SXSW Round-Up: Three Key Themes from the Past Week

By Julie Gomstyn, Director, Corporate Communications

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SXSW Interactive is far from your ordinary marketing conference; it is perhaps the only event out there that examines the impact of technology on society from every angle. From discussions on advertising to digital activism, government regulations, entertainment, and much more, the festival brings some of the brightest minds in technology and culture together in Austin, Texas. This year’s Interactive portion took place from March 9-13.

Details and Implications:

With thousands of speakers and sessions, it would be impossible to sum up the whole festival in just one page, but here were some of the key themes and takeaways of note.

The Ethics of Artificial IntelligenceSXSW’s “Intelligent Future” sessions track explored the future implications of a world where digital connectivity and machine learning is embedded in every aspect of life. More important than just the latest piece of shiny tech was the wide range of ethical concerns. For example: how does one prevent gender and racial bias in facial recognition technology? How do companies better protect people’s data in the long-term, and prevent it from being used by bad actors? What types of legislation are needed to regulate law enforcement’s usage of this technology? How far should healthcare go in experimenting with machine learning for patient care? As marketers continue to invest more time and resources into AI, these are questions that we will all have to grapple with. The more we work on these issues now, the better off we will be in the future.

How to Win a Brand Activation. SXSW features flashy brand activations every year, but HBO’s Westworld experience took things to a new level. HBO brought a select number of fans to a real-life re-creation of the show, across a two-acre plot of land with 60 actors playing the role of “hosts” and acting out various storylines. Warner Bros’ Ready Player One activation also made headlines, taking over a two-floor space and giving fans the opportunity to use VR to play a series of games straight from the movie.

The success of these two activations was not only due to their elaborate design and scale (though obviously that played a massive part), but also their natural fit to the storylines and fandom of each property. It made sense to do a VR activation for Ready Player One, since VR is central to the movie’s plot. The surreal experience and exclusivity of the Westworld activation had fans clamoring to swoop up last minute tickets in a way that mirrored the fictional theme park’s attendees in the HBO show. Contrast this to the Batmobiles on display at the DC Comics pop-up shop. Sure, plenty of people Instagrammed photos of these replica cars, but can you imagine how much more buzz DC Comics would have received had they given a select number of fans the chance to get in or take a ride around SXSW in a replica Batmobile?

#MeToo and Equality at SXSW. Politics and activism have long been a key part of SXSW programming, and given the strength of the #MeToo movement, in some ways it was unsurprising to see sessions and events examining gender and racial equality. Yet SXSW itself has previously faced issues with this very area, most notably in 2015. So, for many, it was refreshing to see more representation of these topics across sessions, speakers, and in the demographic make-up of attendees. The full 10 days of SXSW’s Interactive/Music/Film festivals include more than 50 panels and events that specifically hone in on sexual harassment or gender parity. Marketers and tech companies should take note because the need to address these issues is not going away. Instead of just talking the talk with a pithy tweet for International Women’s Day, these discussions need to be incorporated into real leadership and structural developments.

While many in the industry may think of SXSW as a boondoggle, the breadth and depth of this year’s content had a lot to offer brands and marketers alike. You can get more insights, ideas and takeaways to share from in-depth recaps, podcast interviews (including guests such as the CEO of Reddit), and even a rap video, all created by the team in the Mindshare North America annual Rising Stars program.