Consumer Engagement

SXSW 2016 takeaways: Can you make someone cry in one minute?

It’s hard to have a “big takeaway” from SXSW because there’s so much going on there. To do the perfunctory summation: virtual reality is really gaining momentum, brands must mobile optimize everything, there’s a complicated relationship with government and technology (you may have heard the president was there), meditation is huge, and we should all believe in ourselves and not trust the “sh*tty first drafts” in our heads. And you can probably read about those things in countless recaps that others created after attending this year.

A photo posted by Steffen Ryan (@redguitarpick) on

A SXSW attendee walks past street art, likely on the way to get tacos. For me, SXSW serves as creative fuel and inspiration for the year ahead. You can feel the energy converging of problem solvers and innovators from all over the world. You never know who you’re going to be standing next to on the escalator. It’s impossible not to have that sense of forward progress in the world that you may not get from the news. It’s also impossible to bottle that energy for colleagues or clients when you come back, or for it to come through in a measly blog post. However, one of the main things that inspired me this year is storytelling continues to evolve and there are new possibilities for doing it better and in more amazing ways. A highlight for me was getting a random ticket to one of the documentary shorts programs that were part of the film track. Normally I would stick close to the interactive sessions, but it seemed like a good idea. If there’s one thing that we as storytellers should aspire to, it’s what the best short films accomplish: having a powerful emotional impact in a very short period of time.

A photo posted by Steffen Ryan (@redguitarpick) on

The directors of SXSW documentary shorts answer questions.

The most memorable documentary short was about a guy named Phil with stage four cancer who decided to build his own mini “Camino path” on his property because he didn’t think he’d live long enough to do the real one in Spain, but (spoiler) he did, so the filmmakers went with him and captured it. In what was probably a 15-minute film, there were probably like two minutes where the whole audience wasn’t regretting they didn’t bring any tissues.

So, if that’s the goal, where does technology fit in? Is there a way to combine the novelty of VR with the emotion of a great short film? A great example is one of the stories from the New York Times VR app where they dropped the viewer right in the middle of a street memorial following the Paris terror attack. It will give you goose bumps, and it really does feel like you’re there experiencing that powerful moment along with the people of Paris.


Now, the attack in Paris was a horrific, emotion-laden topic to begin with. Most brands don’t (and shouldn’t) deal in such heavy things. So the challenge is to create an emotional experience in whatever way is relevant to a product or service. I look forward to having those brainstorms in the coming years.

I’ll sign off with some SXSW themes I’ve always found valuable: Be open to possibilities. And, in the words of Joi Ito from MIT’s media lab, “Always talk to strangers.”


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