” were on display at SXSW, ranging from celebrities with huge reach all the way through to customers and employees who can engage on behalf of a brand. While outlining different types of influencers on a scale is nothing new – check out the WOMMA influencer guidebook for one of the original frameworks to define different types of influencers – it is certain that influencer culture is here to stay.

Kerry Washington’s talk touched on how, after seeing other actresses getting roles because of social media presence, she saw it as an extension of her brand and a requirement in order to grow her own influence on social.

Think of your consumer as your employee

Even tightly enclosed ecosystem brands like Disney World and Virgin America suffer from breakdowns in their storytelling. With so much fracturing in our multi-platform world, it's extremely challenging to own a brand narrative. Fans and customers can be the thread that helps tie a brand narrative together.

Key learnings from this panel:

  • Find ways to empower and incorporate your audience/customers into your brand so it’s easy for them to become a brand advocate.
  • Word of mouth is still one of the most powerful drivers for brands – something Slack CEO Stuart Butterfield accredited for their success.
    • Butterfield also revealed that the average Slack user spends two hours and 20 minutes a day on the platform, not just with the app open, but actively sending messages or uploading files. Slack might well end up resembling a service more along the lines of WeChat, the app that has gained a massive audience in China by becoming a one-stop-shop for messaging, photo-sharing, mobile gaming and even online bill-paying.
    • If you want to check out more from Butterfield, check out this Fortune article

Social movements are often about the moment, not the cause

As humans, we feel it is better to be a part of a large movement than to not be. Think about the ALS ice bucket challenge:

  • How many of your friends participated?
  • And how many of those friends were invested in the fight against ALS?
  • Did you know they did it for a second year? 

Core activists seize an opportunity in culture to propel the discussion and create an action that helps people be a part of the moment. 

Social media ideas that are meant to be far reaching and create user generated content must be anchored in a reality of the right moment – and require a simple action to participate.

Put your product at the heart of your SXSW activation

IBM set up a Cognitive Studio in the heart of downtown Austin this year built around its IBM Watson cognitive platform. Through a 5-minute check-in and an RFID chip powered wristband, IBM delivered a personalized experience to each guest like a custom mixed drink or matching guests with similar Twitter influencers.    

The Studio also showcased several of their smart robots including Pepper, a robot on show at Mobile World Congress. Pepper can sense human feelings and reacts accordingly. Another IBM robot challenged attendees to games of Paper, Scissors, Stone (the current day incarnation of IBM’s Deep Blue master chess player?).

This house offered personalized content and unique experiences at every turn with Watson’s role shining throughout, making it well worth waiting on line for. Here is a tour of the activation.

The last impression has the largest influence on flavoring the experience

A roundtable discussion featured marketers from Soul Cycle, Disney and Lippincott discussing how to design happiness. They consensus was that it starts with employees because happy employees = happy customers. Soul Cycle purposefully designed classes to end the experience to deliver that lasting influence.

“Delight” is still a favorite buzzword.

  • A Park Hyatt Chicago speaker talked about taking the check-in experience from “the mundane to delightful.”
  • Soul Cycle gives managers and key holders budget to “surprise and delight” riders.
  • High-end restaurant Eleven Madison has a person called the "dreamweaver" at the restaurant whose job it is to “surprise and delight” guests.

We can all learn from this experience, and think about surprise and delight mechanics that can make consumers’ experiences with the brands we work with even more meaningful. 

McCanners of New York | 35th Edition

McCanners of New York | 35th Edition

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