SXSW Takeaways: The Next Generation of Consumers, Design and—Yes—Bots

This year at SXSW Interactive, marketers were welcomed by unlimited discussions of new disrupters entering the market—Including everything from new technology to a new generation of consumers. And VSA stayed busy soaking it all in—from watching Partner and Technology Lead Cory Clarke lead a discussion on marketing to bots, to hearing how Keds stays ahead of the marketing game through producing real-time content. Following this remarkable event for marketers and technologists, attending VSAers were eager to share their learnings.

Facebook Live is carving out its place in marketing plans.
A theme emerged from several sessions around “the power of now,” as well as a warning to agencies who belabor their briefs and plod through traditional creative workflows. Brands are continuing to experiment with innovations like Facebook Live to supplement—and in some cases, replace—more curated forms of advertising. An interesting twist on this trend, noted by CMO of Hasbro Victor Lee is the unspoken acknowledgment that it’s okay to be a follower—if you do it quickly, and do it well: “We as an industry need to acknowledge just how quickly trends are coming and going in advertising. Brands don’t need to always be first. But they do need to pay attention.”

The continued push for the “new collar” worker.
Surrounded by an elaborate installation around how cognitive computing is influencing every aspect of modern life, IBM hosted a compelling panel on what this means for the global workforce. General Manager of Global Business Services Jesus Mantas argued that corporations and higher education must proactively work together to mint a new class of jobs: the “new collar” worker, whose skills will integrate highly technical capabilities and knowledge with the blended disciplines of liberal arts. In a world where machine learning is transforming businesses faster than many of them can keep up, only a mainstream workforce of new collar workers will prevent further widening of the wealth gap.

It’s time to re-think native mobile apps.
Across many experiences, we’re seeing long-term unsustainable friction in the world of native mobile apps. It has evolved into a winner-take-all ecosystem, with a very long tail of apps users will never discover, install or use. Alex Russell, Software Engineer at Google on the Chrome team, compared shipping a successful, broad-appeal native app experience to your chances of winning the lottery. In contrast, mobile internet usage is growing rapidly, and will continue to be a dominant channel, as inexpensive devices and network access continues to spread to emerging markets.

Artificial Intelligence is just getting started, but it has started.
AI, machine learning, and algorithmic services provided via gaining channels like voice-enabled and chat platforms received a lot of attention at SXSW this year. Sessions discussing everything from how these technologies are changing user behavior and how they engage with online services, to how prepared legislative policy is to address these new realities. How do we support scientific research in these areas? And, how do we provide training and education for the new careers in this industry?

“We live in a world where avocado toast is as luxurious as a Louis Vuitton bag.”
For fashion brands, retailers and style editors, the implication is that marketers must engage at the speed of consumer, whenever and wherever they deem appropriate, or risk falling behind. Mono-brand e-tailers are engaging with customers 24/7 and fast fashion is creating fashionista anxiety to constantly keep up with the latest trends. Emily Culp, CMO of Keds, noted, “Real-time is really the only form of marketing that matters. Look around you—you’re all on your phones, all of the time, what else is there?” It was impressive to hear a brand as longstanding as Keds fully embracing Facebook Live and seeking to build an in-house production studio to move even faster and should serve as a watch-out for brands who have yet to take the plunge.

“Thought leaders” in marketing struggle to name a single brand that’s “doing it well.”
It’s a common question that gets asked toward the end of any on-stage interview or panel discussion. “So which brand do you think is doing it well?” The “it” being whatever the topic du jour is: leveraging dark social, AI, email campaigns, future-casting, etc.

Invariably, the person who’s been asked this question looks surprised by the question. They let out a little groan, look to the sky, fidget with their jacket and spit out the name of the brand with which they’ve most recently interacted. Why does this pattern repeat itself over and over again? Why do marketers who profess to know how it ought to be done never have an example of where it’s being done?

In other words, why don’t marketers respect the work of their peers? Perhaps it’s because there’s simply too much marketing in the world, and those of us who produce it wish there was a bit less.

Design is a means for making social change.
Whether they are employed as technologists, graphic designers, futurists or architects, a wide swath of designers at SXSW self-conceive as agents of social change. You heard activist sentiments in talks about marketing to chatbots, using public art as the canvas for protesting systemic racism, even in how entrepreneurs can build successful businesses for this time. It’s as if members of the “Me Generation” (aka, the Boomers) and “Generation Me” (aka, the Millennials) have collectively taken hold of design as the means to enacting their personal and generational ethics and vision in the world.

“Work within the system.” “Effect change from within.” “Be purposeful in your intent.” “Perpetual engagement is essential to mobilizing a community.” “Work with like-minded people to design solutions.” These are just a few quotes we heard during our few days in Austin.

The Buy-in for VR is too high.
The buy-in to integrate VR into your life in a meaningful way is simply too high. We’re asking people to wait in line, put on a suit and a large headset, all so they can look dorky and play tag. As Jessica Brillhart, Principal Filmmaker for VR at Google, asked, “Whatever happened to pong?” There has to be a better way to manage the transition from IRL to virtual that doesn’t require so much overhead.

Standards are liberating.
Building a product to established standards allows you to think more creatively, as it reduces the amount of risks involved. By complying to standards, you can guarantee that your product will be accessible to all, future proofed, and easily maintained. While making the transition to hitting standards may be difficult in the beginning, it will be worth it in the end. In a world of constantly changing devices and technologies, the fact that the very first website still works, is amazing. Knowing that as long as we follow the existing standards, a website we build could last forever, is liberating.

The robots are coming…to help us.
To most employees, AI and automation in the workforce sounds like 2017 HR-speak for “streamlining” and “downsizing.” But the reality is that artificial intelligence will play a much more nuanced role in the workplace than we expect. Beyond replacing humans, AI will increasingly shape our work lives in two ways: (1) enhancing the way we currently do our jobs, and (2) inventing new jobs beyond our imagination.

While this technological future might seem far out, it’s human nature to forget that history repeats itself. We’ve been here before, and The Budding Effect is an interesting, albeit smaller-scale case to consider from Malcolm Frank, co-author of What to do When Machines do Everything. In 1800’s England, Edwin Budding invented the lawn mower, which replaced the scythe before it, spawning horticulture, Victorian-style gardens, lawn tennis—and, eventually, the entire sports entertainment industry as we know it today.