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Texas Takeaways

Fresh from his recent travels to Texas to attend the annual SXSW conference, Sean Earley shares some his key takeaways from this year’s event.

Last year, I popped my SXSW cherry and this March I headed back for a second round. For the uninitiated, SXSW (South by South West) is a conference that brings together that brings together the cutting-edge elements of tech, music and film which attracts over 400,000 people, The Austin Convention Center, surrounding bars and hotels transform into stages, summits and workshops for two weeks with the big media and tech companies trying to position themselves as an expert.

The “Interactive” stream represents the greatest opportunity for those in marketing, media and advertising with sessions on the latest innovations in tech, emerging cultural insights globally and how the convergence of these can help us shape a view of the future. As I go for the second year, the conference has grown even more in stature and has become a bell weather for media and tech companies and increasingly is seen as a key trendsetting event for household names in technology to be seen at (and to impress attendees.)

So what were the Big Trends for me?

“Interactive” represents the greatest opportunity for those in marketing, media and advertising with sessions on the latest innovations in tech, emerging cultural insights globally and how the convergence of these can help us shape a view of the future.


AR Wins Over VR and Hello MR

In 2017 conversation was dominated by VR and AR. The virtual reality advocates waxed lyrical on how VR would revolutionise everything from gaming to travel from the comfort of your own home. In 2018 however, it’s more widely accepted that VR will stay specialised and escapist, don’t get me wrong, there was a whole VR cinema with fantastic VR experiences but the AR is winning the battle of ubiquity, utility and ease of adoption in everyday life.

The next stage of this AR adoption is MR, or mixed reality, where physical objects interact seamlessly with digitally created overlays or enhancements. One great practical example of this was a mobile app created by Capital One Auto Finance, the app allowed users to hold their phone up to a car and determine the market average cost, finance options and repayment terms of the vehicle.

GIF Growth 

GIPHY CEO, Alex Chung, delivered the highlight session for me. Explaining the premise of what GIPHY has achieved from licensing assets through to ubiquity (GIPHY integration into Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, MailChimp etc). Its primary aim is a simple one: democratise video-based expression for all.

Taking a swipe at Google, Alex shared images of how the search engine has evolved its UI/UX or rather how it hadn’t, before indulging in the human behaviour centric approach that GIPHY take through emotion-based search taxonomy.

At only five years old the platform serves 300million GIFs a day with eight million hours of GIF content watched a day through the GIPHY. For brands, GIPHY has a GIF Studio and actively encourage engagement with the platform. ‘Anything is content’ proclaimed Chung, showing us a library of GIFs created to teach people sign language, explaining the rise in popularity for the format can be linked to a desire for something more effective than an emoji, for visual communication that can convey the entire lexicon of human emotion. Chung sees GIPHY as ‘transcoding humanity’ and spoke mysteriously about a video platform they’re developing as well as showing off two frivolous hardware adventures GIPHY Cam and Frame that his team have made just for fun. Chung was at SXSW two years ago presenting GIPHY to less than 100 people, now he’s on a main stage exciting thousands with the potential of hardware and his unbridled passion. It’s time to consider your GIPHY strategy.

Rise of Mental Fitness

Interestingly, in 2017 wearable tech featured primarily around capturing body data, but in 2018 this has matured into mental fitness. Headspace even had a mindfulness zone. One recurring theme in the health space was the non-invasive data collection of device usage to alert mental instability, spoken about at length at HealthSpark by Jennifer Barnett, chief science officer at Cambridge Cognition. A great example of this was Bi Affect, a mobile app that used a clever data collection technique to monitor keyboard usage: speed of typing, keyboard pressure, all caps, how many corrections / backspaces used, to detect manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder.

Even the ingenious Peloton, fitness machines for in home usage with live-streamed instructor-led classes, spoke about the importance of collective exercise to mental health exploring that their audiences, while physically disparate, form online communities and tribes

Emergence of the Social Activist Tribe

Speaking of tribes, presenters from Facebook IQ to Teen Vogue all signposted to the emerging new collective of Social Activists.

Social media has evened the playing field and given those, previously without a voice or platform global access. The traditional boundaries and gender roles are gone. Sex no longer sells in a #MeToo World. These tribes are motivated by being a global community, doing good and leaving the world in a better way than they found it and keen to use social media to those ends. With this tribe, hashtags have become their Vietnam protest poster boards.

We see it with the #WomensMarch, #BlackLivesMatter and closer to home with #Repeal. This audience also support their beliefs with their wallet, meaning corporate social responsibility is crucially important for this audience.

Audio Turns Up the Volume

Finally, audio got its SXSW day in the sun. From workshops teaching attendees how to build an Alexa Skill, to Google’s voice operated Fun House the festival incorporated more audio-based tech than ever before.

Ira Glass, the host of podcast This American Life was inundated by excited attendees and podcasts like Twit (this week in tech) had over-subscribed and standing room only live studio recordings around Austin. For Marketers, the key takeaways are: moving into this non- visual space, how does your brand Sound? Female? Male? Accent? Language? and with podcasts: how you can use this longer form mid-funnel content to best advantage-collective shared experience?

With 2,000 presenters and 1,000 parties there’s so much to learn and see at SXSW. I haven’t even touched on block chain (co-founder at Ethereum Joseph Lubin delivered a keynote) our own Irish efforts (Leo representing our tech credentials) to AI (moving from machine obedience to intelligence) and facial recognition (the urgent need a code of ethics and legislation) or just the baby goats (a runaway success / bone of contention for the ever-controversial publisher VICE) but that’s all for another day…

Sean Earley is digital creative director with Teneo PSG.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ March 2018)© to order back issues please call 016611660


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