Picking up the key themes for marketers from SXSW

Jason Davey highlights the game-changing trends of this year's South by Southwest event for marketers

The long plane ride home from Austin to Australia gives ample time to reflect and consolidate thoughts from SXSW.

Or so you’d think, but it’s not an easy job - the variety of topics, points of view, innovations, new technologies (and vapourware) make it hard to boil down into digestible chunks. That’s the beauty of SXSW - it’s a full-on intellectual assault as the interactive, music, film, technology and media industries come together to digest and discuss the future.

There are a few clear themes for marketers:

Customer experience is getting connected

As technology in wireless connectivity, sensors, and interfaces mature (and become smaller and more discreet), everything will be connected through the Internet of Things (IoT). This is presenting significant opportunities for marketers to anticipate a consumer need, and then meet it with a product solution in a frictionless purchase process.

This type of predictive experience is starting to truly deliver the ‘anywhere, anytime’ promise of the digital world. Or the world that is now digital, I should say.

One of the best (real) examples I saw of this was the Ocean Medallion wearable from Princess Cruises, which also operates Carnival Cruises in Australia. The Ocean Medallion is a payment system, location device, preference centre, access key and ordering system, all-in-one. Two years in the planning, it will revolutionise the experience ecosystem of a cruise ship.


The emphasis here for CMO's is not the technology itself, it’s the fact that the entire experience ecosystem has been redesigned. And it takes two years to hit the street. The opportunities that technology offers us are very exciting, but it takes some brass (and some coin) to drive the vision through the organisation across product, operations, sales, finance, IT and marketing.

This is challenging traditional organisational structures, as business vision in today’s integrated world needs integrated teams to collaborate and realise the vision. Chief marketing technologist, anyone?

Some would say it’s too hard and why bother? Well, if you reduce friction in the purchase process for a consumer, you increase consumption. 'Tap and Pay' has proven that for credit cards.

The humanisation of technology

Another clear trend is how much research and investment is going in to make technology become much more human. Conversational interfaces are providing more human-like interactions with technology. Chat bots are the first incarnation, but voice-driven technology is where it’s all heading.


Just think what that could do for your customer service operations. But still, there are challenges, as you can see here.


Technologies like Google Home or Amazon Echo (Alexa) present new sales channels for brands, but I think will also create a new wave of content-marketing strategies for savvy marketers. Imagine if your brand could talk with your consumers in real-time in their home and influence their decisions as they share their questions with you. Brands that can add value to the conversation with useful content will win in this race.

In addition to voice interactions, we are also seeing significant advancement in the ability for machines to ‘see’ the real-world and comprehend the meaning in order to provide instructions, provide alerts and conduct basic tasks. This is going to disrupt traditional labour markets such as professional drivers, machinery operators, customer service providers etc.


VR was one technology that bucks this trend. Instead of becoming more human, it transports the human into a virtual world. And this is why I’m predicting it won’t take off in its current form. Despite myriads of vendors touting VR solutions at SXSW, I still can’t get past the clunky experience with putting on the hardware. Still feels like a gimmick at the moment.

Artificial Intelligence is getting real

One company, Deep Knowledge Ventures, has appointed an AI software algorithm to work on its board of directors called "VITAL". This software has equal voting rights as any other director. How would you feel if your future boss was a software algorithm?

Fortunately for marketers, it’s a long way off before creative industries are under threat. Although I did see a music film clip that was completely scripted, cast and edited by Artificial Intelligence systems (the story sucked). But it looked convincing and ran at Cannes with 20 other films. No-one could pick which one was machine-made.

However, for all the benefits of artificial intelligence, there was a lot of discussion about some of the drawbacks. The ethical challenges in decision systems such as autonomous driving, the legal and equality issues presented by body/technology augmentation, and the opportunity for AI to become new “attack systems” for the unfriendly's. These issues are highlighting the need for governance models and industry bodies to create standards, however there are many challenges to overcome and consensus will not be easy to achieve.

However, there were also plenty of examples of AI being used for good, such as this system below for blind people.

These were the major themes for me at SXSW, however there were many other topics that often bubbled to the surface:

  • Blockchain, and its transformation of business models (especially if you are in the “middle man” business)
  • Smart Cities - improving the places where hope meets the street
  • Robots, lot of robots, but they are still very much learning from humans.

Until next year, SXSW over and out.

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