Quinlan’s Ben Kirst (copywriter / content strategist) — that’s me — and Frank Conjerti (creative director – digital) were among the swarm of over 30,000 marketers, designers, programmers, and entrepreneurs that descended on Austin, Texas for the 21st annual SXSW Interactive Festival from March 7 through March 11.
What is SXSW Interactive? From the website:
(The) SXSW Interactive Festival (is an) incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity…(featuring) five days of compelling presentations and panels from the brightest minds in emerging technology, scores of exciting networking events hosted by industry leaders and an unbeatable lineup of special programs showcasing the best new websites, video games and startup ideas the community has to offer. From hands-on training to big-picture analysis of the future, SXSW Interactive has become the place to preview the technology of tomorrow today.
First, to address some common stereotypes:
1. The conference is a little notorious for its party scene, and that is indeed a big part of what happens. For those of us who aren’t financing our trips on venture capital or launching a sure-fire tech startup, though, the sessions — which are fantastic — and (relatively) sober networking are of critical importance. And, to be honest, the craziest of crazy parties with celebrities and capitalists gone wild weren’t exactly accessible to two regular guys from Buffalo, believe it or not.
2. The cool thing to say is that the conference used to be better in years past. That may be true — I don’t know, I didn’t go in the mid-1990s. I did go in 2011 and 2012, though, and while I thought those events went pretty well, I felt that the offerings at 2014 were fantastic. My only complaint about 2014 is that the crowds were, well, intense — but otherwise, from an educational standpoint, it was maybe my best experience yet.
3. Yes, the festival is packed with all of the narrow black jeans, leather jackets, and tricked-out technology that one would expect from a convention of the world’s most digital-savvy influencers. But that image of SXSW Interactive is a bit off-mark — I saw as many people in business attire as I did in so-called hipster gear. SXSW Interactive is about making money, and that transcends fashion.
Going into great depth on each of our sessions would take all day, so here’s the abridged version — some major takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2014.
You can’t overstate the importance of research. It is impossible to create a cohesive strategy for a client without a clear understanding of that client’s goals, customers, prospects, and audience — both real and perceived. Proceeding without taking the time to complete these exercises is a dangerously attractive shortcut (especially when we “just know” the best path, right?) that will probably result in failure.
Collaboration and innovation are crucial. The spirit of entrepreneurialism and the influence of the Millennials — think brainstorming, teamwork, lots of communication, the eradication of work silos, dedication to nonstop learning — are taking root in corporate America. The upside? New connections, ideas, and growth opportunities. The downside? Freaking out anyone who isn’t used to thinking outside the box.
User-generated content is becoming a cornerstone of marketing strategy in a mobile-fueled world. Millennials spend 18 hours (!) a day consuming content, and over five percent of that time is spent creating or interacting with UGC. If your brand isn’t investigating or actively utilizing UGC, you’re already far behind — because successful UGC programs are fueled by strategy, influencers, and investment.
Trust is an ongoing concern. And not just the Edward Snowden kind of trust, although he did speak to the conference via video from Moscow. Both marketers and consumers value trust, transparency, and confidence that their relationship is authentic. The growth and availability of “Big Data,” the gray areas of web content law, and the ability to mask one’s identity or intentions make trust priceless.
Social good should be part of every business’ repertoire. This speaks to the trust factor, as well. Does your brand legitimately care about the community? How is it trying to help? Or is it all about the money?
There is so much more to discuss — the rise of UX and mobile design philosophies, building collaborative relationships with clients, rating social listening tools, not to mention the celebrities, experts, authors, and legends who made a simple walk through the Austin Convention Center a surrealistic waterfall of learning.
Maybe if you buy us a beer, we’ll tell you about it.