The big question people have around this time of year is "what’s the buzz at SXSW?" And, as a SXSW newbie, the big question I had coming down to Austin is "what makes SXSW different than every other conference?"
Online prep for the conference conditioned me to look for an app or a platform that would change the face of social media in the weeks and years later. What I found instead is that Highlight, the new ambient location app, is getting a lot of media attention, but I have yet to run into anyone who is actually using it. When talking about Highlight, most people are asking "how does it work again?" followed quickly by "that’s kind of scary" or alternatively "is it for dating?"
Rather than buzzing about Highlight, attendees are most excited about the following, listed in order of frequency of mention during SXSW this year:
1. American Express: The Tweet. Sync. Save program, and its sponsorship of the limited attendance Jay-Z concert.
SXSW conversations around Amex: "Did you see what Amex is doing? They are killing it." "Do you have tickets to Jay-Z" and "I just saw Jay-Z."
2. Nike: The new Fuel Band, Fuel Lot, and the Major Lazer/Sleigh Bells concert they sponsored.
SXSW attendee buzz around Nike: "Did you get a Fuel Band?" "I really want a Fuel Band" and "Have you seen the Nike lot?"
3. Isis: This mobile wallet app was a prominent sponsor of SXSW and had an interactive booth that is generating a lot of engagement
General conversations around Isis: "The Isis app is really slick" usually closely followed by "Mobile payments are really going to take off next year."
4. Tweet-a-Beer: By synching PayPal and Twitter accounts users can literally tweet a beer to a friend anywhere in the world.
SXSW attendee buzz around Tweet-a-Beer: "Have you heard of Tweet-a-Beer?"
75% of the topics, apps, etc. that people are talking about (1-3), could be a part of any big (media) conference. So, in thinking about my initial questions of "what’s the buzz" and "what’s different," the answer are one and the same. It’s optimism around doing things differently. It’s about the sense of real enthusiasm from consumers about social media, not just from the point of view of what brands are doing—but from the viewpoint of how consumers can shape technology.
One of my favorite quotes from the panels was from Al Gore, who hosted a conversation with Sean Parker. Gore said "new [social] media presents the opportunity for the masses to take part in democracy"—rather than have it be shaped by those who can pay the cost of entry. On a smaller scale, the same opportunity is present for marketers. Through social media, brands can invite consumers to be part of the solution, be part of their brand story, and play a role in how the brand intersects with their lives and therefore how the brand image is shaped.
Marketers just need to be brave enough to take that risk. In the words of Biz Stone, "to succeed spectacularly, you need to be willing to fail spectacularly." The brands willing to do that are indeed deserving of all the buzz at SXSW.
Ming Linsley is Director, Social Media at media agency MEC.