Six Big Thoughts from South by Southwest 2017
Another year at South by Southwest and we’ve come back with our bellies full of BBQ and our brains full of big ideas for how we’re going to deploy everything we learned over our time in Austin.
With everything there is to see, do, and experience at SXSW, taking a few days to digest helps sort out the signal from the noise. We’ve distilled our 2017 experience down to six big takeaways—the insights that are going to guide us through our next year, and the things that are going to become even bigger in 2017. In we go:
- Apps are out. Bots are in.
Last year, the big innovation was VR—it was everywhere. This year, VR is still around, but even bigger, better, and more ubiquitous: bots. From robots and chatbots to AI, bots of all types are going to be big in 2017.
Sidebar: what is a bot? Very simply put, it’s an application that performs an automated task. You’ve almost certainly interacted with bots already in your everyday life, from Siri and Google Assistant to, yes, Microsoft Word’s Clippy. They’re programmed to respond to questions, complete tasks, undertake searches, and much more. They’re only limited by what their programmers can create, and they’re getting more complex every day.
So why are bots the new apps? As one speaker said, “Apps are like marriage. Bots are like dating.” Bots require no downloads, no space on your phone, no navigation, and no learning curve. They’re waiting wherever you are, eager to help you out at a moment’s notice.
Whether they’re helping us save money, answering our questions, or analyzing what we’re saying and how we’re saying it, bots are the future of human-internet interaction. They’re not just about making our lives easier—they’re changing how we live.
The biggest bot playground on the horizon: Facebook. As Facebook works to incorporate even more of our lives into its platform, bots will allow brands to turn their pages into fully-functional sales platforms and customer service hubs. Bots provide instant answers and they never sleep, allowing brands to serve customers all over the globe, 24/7.
Beyond bots, more traditional robots and other AI programs are on the rise, too. Robots like Kuri that blink, smile, and follow you around the house are on the horizon for all of us—think of her like an Amazon Alexa with wheels and a face. And, of course, IBM’s Watson AI is continuing to get smarter, stronger, and more sophisticated by the day. (We’re only a little terrified of it.)
- It’s all about connections.
It might sound counterintuitive, but bots are all about connections—creating a connection between a user and a brand, a user and technology, a user and the information they’re looking for. The work we do is no different.One thing we learned this year: if you want to make a lasting connection, create a feeling. People will remember you (or your brand, or your product) if you make them feel something—preferably something good, though it works in the other direction, too. SXSW is all about those sensory experiences. Brands are falling over each other to make you see, hear, taste, and touch what makes them different. The best branded experiences created feelings beyond the “ooh, shiny” that everyone brings to the table.
One of our favorite, most memorable experiences was the Casper Napmobile—an RV converted into private nap pods equipped with (what else?) Casper mattresses. You could sign up for a 15-minute time slot to relax and take a power nap. While you waited for your slot, Casper provided everything from fuzzy slippers to iced coffee, and you got to take home a swag bag with a pillowcase, an eye mask, toothpaste, chocolates, and, of course, a Casper coupon.
Why did it work so well? Casper managed to create an oasis of calm in the middle of the chaos of SXSW. Everything about the experience was comfortable and delightful—exactly the attributes you want to project when you’re selling mattresses. And it allowed a company that sells mattresses by mail to give customers a chance to connect with their brand and interact with their products in a real way. Consider us sold.
Connections don’t just happen between people and brands at SXSW. This year, panels and parties were more packed than usual, meaning that no matter what you were doing, you were going to spend a lot of time waiting in line. One of the best things about SXSW is the people it brings together from all over the world, so there’s no better time or place to turn to the person next to you and make friends.
You never know who you’re going to run into—we tapped a guy on the shoulder at a party to take a photo of us, and he turned out to be the head photo editor at National Geographic. The person eating breakfast at the seat next to you might turn out to be the CEO of the next big startup, or the inventor of something mind-blowing, or a world-class neuroscientist.
Even if the people on either side of you are just garden-variety conference-goers, there’s still a lot you can learn from them. Pick their brains to see what they’ve seen, learn what they’ve learned, and experience SXSW from their point of view. Approaching crowds, lines, and parties this way gives you an army of eyes and ears on the ground—and in a business that’s all about buzz, the people standing next to you are your new focus group, new network, and new resource. (Bonus: Don’t forget to swap business cards so you can keep the conversation going even after you get home.)
- Connections…neural connections.
For the past few years, everything has been about big data—gathering as much as we can to learn what decisions people are making as they navigate the internet and the world.Big data is so last summer. What decisions people are making isn’t nearly as important—or as interesting—as why they’re making them. And to figure out the why, you have to go directly to the source: the human brain. Neuroscience is the new black, y’all.
Neuroscience was everywhere at this year’s SXSW: the word “neuroscience” appeared in more than a dozen session titles and descriptions, as well as nearly three dozen speaker bios. This year’s conference was obsessed with learning how our brains process everything from stories to ads to AR. These talks promised to teach us how to hack the creative process, AI, even public speaking by going directly to the brain (do not pass Go, do not collect $200). While we’re not sure that neuroscience is the key to life, the universe, and everything, getting down to the why behind every decision gives you an advantage—especially in marketing.
(Oh, and that hypothetical about sitting next to a neuroscientist at breakfast? Totally happened to our copywriter. It made for a great breakfast with some really interesting conversation. Another supporting point for making friends with the people around you.)
- It’s (finally) time to completely re-think mobile video.
For years, we’ve been hearing (and saying) mobile is king. But now that mobile video has completely taken over, we have to stop treating it as a smaller version of our televisions. Mobile is a totally different platform—viewers react to content on mobile devices differently than they do to the same content on a television. Despite mobile screens being smaller, our brains (neuroscience!) process them as larger, because they’re closer to our eyes than a TV screen is. We consume mobile content faster, but we’re less distracted when we do. And, of course, our TV screens are horizontal, while mobile screens are held and watched vertically.Context matters when it comes to design (as well as most other things, if we’re being honest). You wouldn’t use the same design for a billboard and a business card, would you? Of course you wouldn’t. They’re consumed differently, so they need to be designed differently. Think of mobile and broadcast video the same way.So how do we do it? Start with the basics: the frame. Horizontal video looks great on a wide-screen TV—not so great on an iPhone. Plan for vertical or square video, which gets up to four times more engagement than the exact same video horizontally.Next step: assume people aren’t going to turn on the sound for your video, and design accordingly. Use supers and captions to make sure your message gets across with or without the volume.
Finally: put the good stuff up front! 47% of your video’s impact happens in the first three seconds (and 74% happens in the first ten seconds), so don’t hold back. Get your brand and your message in early to take advantage of short attention spans.
The moral of the story: when it comes to mobile, you have to accept that little screens and big screens aren’t the same animal. They’re not even the same species. One size no longer fits all, so take your video and re-think it, re-cut it, and reimagine it, platform by platform. Optimization isn’t an option anymore—it’s a necessity.
- While we’re at it, let’s re-think wearables, too.
What comes to mind when you think “wearables?” Smart watches? Snap Spectacles? The Fitbit you keep forgetting to wear? It’s all about to change. In order for wearables to survive, they have to be more than just gadgets—they need to give us superpowers. Based on what we learned this year, that might just be where we’re going.The basic point of wearables is to make technology easier. If it was easy to carry your laptop on a jog, we wouldn’t need iPods. Wearable tech (when it’s done right) becomes a part of us, like our glasses—it helps change the way we experience the world. Thad Starner, the father of wearable computing (and one of the inventors of Google Glass, back in the day), called successful wearables ones that “support a primary task in the real world, instead of being the primary task themselves.” They should be intuitive, useful, and unobtrusive.
One highly-hyped wearable at this year’s SXSW, Levi’s Project Jacquard jacket, didn’t exactly live up to all three of those points. The jacket itself was nice, but the smart functionality—a cuff embedded with wireless sensors, activated by tapping or swiping, that can control things like your music or navigation—seemed lacking. Powered by a removable cufflink, the whole thing is pretty slick, but we had a hard time imagining ourselves using it. Ostensibly, the jacket was designed for bike commuters—people who might have a harder time accessing their phones on the go—so it’s possible we just weren’t the target audience. However, our experience showed how hard it is for wearables to be truly impressive in today’s market. As The Verge put it, “wearables either have to be really useful, or they have to disappear entirely.” It’s not clear that the $350 Project Jacquard jacket hits either of those goals.
If you can hit the intuitive-useful-unobtrusive benchmarks, people will be more willing to use your wearables—especially if they do something cool. And the good thing is that the possibilities are almost limitless. Starner brought up some incredible concepts that are currently in progress in the world of wearables, from allowing you to directly control a computer with your brain to enabling humans to communicate with dogs and dolphins. Yes, you read that correctly.
Wearables also have incredible potential when it comes to the human body. Beyond just allowing us to listen to music or track our steps, wearables can help us learn skills like reading Braille or playing piano. There are even possibilities in the world of medical diagnoses—imagine a way to detect neurological disorders like dementia or even something like breast cancer using non-invasive wearable technology. The possibilities are insane and exciting, and we can’t wait to see what the industry does with them.
- Embrace the chaos. Trust the process.
SXSW crams an overwhelming amount of content into a short amount of time—it’s part of its charm. From panels to parties to people yelling at you on the street, there’s stuff everywhere, competing for your attention, your energy, and the short amount of time you have in Austin. Now that we’ve been doing it for a few years, we’ve learned that a key part of a successful SXSW experience is accepting and embracing the chaos inherent in the experience. Checking out so many different spaces and experiences allows you to learn what really made an impact and stood out above the noise. Chaos is a tool that allows us to work better—if we let it.
It’s not just true at conferences, either. Our industry can be wild and unpredictable at times, and that’s why we love it. It’s never boring, it’s never slow, and it’s never the same. One speaker described it this way: “If you’re good at problem solving, you become a chaos magnet,” which is true—and it’s not a bad thing. If we re-frame chaos as a tool for innovation—something that encourages us to find new ways to solve problems, to streamline how we work, and to stay loose and open to new solutions—it allows us to work better. Lessons like that are just as important to us as learning about technology and trends from the best experts in the field. Whether you’re trying to navigate SXSW or just optimize your own creative process, it all comes down to focusing on what works and embracing the unexpected.Bring it on. Make it work. Get everything you can out of it. That’s how we roll, and it’s what’s going to help us turn everything we learned at SXSW into better work this year.
We’re energized, we’re excited, and we’re ready to make some magic.See you next year, Austin.