By Elizabeth Friedland, Senior Digital Account Strategist
I’ve nearly recovered from my fifth trip to the People’s Republic of Austin (Texas) for the annual geek spring break known as South by Southwest. While some parts of SXSW are predictable (BBQ, breakfast tacos, Lone Star, heavy-handed “brand activation experiences”), the themes of the year are almost always a surprise.
What did SXSW 2014 impress upon me?
Privacy is the new Big Data.
First, let’s acknowledge the elephant at the conference: Privacy is perhaps the only thing that could kill modern marketing as we know it, and yet privacy was the new darling at SXSW 2014.
In years past, Big Data was the topic of the conversation: How we can gather it, what we can do with it and who can make best use of it. The urban legend-ish tale (that is actually true) about how Target found out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did was passed around sessions like the Creation story, an only slightly creepy inspirational motivator for what brands can do with the information we so willingly share.
This year, however, we all seemed to conveniently forget that a lack of privacy makes us successful marketers. We rallied behind such controversial figures as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (who both appeared at jam-packed keynotes via Skype — some of the very technology they blasted) and decried the NSA amid calls for a return to anonymity. It was… weird.
The takeaway from these mixed messages? The reality is brands can’t abandon Big Data, but they can and should proactively address their consumers’ privacy concerns. They can start by fully disclosing exactly what is being collected, how it’s being used, and what consumers can do to remove themselves from the data pool.
“Wearables” are the new social media.
My first SXSW, in 2010, was all about social media. Twitter was new. Brands were just starting to dip their toes into Facebook. Instagram hadn’t yet been conceived and Foursquare was barely in its infancy. We were still getting a grasp on this new form of connectivity in a personal sense and barely beginning to ascertain the power of these mediums for brands. Now, of course, social media are about as fresh as the lettuce in my fridge, and even the most green of marketers has a solid understanding of social media fundamentals.
This year’s puzzle for us to figure out was wearables (i.e. technology that becomes part of the body). From the already adopted Fitbit and Nike+FuelBand to the ultra-nerdy Google Glass (“glassholes,” as the SXSW community took to calling them) to the still yet to be revealed Apple watch, wearables are either the next big thing or the next overhyped trend, depending on which panel you attended.
Tech belongs to the marketers.
My early experiences in Austin made me feel like an outsider. Panels mostly covered technical topics, and rooms were filled with computer engineers and programmers. You had to look hard to find a session about marketing or public relations, and it was easy to spot us non-technical folks in the crowd, looking bewildered as a panelist droned on about HTML5.
Now the reverse seems true. You can still find the techy workshops (and Drupal is still far too often a topic of conversation) but SX belongs to the marketers now — and so does the technology. The chatter is no longer about how the technology works, but what we can do to maximize it.
In fact, you could even argue there was a bit of an anti-technical movement this year, with several sessions discouraging the recent “everyone should learn to code” movement. While the programmers and engineers will always be extremely valuable, the real talent lies in understanding how to seamlessly integrate these technologies into a branding and marketing strategy.
Of course, that’s just what the crowd sentiment says this year. As for what SXSW 2015 will bring – well, that’s anybody’s guess.