SXSW Interactive 2013: Lots of tech, but with an increasing focus on utility and usefulness

With SXSW 2013 now a memory (jam-packed with 27,000 people stuffed into the same conference center, standing in the same registration lines and waiting for the same pedicabs), a few trends and take-aways stood out.


Perhaps the most transformational message of the week was that technology’s cool factor is giving way to human utility and usefulness. The New York Times put it this way: “To the dismay of those who traveled to Austin with high hopes of seeing the next big thing before everyone else, there wasn’t a single standout service that had attendees in a tizzy.”

Instead, many of the most popular sessions were about creating personal, human connections.  From lessons of storytelling from the great Jim Henson, to WrestleMania with superstar John Cena, to organizations sparking conversations online to stop bullying, much of the programming pointed to the necessity of having the user at the heart of everything we do.

To this point, “native advertising” was the latest piece of marketing jargon to capture the imagination at SXSW this year: that is, the idea that both (ad) format and content must be customized, or “native,” to each channel in which they appear.

Implication for marketers:  Traditional offline and online advertising have always been tied to cost and efficiency.  One ad could be produced and (with minor adjustments) used in a multitude of channels, with a high enough frequency to produce awareness and interest. At the most extreme end of native advertising, a unique format with unique content for each and every different channel and platform – that could change over time, based on the surrounding content – would have to be created. Not only does this have enormous ramifications for budgets, timeline and sanity, but also for the ability to push a message to very large audiences, as brands do today. Where reality settles is something else, and marketers already understand the importance of advertising’s contextual “fit,” so we’ll see. Nevertheless, technologies and companies that can help build a “native” future are likely to have very bright futures.

Another consistent theme of the week was the use of data to create a fuller, more personal picture for users (and marketers).

We may finally be approaching the point at which we begin talking about data not as the end point but as an enabler.  While Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley wearing a Jawbone Up, a Nike Fuel band and a Basis watch may have been overkill, it was indicative of the growing market for data devices that help everyday users discover more about themselves, their friends and their favorite brands.

SXSW Image


In addition to Shoes and Glass, Google is also thinking about the big picture when it comes to search… with technology and data being the primary drivers of an improved
user experience.

Google Search
Amit Singhal, Google’s SVP of Search, discussed the company’s goal of “democratizing” access to global information, along with its resulting investments in language translation and voice search. With a view that the company may be years ahead of competitors, Google’s mastery of non-text input may deliver a key advantage in mobile.

Mobile Search
Mobile devices will offer Google incremental opportunities to reach and monetize users. For example, Google sees mobile query volumes spiking during lunch and dinner hours, when desktop volume traditionally falls off. Google maintains that mobile search is therefore at least somewhat incremental.

To make search truly universal by incorporating all available results, Google wants to fold social information into results pages. Google believes that getting social right is more important than being first, and continues to improve its Google+ “social spine.” When asked about Facebook’s Graph Search, Singhal replied that “time will tell if users value that type of search.”

Potential New Initiatives
Singhal opined that the most difficult problem to solve with mobile devices is not hardware or software, but reliable access to wireless data services. While he declined to comment on specific projects, we can assume that the company’s goals for Google Fiber include accelerating the development of faster, less expensive fixed-line Internet connections in the U.S. Google may be pursuing similar goals with wireless access by providing free Wi-Fi connectivity in selected US cities (e.g., Mountain View, CA) and neighborhoods (e.g., New York City).

Every SXSW event was hashtag-enabled and patrons were armed to socially share their experiences – and with experiences designed to shock and awe, there was certainly a lot to talk about.

While Google Glass may be courting controversy with its Orwellian potential, the wearable technology at SXSW incited raves for the user experience. Meanwhile, attendees were able to momentarily go beyond their earthly selves with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who teased that the idea of living on Mars may be closer to reality than we think.

Implication for marketers: No matter the size of your brand, creating experiences is integral to long-term success. Making an impact and creating lasting impressions is now a necessity.

It’s easier than ever to create compelling mobile advertising
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