As a marketing man, here's what struck me as ten trends to watch from SXSW.
The biggest headlines didn't go to the hottest start up or the next big thing in product or communications, though Samsung was everywhere. They went to Privacy. SXSW secured landmark sessions with not one but three of the storymakers of 2013: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange. A key learning for brands is how these actions and arguments have accelerated the lack of trust in the Establishment and its desire/ability to do the right thing. You don't want to be perceived as an Establishment brand, particularly among millennials, whose social tendency is, ironically, to communicate and share.
2. We Are All Makers
The cultural obsession with all things knitted or farm-to-table has shown up everywhere from Portlandia to the Regretsy blog. The interesting thing is how comfortably Making fits with Tech, one of the themes of SXSW. 3D printers and "printables" are good examples of this. Another shift here is the "Y" in DIY. Making is evolving from being a solitary activity to taking on Social aspects and was referred to as a "community," even a "movement." And Kickstarter-style funding provides the capital for otherwise unrealized innovation.
3. Dawn of the Brands
For those SXSW-ers who are hardened brand-skeptics, the waning power of brands was much hyped on the back of James Surowiecki's recent piece in the New Yorker, "Twilight of the Brands." Surowiecki cites Simonson and Rosen in their recent book, Absolute Value, which claims the freedom of information afforded by the web has undermined brands' emotional affinity. But Simonson and Rosen's concept of "absolute value" only applies to a limited cohort of brands: those they classify as "O-dependent," or reliant on information services as a source of influence. For the vast majority of brands, this is not relevant. Even for some "O" brands, the counter-argument goes, increasing complexity in the decision-making process will actually make brand an even more powerful tool in the marketer's armory.
4. Mobile is Dead, Long Live Mobile
Mashable claimed that no self-respecting ad exec would be thinking about Mobile at SXSW this year. Who's interested in hearing about more iPhone apps? But this just reflects the fact that Mobile is Digital now: It's the dominant screen, and so the assumption is that everyone will be designing for Mobile first.
5. The Rise of the Robots
There was a whiff of religiosity about some of the speakers this year, as technology continues to push the boundaries of human achievement. Ray Kurzweil, who's been hired by Google to harness the thinking of all the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning companies they've been buying up, reckons that very soon AI will overtake human intelligence. He calls the moment when this happens "The Singularity," and claims scarcity and mortality will be things of the past. Whatever, we're seeing prototypes everywhere and they'll soon be in market, from Google's autonomous vehicles to Amazon's commercial use of drone technology for distribution.
6. Create Experience Ecosystems
We have to expand the view of what a brand is beyond a physical product or service to an experience delivered to varying degrees via digital products and services. And we need to expand thinking about communications as being just one-off campaigns to being 365-day conversations. Brands need to think of themselves as creators of experience ecosystems.
7. Ever-Increasing Personalization
The circular debate about Big Data versus Microdata aside, it's clear that the dream of customization is deliverable thanks to enhanced analytics, hyper-personalized customer service (Kindle's SOS Mayday button), notification strategy (ESPN's app), quick-glance status (Fuelband, FitBit, Shine) and, of course the darling of the app-developer, beacons or precise geo-location, now the size of a dime, soon to be the size of a grain of sand.
8. Everything is Connected
"The Internet of Things" was coined in the 90s, and the last few years has seen so much talk about it that you'd forgive people for being prematurely jaded. But we're starting to see real signs of seamless connectivity, most notably Nest and Starbucks' Clover smart coffee machines. The key of course will be additive utility: The potential, for example, for your fridge to order your chilled supplies when it senses that you're running low or the milk's going off; or for a health insurer's app to monitor health factors such as heart rate and calorie intake, and then offer gentle suggestions while you're doing your grocery shopping.
9. Gaming Comes of Age
Gaming is widely agreed to provide the most engaging, psychologically-applied user experience. Microsoft has long seen Xbox as a jewel in the crown but never known quite what to do with it. Now they're looking to use it as their platform to own the living room, and their Studio presence at SXSW was sending a clear message to their Millennial admirers. South Park will soon be launching a game that's been three years in the making. And Assassin's Creed will soon be brought to the big screen, starring Michael Fassbender.
10. Get Ready for the Collaborative Economy
Airbnb, Etsy, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Uber, Angie's List. Staples sells products developed on Quirky, Avis has acquired Zipcar and Walgreens uses TaskRabbit to deliver its products. Big brands need to gear up for the collaborative economy before it passes them by, and pay attention to four key shifts that will help them stay in touch: From buying to sharing, from consuming to producing, from working to freelancing, from regulation to risk.