Mark Holden, head of futures, Arena
Mark Holden, head of futures, Arena
A view from Mark Holden

SXSW14 Day Three: Technology now, next, and beyond

Mark Holden, head of futures at media agency Arena, reveals the lessons he has learned on the third day at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

It’s busy here in Austin. Thirty thousand delegates have come together for SXSW Interactive 2014, and the breadth of sessions, topics and speakers is vast. In just one hour, Eric Schmidt will talk about the new digital age, alongside sessions about content and commerce, crowd-funded start-ups and music for video game marketing.

It’s inspiring but also a bit of a sensory overload, as sessions about the ‘big’ trends in technology (e.g. crypto currencies, robots, genetics or connected objects) rub up against topics that marketers and agencies are grappling with now (e.g. retail, content, mobile). 

So, what, as a marketing community, should we take away from SXSW and put into practice? What ideas, themes, trends or technologies should we invest our time in? Here’s my take on how approach and prioritise the key areas I’ve seen emerge from SXSW Interactive this year:

1 - Now

There are four topics I’ve seen across the schedule at SXSW this year which we are all grappling with now: mobile marketing, content, real-time communication and the evolution of social media for marketing. Perhaps surprisingly, the conversation around these topics has not focused on the new and shiny, but on how to approach them in more mature ways.

There are four topics Iwhich we are all grappling with: mobile marketing, content, real-time communication and the evolution of social media for marketing.

For example, as the ‘mobile majority’ becomes a reality, Richard Ting of R/GA put forward a more strategic view of mobile marketing: not mobile screens as spaces for advertising, but planning for mobile to enhance product and user experiences, of which ads may be one part. This requires building mobile services and assets over the long-term (such as the excellent Nike Tricktree), not necessarily one-off ‘campaign hits’ for the sake of ticking a mobile box.

Content and real-time marketing have been two of the most prolific topics here at SXSW. And the key questions are being tackled: should every brand ‘do’ real-time marketing? What’s the strategic value of content? A particularly highlight was Kristina Halvorson, of Brain Traffic, who accuses the marketing community of being ‘drunk’ on the buzz of agile and real-time content - the "Oreo effect".

To whoops of support, she called on brands and agencies to focus their content efforts on serving customers at their points of real need, and to have clearly defined content strategies that focus on making content that really counts, not chasing every new opportunity that arises.

In fact, putting customer experience first is a big theme across SXSW. On this count, the marketing community and the developer community have something in common:  to remember that we’re designing digital services for customers, not ourselves, and their needs are always paramount. Adobe’s ‘pipeline’ development team revealed how they build new products, and at the heart of their process is one key principle: that the customer experience of any prototype defines success or failure. We need to put customers (and their behaviours) first, and the technology second.

2 - Next: the near future

Yes, there are plenty of sessions about wearable technology. But there is one underlying, and more significant, trend here at SXSW that will play out over the next 2 years: what the Internet looks and feels like when it moves beyond phones, tablets and computers.

We are all familiar with responsive design. But in a session about next generation responsive, Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester spoke compellingly about the need go beyond ‘responsive’ as a way to show webpages on 3 screens, to a new marketing design paradigm which cuts across any potential screen: digital signage, watches, in-car systems, connected TVs and others. When many more new screens are connected, design of marketing must be truly responsive: tailored to a customer need and the context they’re using a particular device in.

In fact, contextual user experience is another recurring theme of SXSW 2014. Partly driven by data, partly by new connected ‘ things’, and partly of the ubiquity of Internet access, designing how services (and marketing) help users in a particularly context and moment of need, is going to be a big challenge moving forward. Cliff Kuang of Wired sums it up by calling for ‘more context, less complexity’. By understand what people are doing on their devices at any point in time or place, we should tailor brand experiences that make life a little easier for them.

3 - Beyond: new waves of disruption

Staring into the distant future here at SXSW is exciting, and a little bit scary. The most fundamental trend I have seen is how technology reshapes manufacturing and our expectations of what products are. Ideo and Joi Ito of MIT Media Labs painted a picture of this potential new reality, where already in places like Shenzen, product designers are effectively ‘A/B testing’ physical products at scale by using advanced production and 3D-printing techniques.

They predict that everyday products will be embedded with sensors, such that almost anything, including our clothes, may respond to our emotional need-states.  This points towards a future where mass customisation of products becomes a reality - where we expect the things we buy and use to respond to us. At this point, marketing really does meet user experience design.

There is one common thread I have seen that cuts across the now, next and beyond of SXSW: whether its content, context or customisation, the place is to start is with the needs of customers (and users) and build messages, experiences and products that improve their lives, even if just a little bit.