South by Southwest Interactive 2015 recap

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Coming hot off the heels of South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) 2015, I arrived back to Minneapolis feeling invigorated, inspired, and positively exhausted. This was my second year attending the conference in Austin, Texas, and I can easily say this years’ experience soared above the last. From the brand activations to technologies experienced, valuable sessions and social/networking opportunities, the feeling around Austin was nothing less than buzzing with nerdy excitement and anticipation for what’s to come in the world of digital and technology. The primary themes floating around the conference halls and city streets were data, technology, and visual/virtual experiences – all of which I’ve recapped and included key takeaways from below.

UTILIZATION OF DATA – Transforming data into meaningful application

Data has been and continues to be crucial to the life cycle of marketing – though remains underutilized, misunderstood, and often incorrectly applied. If I were to sum up the theme of data discussions in Austin, it would be: Application trumps theory. Many SXSWi sessions concentrated on the fact that data can only go so far as the person who is translating and gleaning insights from it. This certainly isn’t new information or mind-blowing in any way, that’s for sure. But it is such an important perspective, takeaway, and reminder.

A quote I heard in a session called “Mastering Adaptive Marketing in a Real-Time World” (which included a panel member of our own, Chris Perry, President, Digital) was: “The second you start trusting the gut of the computer rather than the gut of the human is the second you start throwing junk food out into the world.” We must be utilizing data in all marketing decisions – but we should be using and translating that data in a meaningful way that allows us to understand human needs (i.e. our users) and what is causing them to interact and connect with our content, products, and beyond.

Another great quote from that same session: “Don’t look at views – look at actions as a measure of how well what we’re creating is inspiring someone to do something.” So many times we hear from clients that impact of digital campaigns or activities should be measured by page views, referrals, and beyond. It is crucial to ensure that, at the onset of a digital opportunity, you are mapping true key performance indicators (KPIs), applying analytics to allow you to measure, measuring those indicators appropriately upon launch, and using those findings to help continue to evolve and improve the experience. These insights are not new – but are surprisingly misunderstood as it relates to practical application. I leave you with this final thought on data: “It’s not just about making consumers feel good, it’s about measuring to ensure impact and value.”

TECHNOLOGY – Always changing, nearly impossible to keep up with

It is apparent that we are increasingly behind the pace when it comes to technology and strategies surrounding those technologies. A prime example – even with smart phones being over a decade old (and tablets surfacing upwards of five years ago), “mobile” and “responsive” digital strategies are still high on the radar of many companies struggling to offer experiences to their users and customers across all of those platforms in a seamless fashion. This is a prime example of technology evolving much more quickly than the world can keep up with meeting the needs that come along with customers and users adapting to and utilizing those technologies on a daily basis.

In the highly anticipated SXSWi keynote by Astro Teller (“Captain of Moonshots” at Google[x]), Teller stated: “We as a society are failing to keep pace with the changes in technology. If you want to make a ton of progress (and attempt to keep up with the pace of technology) you have to make a ton of mistakes.” He expressed that failing first, listening early, getting out of the conference room, and avoiding failing to fail are all crucial reminders and words of advice for all companies if we ever want to have a chance of keeping up with the evolution of digital.

Not all of the discussions at SXSWi were targeted around our inability to keep up – there were also a great deal of technology “wins” demonstrating the waves of the future. From Meerkat (live video streaming) to wearables (bionics in healthcare), and technology (flying cars) to robotics (drones and beyond) it is clear that we are continuing to evolve all that is possible in technology, digital strategies and brand activations. We must continue to balance the processes of development and nimbleness to market to keep up with this constant evolution while ensuring creativity stays afloat.

VISUAL INFLUENCE & VIRTUAL EXPERIENCES – Apparent and leading the way in brand activations

The emergence of visual influence and virtual experiences were in full force (as always) at SXSWi. Two standout experiences from my perspective were Birdly (full body virtual flight simulator) and Game of Thrones (digital art experience and brand activation)!

Birdly: Max Rheiner, creator of Birdly (a virtual reality, full-body flight simulator) said his inspiration for this project came from “people dreaming about flying.” The medium is an Oculus Rift headset (paired with headphones), an inverted surface that you kneel on (and quickly lay upon) and a fan in front of you for the wind effect – all of which create a full-body virtual flying experience. In this experience, you fly through scenes that are incredibly lifelike but are actually mapped using computer-generated 3D data (provided by a company called PLW Modelworks). There is no live filming involved. To navigate the experience, you flap your arms (which are attached to two boards on the inverted surface you are laying on) like wings while the Oculus Rift gives you a birds-eye view of the buildings, wildlife, and surroundings beyond. Be careful where you “fly” as you can find yourself quickly approaching a building with no ability to stop. The whole experience felt so real and was truly memorable!

(Included below is a photo of my Birdly virtual experience)

Birdly image

Game of Thrones Digital Art Experience: An extremely clever experience combining design, technology, and sword fighting. HBO partnered with design studio Red Paper Heart and Civic Entertainment Group teamed up to help visitors become the show’s teenage heroine, Arya Stark, in the form of a great interactive experience. You begin by having your picture taken in the Game of Thrones throne (this is just the first picture-worthy opportunity in the experience). After you’ve had your turn in the throne, you are escorted to get your photo taken to prepare for your sword fight. You then step up on stage and, as the sounds of Westeros swirl around you, you grab your sword and get ready to fight the obstacles ahead (balls of thorns and swords being projected on the wall in front of you). As you chop your way through the obstacles, your Game of Thrones-inspired portrait appears (which you can then email to yourself, take home with you, and cherish forever). The true genius of the activation is in the technologies being used to project and sense your sword movements while working to trace and mold your canvas. A truly fun and interactive experience (which came with a nice little keepsake)!

(Included below are photos from my Game of Thrones digital art experience)

Game of Thrones Throne Image

(Sitting in the Iron Throne – pre-Game of Thrones sword fight)

Game of Thrones Sword Action Image

(Swinging my sword through the obstacles being projected)

Game of Thrones Final Portrait

(Final portrait following the sword-slinging)

These experiences, for me, were the stand outs from the week (and imagine I am among many SXSWi attendees who share that belief based on the buzz around these activations).

The experiences and activations at SXSWi remind us of the constant evolution of digital and, in turn, the need to strive for creativity and utilization of technology in an impactful way to reach our target users, consumers, and beyond via the platforms with which they are engaging. With each new advancement comes uncertainty. But by utilizing technological advancements in a creative and strategic way, by remaining nimble and brave in taking innovative chances, and by listening to and utilizing the information available (i.e. consumer insights, data, analytics) we are that much closer to reaching our consumers in a meaningful and engaging fashion.

If you are interested in learning more about these activations, or interested in learning how we can help to bring inspiring and engaging digital opportunities to life for your brand, contact us!

Amanda Long is a Vice President of Strategic Digital Solutions - a digital business solution architect with extensive experience in ideating, executing, and managing innovative and sustainable global digital strategies, programs, and operations. She has managed and executed dozens of successful large-scale global web operations and launches and has improved global online awareness of many distinct brands (B2B, B2C, healthcare, pharma, technology, financial services, government, military/defense, and beyond).