4 things you need to know about SXSW 2019
Danielle Le Toullec
18 March 2019

My first SXSW experience summed up in three words? Incredible. Jam-Packed. Thought-Provoking.

Ok that’s 5, but if I learnt anything in the past week, it’s that good things come from challenging the status quo. SXSW, the creative, tech and marketing industries’ mecca has been running since 1986. Nerd Woodstock – where the most inspiring and provocative thinkers cover a wide range of compelling topics for all the info-hungry geeks like myself to clamor around the city of Austin, Texas to absorb as much as we can.

With 432,500 people in attendance last year and 4,967 Conference Speakers commanding the stage, to say this event is a beast, is a colossal understatement. In one of my favourite keynotes, ‘7 Non-Obvious Trends Changing The Future In 2019’, Rohit Bhargava wisely said “You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know what to pay attention to”.


So, what’s hot in 2019?

  • Empathy was the word on everybody’s lips, as a driver of innovation and revenue
  • Qualitative Marketing > Quantitative Marketing
  • Tuning into Sonic Marketing
  • Forcing Big Tech to Give a Sh*t
1.Empathy = Innovation AND Revenue

People all around the world are cottoning on to the fact that the internet is not necessarily serving humanity very well. Despite initial expectations for technology to give us more time to do the things we like, in reality, as it fuels the always-on nature of our lives, it’s leading to staggering occurrences of burn out, depression and disconnection.

Empathy is a very effective way of tapping into consumer needs and understanding them on a deeper level. We know consumers want to hear from their favourite brands. But, and this is a big caveat, the messages need to be adding something to their lives. So, how do brands evolve to answer this need?

In his talk on “A Crash Course In Empathy and Leadership”, Michael Ventura from strategy and empathic design studio, Sub Rosa, shared a General Electric (GE) case study. Ventura showed how they used an empathetic approach to explore, learn, and grow through deeper understanding of how women experienced the GE Healthcare Mammography product. Through focus groups, they discovered that women avoided these appointments as it was “the test to find out when [they]’re going to die”. They were cold, uncomfortable and hated the gowns they had to wear. Armed with this knowledge, Sub Rosa put forward a new approach which enabled GE to revolutionise the whole experience by creating imaging centres optimised for patient-first experience rather than product experience. The result? When the women were relaxed, the machine was able to diagnose breast cancer more accurately, because the relaxed tissue was easier to image. Hospitals started buying the whole imaging centre experience, rather than just a machine. Innovation? Tick. Revenue driver. Big tick.

Cynics may scoff that empathy is a ploy used by big business to make it look like they care. At the end of the day, empathy is a passive tool. It is how you utilise it that will make a difference. And if it is making large conglomerates consider their audiences on a more human level, providing solutions that improve people’s lives… well, that can’t be a bad thing!

2. Qualitative Marketing > Quantitative Marketing

In previous years, Big Data has been all the buzz. But what quantitative data will never give you, is an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations behind the numbers. This is where the gold lies. For all the numbers junkies out there, don’t panic. We’re not throwing them out completely! Enter: Behavioural economics.

I attended a talk on the Brand and Marketing track titled, ‘A Psychologist and An Ad Guy Walk into a Campaign’, the former being psychologist Dr Mel Weinberg and latter, ad guy Dan Monheit. The key take away was that great creativity has always been about gut feel, neuroscience just makes it real. As a species, we humans are what Weinberg described as “predictably irrational”. We remember things because they resonate with us personally. And qualitative marketing is the short-cut to tapping into that and creating a valuable brand interaction for a consumer.

In the panel, ‘Is Social Media The New Fast Food?’, this idea of qualitative marketing was explored as a way of delivering something that is actually needed by an audience. It’s an approach that calls for brands to be service providers, no matter what industry they might be in. So, what does this really mean? It’s about investing in one to one conversations, at scale. Alphonzo Terrell, Director of Digital and Social Marketing at HBO said that for them, it’s all about entertaining. It’s about extending the world of their stories so the show doesn’t end when the episode does e.g. The Sopranos Nickname Generator campaign which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the show. Or their Game of Thrones, bleed #ForTheThrone SXSW Activation in partnership with the Red Cross.

To truly embrace qualitative marketing on social, Terrell encouraged marketers to ‘centre the user’ and to invest in training to prepare for the moment before it happens. Build trust in teams so that they have the autonomy to participate in social conversations in real-time. Key takeouts? Know your brand. Have a voice. Engage in two-way dialogue.

3. Tuning into Sonic Marketing

With more touchpoints and channels in the customer journey than ever before, the sonic approach taps into a world of opportunities. After all, the industry of voice-assisted buying is predicted to be worth $40bn by 2022. So, what did SXSW have to say about it?

Mastercard’s CMO, Raja Rajamannar’s talk on “Reimagine Storytelling Through Tech and Experiences” explored this realm of sonic branding as a way to reach consumers who are actively avoiding advertising. There is an added challenge that payments have become so seamless that the enabler brand risks becoming anonymous. With the rise of ‘conversational commerce’—buying through voice-activated products such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Siri, Mastercard are tackling this new need to be able to ‘hear’ a brand, head-on by working with specialists such as Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda to launch their brand new ‘mogo’ (musical logo). There are distinct sounds for individual scenarios such as cinema, dining, festivals or shopping experiences, as well as locations such as Shanghai, Columbia and Dubai.

Over at the ‘Creating “Sound-On” Content in a Sound-Off World’ panel, we learned that 85% of Facebook video is watched without sound (Digiday). To entice audiences to engage with content, marketers need to think about sound from the beginning. It cannot be an afterthought. Katie Keating from IBM, shared a case study for their quantum computer campaign, where they tapped into the ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) trend by creating content that brought the computer to life, in a non-traditional way.

4. Forcing Big Tech to Give a Sh*t

Despite it being my first SXSW, the rose coloured glasses didn’t stop me from noticing some concerning themes emerging. The obvious issue of Digital Wellness was front and centre in the aforementioned panel ‘Is Social Media The New Fast Food?’. Some stats that they shared:

  • 70% think social media makes them less social
  • 46% have temporarily deleted their accounts.
  • 37% have taken a digital detox
  • 21% of young people can’t go an hour without checking their social media feeds

There are platform updates going in the right direction, such as Instagram are introducing tools to help people be more aware of their usage with their daily time limit feature. However, there were many talks which breezed past some serious impending disasters — without anyone offering solutions or seeming too concerned with the consequences. In the featured session on “Self-Driving Cars: The Future is When?” with Malcolm Gladwell & Chris Urmson (Aurora), Gladwell zeroed in on the social and political risks that self-driving cars face. He hit the nail on the head when he said that “people from Silicon Valley are a bit too blasé about security. It’s not encouraging to be launching such a change in a time when cyber security is such an issue”. He warned that “if we aren’t careful, we don’t get what we want from these technologies”.

Steven Bartlett from Social Chain, echoed this in his session on AI & Social Media when he said that “we put money before trust, privacy, morals and accountability and now we’re paying the price. We rushed in without thinking of the impact on mental health, laws or policies.” It’s no secret that people trust brands less than ever. Bartlett went on to say that we need to go from ‘black box’ brand to a ‘glass box’ brand. Afterall, it’s not about what has been painted on the outside but the ability to see inside and make your own opinions about a brand. The more open that these tech companies are about what they are creating and conversations they are having, the more opportunity that concerns will be raised early in the piece, before technology is unleashed and misused. Before it’s too late.

As my colleague, Chrissie Hanson, aptly put it, “Yes, the fight against disinformation requires the collaboration of Silicon Valley, private companies, governments and regulators, as well as citizens; and yes, we need to be more vigilant in protecting our children and ourselves from misinformation, to be better guardians of own data. But consumers shouldn’t have to be the first line of defense.”

As I reflect on my time at SXSW, the lines upon lines of engaged people fighting for a seat in a session, the fervent note taking, the inspiring speakers… I have no doubt that these are the people that will change the world. So maybe you’re reading this thinking, I’m not an engineer for a self-driving car, or designing the next wave of robots designed to love you (Lovot in the exhibition hall, I’m looking at you), but you still have a role to play.

"Help your client answer a genuine customer need. Tell a story that hasn’t been told. Improve a user experience. Be a more vulnerable leader. Voice your concerns about new technology. Demand accountability from Big Tech. And most importantly, remain curious."

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