Every year, people from all branches of media and technology, including musicians, actors, marketers, and programmers, gather in Austin for South by Southwest (SXSW).
Founded in 1987, SXSW started as an indie music festival and has grown to a ten-day festival celebrating innovation and technology, film, and music. The ten days are filled with informative keynote speakers, entertaining performances and installations, and introductions to cutting-edge tech.
Although it’s been more than a week since visitors packed up and left this year’s festival, the event has lots of useful takeaways for communicators to consider.
This year, 75,000 people poured into Austin to sample all of the film premiers, branded events, demonstrations, and free drinks the conference had to offer.
A few major trends emerged that have important and lasting implications for the communications industry.
Brands immerse visitors
SXSW is known for its interactive installations from major brands. As always, brands took advantage of access to innovators and early adopters to gain exposure.
These branded installations were especially important this year, as SXSW introduced an awards category for brand activations, the SXSW Creative Experience “Arrow” Awards. According to Roland Swenson, SXSW CEO and co-founder, the decision to add this awards category came from the increasingly popular and inventive presence of agencies and brands at the event.
This awards category is expected to expand at the 2019 event, but this year, only three prizes were given out. Best Immersive Experience, Best Use of Technology, and Spirit of SXSW were awarded to HBO and Giant Spoon for the Westworld “Live Without Limits Weekend” experience, Sony Brand Design Platform for Sony Wow Studio, and pop-up installation Meow Wolf for Fractallage and the VR experience The Atrium, respectively.
Although there could be only three winners, one of the most interesting events this year came from Beautyrest.
Beautyrest, unlike many brands at the festival, created an event with no intention of packing in a crowd. Starting at 12:13AM, British-German composer Max Richter took the stage at Bass Concert Hall, surrounded by 150 twin-sized Beautyrest mattresses.
Those who were lucky enough to secure a spot on one of those beds were given branded pillows, blankets, and eye masks and were invited to fall asleep to the sounds of Richter’s Sleep, an eight-hour work featuring a five-piece band and vocalist. The 3,000 seat auditorium remained empty for the majority of the performance, except for select SXSW-badge holders who were let in for about two hours.
According to Warren Kornblum, Beautyrest’s chief marketing officer, this installation was meant to demonstrate their company values. They consider themselves a sleep company, rather than a mattress company, and this gave them a chance to show the 150 people sleeping on their mattresses how their product offered a better, more restful night of sleep.
Women earn the seat they deserve
Right in the middle of this year’s SXSW, Times Up Advertising launched. In partnership with the larger Times Up movement, aiming to end harassment and inequality in the workplace, 180 female CEOs, chief strategy officers, chief creative officers, and other leading executives at agencies joined together to address and dismantle inequality and harassment in the industry.
Appropriately, this year’s SXSW included more women speakers and events geared at empowering women than ever before. Unlike other tech conferences, such as CES which lacked any female speakers this year, SXSW featured an even split of male and female speakers.
Bumble, a social and dating app valued at over $1 billion, hosted “Empowering Connections.” The event featured notable women as speakers, including Gina Rodriguez, Keke Palmer, Rachel Zoe, and Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, as well as the music of Haim.
The event featured different activities to advance women’s personal, professional, and romantic life. Attendees could enter an elevator to practice business pitches and take photos behind an executive’s desk. Other stages at the event offered career advice, 5-minute first dates, and discussions on female friendships. Following this event, Bumble saw a 120 percent increase in the use of Bumble Bizz, the app’s career networking function, in the Austin area.
What’s to become of social media?
Between Facebook’s recent data breach involving Cambridge Analytica, Snap’s fluctuating value following offensive ads and a widely disliked redesign, and Twitter’s ongoing struggle to combat harassment, bots, and hate speech, social media is struggling.
For the last decade, social media was a star at SXSW. In previous years, the event celebrated the innovation and possibilities of social media. Twitter and Foursquare’s launch to prominence can be attributed to SXSW.
In recent years, however, the event and its attendees have had to address the darker side of social media. In 2016, for example, sessions dealt with harassment on social platforms. This year, speakers delved even further into social media and its harmful effects. Executive from major platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, spoke about maintaining free speech and combatting hateful activity on their platforms.
Reddit’s CEO Steve Huffman discussed Reddit and its commitment to free speech. According to Huffman, “Reddit’s role is to be a platform for debate.” Although this promotes free speech and expression, it failed to address how the platform handles propaganda and fake news. Still, Huffman cited the First Amendment as the basis of the site’s values and stated that despite the difficult time with harassment on social media in the current climate, the platform must remain committed to their values.
Virginia Senator and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on intelligence Mark Warner also spoke about this topic on a panel. He emphasized the need for a collaborative effort between law makers and social media companies to fight issues of harassment and the spread of false information. He also highlighted the need for news literacy campaigns.
YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki discussed how they plan to address misuse of the platform. She announced a new feature rolling out on YouTube to combat controversial content on the site. Text boxes explaining differing viewpoints will be added to conspiracy theory videos. This feature would contribute to combatting the controversial material on YouTube, as well as the algorithmic predisposition to point users to this controversial content.
This year’s focus on big brand installations, equality in the workplace, and regulating social media provides communicators with important things to consider.
Although not all brands can afford to create something like the Beautyrest installation, these marketing experiences illustrate the importance of creative, immersive ways to share your brand story and values. Perhaps this means creating a more affordable digital experience, such as a piece of interactive content. Breaking away from the typical tactics of your communications campaigns opens the possibility to reach new people and show a different, more engaging side of your brand.
Additionally, the discussions of diversity, inclusion, and equality illustrate the importance of creating a safe, inclusive workplace. Your employees and brand benefit when diverse personalities work together to craft interesting, unique narratives.
Media Bullseye has recently published several posts about the state of social media. The panel discussions about social media provide key insight on the platforms and how communicators should adjust their PESO plans and social strategies to respond to changes.
Although SXSW won’t roll around again for another year, there’s plenty from this year’s event to study and shape your programs and campaigns for the coming year.