Reflections on SXSW 2014

Posted by Sunni Thompson on March 13th, 2014 at 1:50 pm

I stood next to Lady Gaga on the last night of SXSW Interactive at an AT&T party, and now I'm having a hard time remember anything else that happened during the conference. The normality of rubbing elbows with the Mother Monster on a platform suspended over a dance floor where the lightshow was controlled by attendees swiping on tablets was just stunning. Of course we belonged there, rain-soaked and bedraggled, standing next to arguably one of the most famous women in the world right now.

That's the beauty of SXSW Interactive – its ability to make the most over-the-top situation seem downright mundane. It's also testimony to just how elaborate brand experiences have become at the conference.

Here's the thing: I don't necessarily think it's bad. SXSW is now sort of a petri dish for brands looking beyond TV, print and two-dimensional social, and they're using the focused audiences as test subjects. Agencies of all shapes and sizes, plus internal marketing departments, are putting the best of their creative minds to work to develop immersive experiences that audiences will want to interact with – and tweet about.

Ultimately, I'd like to see some of these brand experiments translate into real world experiences (as SXSW is most definitely not the real world) that are accessible to a wider variety of audiences. That would prove the viability of SXSW as a testing ground for bigger efforts, and keep it from being just a marketing fantasy land with no real application for mass audiences.

Additional insights from SXSW 2014:

Spredfast is the new Diggnation – This is another example of the changing audience of SXSW. It used to be spring break for nerds, now it's spring break for vendors. In the past, Kevin Rose and the Diggnation party would close SXSW with a bang, bringing nerd icons such as Leo Laporte into rock star status by putting them on a stage with legitimate rock stars. Spredfast took up the mantle this year with Girl Talk, bringing in thousands of "influencers" (or brand managers with attractive marketing budgets) to dance hysterically in the rain.

Wearable technology, space, STEM – Big discussion points this year included wearable tech and anything science-related. While privacy was also a huge topic, it was a topic fraught with concern and hand-wringing. Nothing against Julian Assange, but the biggest hit of the festival was Neil deGrasse Tyson, imploring us to seek a new and better understanding of the universe around us. As important a topic as privacy and policy is, SXSW is still in some regards a celebration, and Tyson was the unofficial party leader.

There's still not enough diversity – I organized a panel for the first time this year, and after the conclusion of the panel two of the speakers commended me on my selection of panelists, noting that it was one of the most diverse they had seen (African-American male, Asian male, Asian female). The fact that this is still worth commenting on proves that we still have a ways to go in integrating races, ethnicities and genders into the SXSW speaker line-up. Additionally, a client mentioned the more obvious lack of Hispanic representation – as a Hispanic himself he made the point that the growing buying power of that demographic should make Hispanics a key focus of any conference as wide and varied as SXSW.

They need to change the name – SXSW Interactive now has a number of off-shoots, including V2V, edu and SXsports. Instead of spinning up each subject as a separate name, I think they should consider broadening the scope of SXSW Interactive and have everything live permanently under that umbrella. From a brand perspective, it helps to establish consistency and reduces confusion (V2V? I have to Google it every time to remember what it means).

Plus, I like the idea of ditching "Interactive" – it's too limiting, even for digital-focused topics. What's not interactive any more? SXSW has become so large and all-encompassing that it's now seen as a way to gain awareness for key issues several steps removed from the original focus of Web 2.0. Adweek touched on this phenomenon in their moving story about cancer researcher Jim Olson who has developed a method of using venom to assist surgeons in removing tumors. According to the article, "Awareness is also an issue, which is why he's speaking at South By."

That, to me, makes SXSW worthwhile, necessary and important – that it can provide a platform for a cancer researcher to speak to a large audience about the benefits of his innovative process, and potentially generate enough interest to have it widely adopted. Now who volunteers to come up with a new name?

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