The SXSWi conference has grown steadily for 20 years due in large-part to its buzz factor. This year is different -- the buzz factor is notably lacking. And the recurring theme of hallway conversations is the lack of buzz -- no cornerstone brand, launch, technology, or story this year. How can this year’s event, which has drawn record attendance, lack the buzz factor?
While usually a hotbed of trends, the tradeshow, which opened Friday, is mostly a collection of regional tourism offices -- including Ireland, Chile, Germany, Canada, Mississippi, and Houston -- and some uninspired app startups. There’s activity around robotics and 3D printers, which promise to democratize manufacturing; but it’s not producing the hallway chatter that highly sharable apps and mobile technology have delivered in the past.
The biggest marketing splashes are coming from well-established brands that are digitally savvy, but not necessarily digitally centered, such as Oreo, American Airlines, Pepsi, and Doritos. Chevy was getting a lot of attention with their “Catch a Chevy” promotion, which could be attributed to the lack of shuttles and the desperation for transportation. It’s notable that BlackBerry is trying to get people to take a fresh look at their phones by sending skulking vans around the outskirts of the festival while Doritos proudly dominates every snack stand and party.
In 2007, Twitter and SXSWi basically put each other on the map, and it was thrilling -- not just for Twitter and SXSWi but for the attendees who were part of that game changing story. Foursquare came next in 2009, and while it wasn’t as revolutionary as Twitter, SXSWi attendees embraced it with open arms. By the time Foursquare started to fade into the background, Instagram was there to take its place. Both of those brands have failed to demonstrate the shelf-life and permanency of Twitter, so the collective SXSWi audience is ready to celebrate another darling.
The only problem is that there isn’t another darling to celebrate this year. There’s some chatter about Twitter’s video offering, Vine, and some enthusiasm about 3D printing. But mostly, there’s a yearning for something game-changing to happen.
Where is the Windows Phone? Where is Facebook? Even Google has dramatically scaled back its efforts since last year.
Don’t get me wrong. Even though SXSWi is different this year, I still love it. Technology seems to be taking a back seat to celebrity -- in lieu of interesting marketing campaigns, people are lining up to get a picture with cat -- folks left the Andy Cohen Q&A to get a picture with Grumpy Cat. The buzz worthy marketing campaigns that have become a cornerstone of SXSWi have mellowed -- perhaps because of the burn of last year’s homeless people charging stations.
Where else can you sit in one seat and hear Rachel Maddow, Al Gore, Nate Silver, Elon Musk, and Tina Roth talk about everything from search algorithms (and how we should ignore them) to space travel, democracy, creative environments, and baseball. While it’s inspiring and exciting to be here and interact with celebrities, I’m still here to focus on interactive trends and advancements. Hopefully something buzz worthy will emerge.