SXSW: The New World’s Fair for Brands

The first thing I noticed when we stepped outside at the Austin airport was the smell of freshly cut grass. That may have been the most promising moment of SXSW Interactive.

SXSW’s website describes the Interactive portion of the festival as:

An incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity, the 2014 event features five days of compelling presentations and panels from the brightest minds in emerging technology, scores of exciting networking events hosted by industry leaders and an unbeatable lineup of special programs showcasing the best new websites, video games and startup ideas the community has to offer. From hands-on training to big-picture analysis of the future, SXSW Interactive has become the place to preview the technology of tomorrow today.

There wasn’t a ton of “the technology of tomorrow” this year. Many of the festival sessions covered the technology of last year.

In truth, this year’s event felt more like a World’s Fair of Brands. As someone from a creative agency, it was cool to see the big budget experiential displays that brands built. The pragmatic part of me wondered what KPIs those brands internally set for an event that was marketing to, well, a crowd of marketers.

Secret - SXSW

It seemed to be the consensus among attendees that there wasn’t a breakout startup star of the festival. That said, there were some inspired moments. Here are my top three:

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine interviewing Secret co-founder David Byttow.
If you missed this session, I’m truly sorry. Secret is one of several new anonymous apps that are rising in social. The SF tech community in particular has flocked to this 40+-day old app, making the secrets that appear there somewhat of a Silicon Valley parlor guessing game. But hearing Byttow speak to the human insights behind the app—the notion that at the end of the day we all want to be understood and by removing our identity we can more easily convey emotions—that is a beautiful basic human insight upon which to build a platform.

New York Times best seller Jonah Berger talking about what drives word-of-mouth.
Funny thing about this, I’d been trying to connect with Jonah in Philadelphia for a few months. He’s a Professor at Wharton, but has been in residence at Duke this semester. I had to travel to Austin to finally catch up with him. It was worth it. Jonah has identified a science behind why people share, something he calls six STEPPS, an acronym for Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical value, and Stories. Read his book.

Equipping and inspiring the next generation with Dean Kamen.
A master inventor, engineer and humanitarian, Dean Kamen is a genius living among us. He may be best known as the inventor of the Segway, but this guy has invented enough things that he’s toeing Ben Franklin territory. He’s also the guy who helped make Coca Cola’s Freestyle machines in exchange for distribution of his water and power generators to schools in Ghana. This guy isn’t just smart, he’s a better person than many of us. And that’s what a lot of his talk boiled down to. The world of ideas isn’t a zero sum game. Technology isn’t a zero sum game. We can help the world while we help ourselves.

It was an interesting SXSW, to be sure. I had fewer mind-bending hallway conversations due to the sheer volume of the event, and that was a bummer. But beyond the teeming venues, full sessions, long lines, and celebrity appearances, inspiration was around, if you listened for it.

Apart from the event itself, Austin is an attractive American city to visit in the temperate month of March. Here are three must visits:

Shady Grove: Austin-inspired menu with a gorgeous tree-lined patio and cowboy-esque interior. Yee-haw.

The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que: It’s a little bit of drive from downtown and worth every minute. These people are cooking meat in a pit the family built in 1967. With a recipe inspired by their great-grandmother named Bettie from Mississippi. I don’t think anything more needs to be said about this. Let’s go.

The LBJ Presidential Library: I’m a politics and history nerd. Next year, I am definitely making time for this!

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About Annie Heckenberger

VP, Community Trailblazer at RTO+P, Social & PR practice lead. Annie began her work in social media before the term "social media" existed.