News & Views

What You Need To Know From SXSW 2015 / Debrief

by Chris Barth

After a 2014 festival focused on privacy concerns and social good, SXSW saw a swing back toward more traditional storylines this year. Attendees geeked out about the potential of transformative technology – particularly in the world of virtual reality – and sought to make sense of a shifting engagement ecosystem through discussions about media, content, and audience interaction. Here is what the Contagious team took away from the festival.

VR IS STILL THE BUZZY TECH / If you were hoping for some new magical technology to show up at SXSW, you might be a bit disappointed. Virtual reality, in the form of Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and other similar headsets, is still the apple of everyone's slightly wandering eye. Developers and marketers alike have their focus trained on the summer release of Oculus's mass market headset, which many feel will be a proof of concept for VR as a whole. The missing link may very well turn out to be a killer experience for VR – the app, game, or film that will motivate people to buy their own headset, rather than borrowing a friend's for a lark and then spending that money elsewhere. Dozens of VR-centric panels talked excitedly about the future of immersive experiences, but, as always, the refrain remains: stay tuned.

THE FUTURE OF WEARABLES IS UNWRITTEN / Wearables also commanded plenty of attention at SXSW, with attendees puzzling over what the wearable of the future might look like, both in form and function. Again, this seems to be the calm before the storm, with the impending release of the Apple Watch – and the reception it gets in the market – looking like it'll define the space a little more tangibly in the near future.

One fascinating panel we caught was Beyond Wearables: Future Fabrics and Fashion Design. From extolling the material qualities of wool to discussing textile circuitry that could bestow connective powers on your wardrobe, an expert group discussed what might happen as wearables go from accessories to being literally woven into the clothes we buy. Billie Whitehouse, director of Wearable Experiments, the company behind Contagious favorites Durex Fundawear and Foxtel Alert Shirt, showed off a stylish jacket that synced with her phone's GPS and then electronically tapped her on the shoulder to help her navigate from place to place.

That sort of haptic feedback was on display throughout SXSW, as content creators and marketers look for ways to 'get out from behind the glass'. Thinking around haptics seems to be evolving quite nicely, as creators understand how to manipulate haptics with more nuance. Said Rohit Thawani, director of digital strategy at TBWAChiatDay, in his panel called When Your Device Decides To Touch You Back: 'It's not about touch, it's about feel. Touch is dying – it's one-dimensional. Feel brings us back to a human state, a place where we can be more connected with the people we're interacting with.'

CONTENT REMAINS KING, BUT EXPERIENCE HAS ITS EYES ON THE THRONE / Content-focused panels drew long lines, as SXSW attendees sought to make sense of brand's new role as content curators and creators. One panel, titled Brands As The New Medicis, posited that the new ecosystem essentially positions companies – particularly those investing in content produced by external writers, artists and filmmakers – as the patron saints of modern art. 'Is the branded content you read today on the web, the next great classic pieces of literature?' the panel asked. We're not so sure the branded content space has gotten that good yet, but it's a lofty goal to strive toward.

As attendees soaked up content talk, they were also exposed to an underlying current of experience, wherein experts heralded the arrival of a new age in which content can reach out and tangibly engage with its audience. A standing-room-only crowd tuned in to Breaking the Fourth Wall: Audience Participation in the Digital Age, where Portal Entertainment's Julian McCrea, Sync Screen's Marc Goodchild and The Brain Factory's Jon Schnitzer discussed ways to build first and second screen experiences that reach through the glass.

'We need to go from making television experiences to making experiences that include television,' said Goodchild. We'd go even further and say that the panel showed how experiences that are focused on the audience and largely platform agnostic will be the most widely spread in the coming years. In fact, Goodchild summed it up nicely toward the end of the talk: 'We're in a stage now where creatives don't have to worry about the how and we can really start to explore the "why". What's the motivation for the audience, and how do you author for this new world where you're making experiences around people rather than around the technology of the TV screen?'

Another panel, on in-stadium experience for Major League Soccer Fans, emphasised the need for content creators to involve the audience in developing experiences, rather than simply passing them from the top down. 'So much of game production and in-game experience is produced by the suits,' said Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, talking about the NFL, NBA and MLB. 'The fundamental difference in soccer is it's coming from the stands, from the fans. Our job is to lay a canvas out and let the fans paint on it.' Other experience designers would do well to get in that mindset (for more on involving fans in sports, check out our sector focus from Issue 37).

That shift, from brand-created content and experiences to brand-enabled content and experiences, is one of the more important takeaways from this year's trip to Austin. Brands are starting to get it right, coming down from their ivory towers and mingling with the masses. As one panel pithily put it, we've gone from iChat to WeChat.

DATA + DESIGN / Another clear theme emanating around SXSW was the realisation that marketers must understand how to use data in creative ways. Whether talking about data sets so large they need to be stored in space (yes, a real panel discussion) or just looking at how small data sets can inform creativity, attendees worked to wrap their heads around turning numbers into insights. One method that got lots of lip service during the festival was visualisation. Panels matching up data scientists with artists and other visualisation experts were of particular interest, highlighting the necessity of translating information into comprehendible chunks via visual displays.

Increasingly, discussion around data seems to be diverging, with one half focused on the mechanics of data – how to gather it, how to store it, how to process it – and the other focused on the eventual output. For marketers, the latter seems much more important, as it drives insights that will eventually create great, emotional storytelling. But the former is important as well, and many panels stressed the need to find good data, rather than just big data.

EMPOWERMENT AND DIVERSITY / At the end of the festival, the Interactive Innovation Awards recognised big winners from the past year, and declared a Breakout Trend of the year: diversity. While the panels we went to on diversity were sparsely attended, we'd agree that a fair amount of general talk around the conference focused on the topic of empowerment and giving a voice to the voiceless. One particularly interesting talk featured Saudi Arabia's Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, who talked about integrating women into the workforce in Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally only employed men in retail settings. 'In every community you have people that approve of things and disapprove of things,' she said. 'If you stand still, people can push you down. But if you keep walking, they have to follow you.'

CONTAGIOUS CONTENT / Contagious descended on Austin with plenty of insight to share, as well. On Friday afternoon, editorial director of the Americas Nick Parish and Holler co-founder James Kirkham shared their look at the future in Brands: Connective Tissue Between People and Tech. The talk looked at burgeoning technology coming out of research labs and artists' studios and projected into the future, when those technologies could well be seamlessly integrated into branded experiences. Check out a couple of the videos below:

Tara Hirebet, Contagious' head of Asia Pacific, informed audiences about how to reach China's wired women on Saturday afternoon, sharing insights about how young women in China use social networks, shopping sites and more throughout their daily life. It's a topic that has never been more relevant. As the panelists noted, Singles Day in China brought in more than twice as much money ($9.24bn) in 24 hours than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined – largely driven by the spending of Chinese women.

Contagious Insider Chris Barth moderated an off-campus talk with HUGE research director Yashoda Sampath and managing director Todd Lefelt, going through their research on how to connect with millennials (hint: target behaviors, not demographic profiles) and with young kids (who have a very sophisticated understanding of technology). One key takeaway: marketers are going to have to work hard to provide personalised value, as entertainment and information is increasingly available in peer-to-peer channels.

And Nick Parish returned to the stage on Saturday to talk about how marketing can act as the advanced R&D department for a brand, once the engineers and brand people agree to place nice in Culture Clash: When Product and Marketing Converge. Nathan Martin, CEO of Deeplocal and Deeplocal clients Ann Herrick from Hallmark and Tyler Bahl from Google discussed bridging the gap and effecting change in product. Hit the links for all the smart quips worth Tweeting.

BRANDED SHENANIGANS / As always, there was no shortage of rapacious street teams prowling up and down 6th Street, hoping to score the attention of the plugged-in audience of SXSW. From people in squirrel costumes reading books to armies of young men in black hoodies and sunglasses promoting a new TV drama, the brand activations alone were enough to make SXSW seem like some content promotion fever dream. Although the festival reported fewer large event permits, plenty of branded pop-up spaces dotted Austin for the week.

Perhaps the most talked about came from charging brand Mophie, which outfitted a small space with a pack of St. Bernards, ready to rescue 'stranded' southbysouthwesterners with phone chargers. Calling out 'free beer and puppies' was enough to keep the space pretty full all week, although the dogs looked quite hot in the Austin afternoons.

Elsewhere Yahoo's space focused on promoting it's upcoming original programming on Yahoo! Screen, Google focused its efforts on promoting Google Fiber, and the Game of Thrones experience from HBO had lines around the block constantly. McDonald's performance space – where the brand listened to rapid fire pitches from startups – got a lukewarm response, thanks to a pre-event imbroglio about band payment, and a general lack of inviting programming. A&E built a Bates Motel just behind the Convention Center, in prime Instagram territory. And plenty of other brands threw their hat into the ring, building spaces that, unfortunately, all seem to blend together in the SXSW swirl.

Finally, as always, some of the biggest buzz came not from panels, but from app launches and startup pitches. Live video streaming app Meerkat was a big topic of conversation, despite being handicapped by Twitter during the festival. BuzzFeed's Cute or Not app got a big promo from Jonah Peretti on the main stage. And next generation apps like Yik Yak and Yo got plenty of attention, both on the stage and the street. Our award for favorite overheard pitch, though, goes to the startup billing itself as the 'Netflix for weed'. Let us know how that pans out when the cost of shipping becomes prohibitive and you have to deliver your brand experience through screens.