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SXSW 2018 Debrief

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This year’s SXSW debrief from The IPA started by making us feel quite old.

SXSW actually began back in 1987, a time before most of the audience sat listening at Google’s St Giles HQ was born. The Film and Multimedia component of the festival didn’t take off until 1994. Still people in the room raised their hands, marking the fact that they were just a twinkle in their mother’s eye at that point.

Despite all that, SXSW continues to broaden our minds and get us thinking about the future across a multitude of sectors.

Public-shaped AI

The first talk of the night was from HeyHuman’s Neil Davidson. Having listened to Davidson’s talk at Social Media Week a couple of years ago, their take of using psychology in marketing is something I already felt sure would come through in his experience of SXSW. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Firstly, describing trying to distil everything he’d seen from the festival into a 15-minute talk as “like trying to take a sip from a fire hydrant”, Davidson’s key points were around how the future of tech and AI is up to us. Humans.

Re-counting what quickly became the overarching theme of the evening, Davidson’s takeaways surrounded how it is the public that will now shape technology and AI. From last year’s SXSW focusing on ‘all this great tech at our fingertips’ to this year’s focus being around ‘now how can we make it all a bit more human’ there’s been a distinct shift. As the creators of this technology have realised they are not enough to be the voice of the future, it’s now a focus on public participation and diversification, which is vital to tech’s future.

Man v Machine to Man & Machine

Susan Poole was up next, furthering the case for flipping the AI message on its head from “man vs machine” to “what can we [humans and robots] do together”.

“what can we [humans and robots] do together”

Beyond just the fun, exciting and even creepy stuff on display at SXSW, Poole discussed some of the truly life-changing technology that’s in development.

For years it’s baffled me how Microsoft’s PR team doesn’t make more of the technology projects it works on. We reported on the work Microsoft Cognitive Services is doing for accessible tech and, again, at SXSW, Microsoft Research is demonstrating the incredible ways technology can help us communicate by showcasing their sensory AI, Cardiolens.

Not only could be this be incredible for people who struggle to communicate in traditional ways, through speech and body language, but just think what it could do for mass communication and how brands communicate with their audiences. You could get immediate, brutally truthful feedback, which could only result in better brand communication.

It’s easy to take a pessimistic view of this sort of tech and assume it will be used for evil rather than good but that attitude really did seem to miss the point of SXSW 2018. As Dr Kate Stone, a creative scientist featured in Poole’s closing statement, put it “ I believe the future will be more magical than technical.”

The problem with trust

Matt Rhodes of WCRS was up next and his major takeaway from SXSW was not something you’d typically expect to hear at a marketing event. He referenced that the great thing about SXSW is that you don’t have to hear from marketers.

By that, Rhodes didn’t insinuate that marketers speak a load of twaddle but, rather, the important thing about SXSW is the fresh perspective you get on the world and, in turn, your work.

Rhodes’ talk followed the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal and seemed all the more relevant for it. Tech has progressed at such a rate it’s hard to keep up, so humans have become caught up in everything it can do but haven’t had chance to stop and consider what it all means.

He elaborated; the most concerning thing about the Cambridge Analytica scandal was not the blurring lines between the right and wrong use of data but that people were realising how advertising works. People are now taking far greater interest in their privacy settings and starting to get under the skin of how targeting, algorithms and other complex tech works and is used. Which is a great thing.

But if our clients and, more importantly, their customers are taking a more invested interest into how these things work we absolutely need to ensure that we as marketers know how it works to make sure we are doing the right thing by them.

Columbia University conducted research into how people decide what is true or not when online and found that, of people who use Twitter on a regular basis, it was Trending Topics. But when the room was asked how Twitter’s Trends algorithm worked, no one could answer.

Trust is rooted in an understanding of how things work. It is our job, as marketers, to ensure that comms plan is in place to keep our clients and their customers informed of how tech works and why it would work for them.

Strive to be a goldfish

Finally, YouTube’s own Paddy Collins was up to show us how Google takes on SXSW.

Taking their The Greatest Stories Retold project to Austin, YouTube reminded us how our attention spans are now not getting close to that of a goldfish, they’re actually worse.

Despite that, Collins emphasised that it was not our diminishing attention spans that made them [YouTube] pull their unskippable 30-second ads earlier in the year, it was the change in the way we like to consume content. As he put it, “if our attention spans were collapsing, no one would ever see the ‘are you alive?’ Netflix binge message”.

That’s a powerful thing to remember as a marketer. Our audiences are more than capable of sitting through a solid 10 hours of content, it just has to be the right content.


Interested on our thoughts on the key takeaways from SXSW 2018? We’re more than happy to geek out over a coffee, just get in touch.