Category Archives: SXSW

Lessons from a rebooted SXSW Interactive

Like all great inventions, SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, has gone through its Gartner Hype Cycle. First came the buzzing hyperbole. In 2007, a startup called Twitter took SXSW by storm, and one year later, Mark Zuckerberg was grilled in a interview (deemed either disastrous or sexist)  by journalist Sarah Lacy, generating wild enthusiasm for Facebook as the new, big media platform. Were you there? Did you hear Zuck speak? If you worked in media, SXSW Interactive each March — a thought-leadership series far different than the concurrent music and film SXSW carnivals — was the place to be.

And then the buzz collapsed. Big brands crept in, taking over entire buildings with “activations” and with their slickness eroding SXSW’s cool. Some of this was positive: The 9:1 male-female ratio of the conference’s early days became more 50:50, and the exaggerated hoopla over every little app launch (Foursquare, Gowalla, Color, Meerkat) was replaced by serious discussions on the future of media. But ironically, as SXSW matured, the new luxury hotels craning upward around Austin drove the hip kids away.

2018 reboot: a new SXSW Interactive emerges

We visited SXSW Interactive this weekend after a year hiatus, and found 2018’s Interactive schedule richer in content, the crowds calmer, the lines more organized. SXSW has shaken off its doldrums, put on a professional jacket, and seems past its awkward puberty. The conference has matured into a 5-day crash college course on all things digital, technological, data and communications. The truth is neither the original hype nor the past few years’ critical despair over SXSW were accurate. Like any massive educational curriculum, you get out of SXSW what you want, depending on how you show up for class.

A few highlights from our journey this week:

Hearables are the next big thing

Poppy Crum, the engaging chief scientist at Dolby, gave an amazing speech on the future of augmented reality driven by our ears. (Crum gets props for keeping her cool as the audio-visual system supporting her kept collapsing in the just-opened, glitchy Fairmont hotel. At one point, she managed to joke with the crowd while holding two microphones and working with a technician on stage to reboot her laptop.)

Crum’s insight is powerful: Human ears are both input and output devices, and may become the center of mobile technology in the future. For input, sensors can now use signals from human ears to determine a person’s heart rate, blood oxygen level, galvanic skin response, stress levels, emotional stage, and even the direction of the eyes and attention — allowing ear devices to become more accurate than eye sensors in determining where you are looking, what you are trying to do, and your emotional state about it.

For output in response, sound engineers can “close the loop” by augmenting hearing (or other sensory inputs) to immediately help you accomplish a task. If you are walking alone on a dark street, the sensors could ascertain your stress level and magnify the sounds of people behind you for protection. In a crowded restaurant, sensors could determine you are trying to talk to that important person across the table, and amplify just her voice.

In a media world where VR and AR are largely considered visual, Poppy illustrated that sound, and our human ability to use it to direct our attention in the world, may be the real gateway to the soul.

Advertising faces threats from subscription media

Ironically, just as brands such as Mercedes touted the rise of additional “media time” each day that will be provided by Internet-connected or fully autonomous cars, several speakers warned that old “interruptive” forms of advertising are in trouble. Otto Bell, chief creative officer of CNN’s internal agency Courageous Brand Studio, noted that ratings for live events — typically the last bastion of advertising — have plummeted again this year for the Super Bowl, Academy Awards, and even the Olympics. Subscription services and on-demand streaming that skip ads are growing more popular, Bell said, “and the more people get used to an ad-free experience, the more painful interruptive advertising will seem.”

Bell’s solution is content marketing, which he defines as more deep than simply posting videos about your brand to your Facebook page. Instead, he means deep integration of stories that people will truly find interesting that reflect your brand’s own story, are emotional, and leave room for spontaneity. His studio at CNN, for instance, did a documentary-style video for Mass Mutual showcasing a young boy who was bullied and then adopted by a motorcycle gang. The gang members drove the boy to his first day of class, and used their machismo to grab the attention of everyone in school and teach them lessons on empathy. The video was framed by Mass Mutual’s own story, “people helping people,” and the jaded crowd in the SXSW audience wiped their eyes.

“Character-driven stories with the right narrative arc produce an emotional response that is then coded into long-term memory association,” Bell said. Isn’t that what marketers really want?

Tanya Dua, the lead reporter covering media at Business Insider, held a strong panel on “6-Second Ads” that pointed to another possible solution for marketers — use briefer interruptive ad formats. In television, spots that are 15 seconds or shorter now account for nearly 25% of all ad placements, and 6-second ads are often integrated on the screen next to ongoing content such as sports coverage. The panel agreed this format works best as a reminder mechanism for established brands, but certainly something to consider in the media mix.

The future of ambient media

Buried deep in a Google presentation on technology was the sharpest strategic idea of SXSW. Hector Ouilhet, head of Google Search design, and Laura Granka, head of UX for Google Search, suggested media is transitioning from three prior eras to a fourth human experience:

  1. Mass. In the mid-1900s, media was mass communications. Marketers, news publishers or entertainers used broadcast dynamics to share one message with everyone.
  2. Input. In the 1990s and early 2000s, media channels shifted to computers. Technology firms and media companies had to learn to deal with typed inputs, as users requested things on keyboard-driven devices.
  3. Mobile multi-modality (device centricity). In the 2010s, consumers moved to mobile, and began stacking use of media devices at the same time. This created a “multi-modality” user experience, in which you might check your phone for information on the way to a meeting and then play with a tablet while watching TV concurrently at night. The way marketers could reach you is by targeting each device, and the data associated with it.
  4. Fluidity (device un-centricity). Now, the next and final trend will be ambient media and devices everywhere around you. Because the cost of screens is falling, and streaming information services are becoming embedded everywhere, humans will walk through their day with media “turning on” around them as they go about their journeys. You won’t care much about owning a single device, because media devices will become like wallpaper. IoT means all Things will become the Internet.

This is a big and challenging idea, because it means most of the device-based data systems marketers now use — TV ratings, digital cookie data, or mobile device fingerprinting — will become less useful as device interfaces grow more prolific. Any device-centric view into a consumer is only a fragment of his or her daily experience. Digital cookies or ratings alone will not capture the holistic patterns of your life.

In a 2025 world in which media is everywhere around you, and content turns on just for you as you walk past screens and audio ports and scores of different glass panel tools, data about you will be the only thing that matters. The challenge for marketers in this upcoming human-focused universe will be to find ways to connect all those data streams together.

SXSW Interactive remains a hotbed of ideas. Like ambient media, it surrounds attendees with almost too much information. But with careful planning, attendees can walk away with meaningful concepts to drive their business or knowledge in the future.

SXSW observation: Prediction is the 5th stage of technology

tech hipster hand

As I watched a small heli-drone hover over a crowd outside the Austin Convention Center at SXSW, I thought: the evolution of technology will culminate not in gadgets, or data, or surveillance, but in predicting human behavior. This is not a moral declaration, but a statement of the inevitable. Like the five stages of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s structure for grieving, technology is passing through five intertwined steps of evolution:

1. Hardware came first — the wheel, the horse-and-buggy, the iPhone in your pocket, the physical “thing” that most people think of when they hear the word “technology.” Hard tools are human capacity expanders, from the leather shoes that allow us to run on hard surfaces to the mobile phones that connect us to the world. But hardware is only the bottom rung of technology’s ladder.

2. Software came second — the required knowledge system, in its broadest sense, to run any hardware. This includes human minds, as a construction worker must think to wield a hammer, and the programmable electronic strings that make tablets and DVRs run.

3. Sensors are third — defined as any input that collects data to drive hardware/software outputs. You must type into a typewriter to generate a letter. The gyro in your smartphone rotates its screen, keeping it vertical. Sensors are shrinking, dropping in cost, and rising in sophistication. Today, the Xbox can sense your location, motion and even heartbeat from across the room to run a video game. The Nest thermostat knows when you leave the home. Your iPhone dims the screen when you hold it close to your ear. Like the oblong telescreen built into Winston Smith’s 1984 wall, gadgets are watching you while you watch them, too. This has always been the case, as cars need gas pedals and steering wheels to be directed; sensors are simply, inevitably proliferating.

4. Data is next — any tool to work must input, collect, and store information to function. Note that data flows two ways, and as sensors/software/hardware scale in quantity and plummet in costs, the data that comes in from you will begin to outnumber anything that comes back out.

5. And prediction is final — because data will by necessity be used to predict behavior to make any tool more useful. People today — even tech leaders — often misunderstand technology to focus on gadgets or applications or data, which are “cool” and “new,” vs. the predictive knowledge all of these new systems combined will generate.

Because we hunger for our tools to provide more utility, and prediction is the fastest way for us to get what we want, prediction is where all of technology must lead.

How are observations proliferating?

On the SXSW stage, tech-trend observer Robert Scoble addressed how Google Glass, the little eyeglass gizmo with a screen/computer embedded on one side, is really a collection of sensors that observe you. “Glass,” he said, “is one of those products that you know is the future … and the real privacy problem is it is a sensor platform. It will know whether I’m sober or drunk. Will that data get sent to my employer, my insurance company, my wife? As these technologies shrink and disappear into our eyeglasses, our computer systems, Google will be watching what we think. And it is mind-blowing to think about the privacy problems of that.” 

Each day, people are already exposed to millions of interception points. At another SXSW presentation on UX Design, Alfred Lui of Seer Labs noted that the average U.S. consumer is interrupted 80 times a day by technology; by default, each system interruption may be backed by scores of hidden data observations. While designers focus on how to make the data around each technology bit helpful — “just being able to collect data does not make you useful,” Lui said, “you need to give data a purpose” — those growing interaction touch points create numerous ways any individual can be observed.

Why will all these observations morph into predictions?

Because forecasting action may be the highest utility of societal interaction. Governments (despite Snowden’s protestations and the associated debate around them) use data mining to predict and prevent terrorist threats, a societal benefit. 23andme, a genetics company that can test your profile based on a simple bit of saliva, is able to predict a person’s propensity to medical disease. The vendor floor at SXSW included headsup virtual-reality eyeglasses that monitor eye movements and a billboard display that tracked whether people walking by were men or women, young or old. Each of these inputs is used in its own way to monitor human behavior and predict something — a terror conspiracy, a health risk, what you will see, what digital ad you should be served. And marketers, the driving force that subsidizes almost all of today’s entertainment for consumers, will rush to collect new data threads that improve predictions that enable customized advertising matching desire with sale.

The sensors that watch us are shrinking and being built into every object. We will use these new gadgets to sense data that predicts our future. We will trade privacy for utility, if we find the exchange beneficial. As the great Kevin Kelly wrote in “What Technology Wants,” “progress is only half real. That is, material advances do occur, but they don’t mean very much. Only intangibles like meaningful happiness count.” In 5 years, your email will draft customized auto-replies in your own tone of voice, predicting what you would write when you’re out of the office based on your past emails. (Google has a patent on this.) In 15 years, you’ll get into a self-driving car that already knows where you want to go based on your daily habits. In 25 years, you may fall in love with a digital avatar that anticipates your every need.

Data exists to be observed; observations exist to form predictions; predictions are made because they improve happiness. Predictions are coming. It’s not an ethical debate. It’s an unstoppable technological evolution. We just can’t help ourselves.

The metaconversation wins for BBH Labs in Austin


Everyone wants to go viral, yet so few have the balls to do so.

BBH Labs just showed how it’s done by hacking SXSW Interactive, an Austin tech conference with so many product launches that breaking out there is nearly impossible. (If Twitter showed up this year, everyone would yawn.) So BBH came up with a plan to draw attention to the plight of the homeless by turning homeless volunteers into “mobile hotspots” — armed with MiFi connections that could get a nearby user online, provided he or she spoke with the homeless person and got the passcode. BBH gave simple instructions on its blog: “Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access.”

Alas, the idea of turning poor homeless people into roving antennae drew controversy. The radio business program Marketplace got snide interviewing BBH Lab’s Saneel Radia, and the UK’s Daily Mail derided the “marketing stunt” that drew “an outcry.”

Which is exactly the point. Now millions of people are hearing about the plight of homeless people in Texas, and how an agency used technology to get them fleeting jobs. You’re probably thinking, wow, those poor homeless people. Maybe tomorrow you’ll notice one on a street instead of walking by in oblivion. With a few mobile handsets and cheap printed T-shirts, BBH Labs has accomplished what $1 million in advertising could not have done.

The only conversation that counts is the one that makes you think. Saneel and BBH Labs, all we can say is, well done.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.


SXSW spam? Blame the network gravity well.

Adman Bob Knorpp has been poking fun at the SXSW “panel picker” — a crowd-filtering technique in which democratic votes are supposed to help select the best panels for the Austin digital-media conference, but which instead has devolved into “please-vote-for-me” indignities. Sure, only 30% of the decision comes from voters like you, but how can anyone realistically judge 2,401 panel contenders?

SXSW is proof that social networks can’t duplicate democracy — because, unlike voters, not all nodes in a human network are created equal. (Voting networks don’t work well, either, which is why the U.S. founders set up a Congress with representative experts to filter decisions away from the sometimes-hysterical masses.) Edward Boches, creative chief of Mullen, has 12,763 followers on Twitter and thus gets noticed when he complains about Marriott. Blogger Chris Brogan has 150,485 followers. Both are likely to get voted in if they float a panel, however brilliant or stale the concept. If the SXSW goal is to build a meritocracy of ideas, and no one has the patience to judge 2,401 individual entries, then what remains is a popularity contest.

The gravity well of networks.

We call this network lock-in — a form of groupthink that emerges when networks reinforce their current structures, similar to the stardust coalescing in gravity wells to form a new sun and planets in orbit. Humans are drawn to ideas, and they chase other nodes who espouse their own ideals most fervently. This like-drawn-to-like dynamic explains the rise of extreme news (Fox, MSNBC), horror-movie porn, punk rock, shouting politicians, and uber-bloggers. Fragmenting media blows self-reinforcing communication bubbles, where you, if extremely conservative, can find videos and commentators explaining why Obama is a socialist; or, if liberal, find an equal number of talking heads explaining how Obama is saving the economy. We are lured by gravity; tidal forces pull us to nodes that take power from our joining masses; the extremes of commonality rule the day.

Unfortunately, for edgy forums such as SXSW, this means a concept on the fringe of public consciousness — stardust far afield — may be ignored in favor of the topics already talked the most about. In the interactive series categories this year, we see 136 proposed panels on “social networking,” 77 on “advertising,” yet only five on tablet computers and none at all about artificial intelligence (they are there, but you have to dig). Tablets are the edge of media; AI may change the world soon. Unfortunately, few at SXSW may talk about that future.

No, your video won’t go viral

Mike Arauz and Bud Caddell spoke at SXSW on why most online videos fail to scale, and engaged their audience in a “Web Video Thunderdome” to debate why. They suggest: Be brief. Be odd. Be funny. Be random. Try repeatedly. And recognize that even if you get all that right, in the online sea of wavering interest, you’ll still likely get only 100 hits.

Via Marci Ikeler.

SXSW interview: How to cut through the hype

We were fortunate to interview a few bright minds at SXSW Interactive this year. Brian Morrissey is one such light, who as digital editor of Adweek has to sort through claims to seek the truth in emerging technologies. So we asked Brian: “Dude. How do you cut through all the hype?”

Stay tuned for more SXSW interviews this week with myself and Humongo hipster Darryl Ohrt. Vids will be cross posted at Brandflakes for Breakfast.

SXSW ideation: Ending hunger


The great irony of SXSW Interactive is most of its panels are one-way affairs with gurus broadcasting their business acumen at the audience. Which is why we found Scott Henderson’s We Can End This workshop on hunger relief fascinating. He asked his audience to roll up their sleeves and brainstorm ideas.

We sat through Hendo’s morning session with social strategist Geoff Livingston, Humongo agency’s Darryl Ohrt, Kyla Fullenwider of sponsor PepsiCo, product strategist Anne Mai Bertelsen, and others. Some, like Livingston, suggested using new social media tools to connect donators with food banks in local communities. We suggested another path — decrease the waste in our food system to fund hunger relief.

Billions of dollars now going in the trash

The United States, you see, tosses out 40-50% of food ready for harvest, and of the food we buy, half of that comes from restaurants outside the home. Americans spend $149 billion annually on casual dining and coffeeshops; increasing the efficiency of that market even slightly would free up billions to fill empty stomachs. To connect these dots, we’d simply (a) reduce restaurant food waste and use the economic savings to (b) fund hunger relief. The program could work like emissions trading for air pollution abatement:

1. Create a cap-and-trade system for food waste. A central body (government or national food association) would set total target limits on food waste, and issue credits allowing companies a certain level.
2. Measure food waste in restaurants — packaging, portions, food not consumed.
3. Restaurants that cannot reduce food waste would trade (buy) allowances.
4. Restaurants that do reduce waste would trade (sell) allowances.
5. This economic system would provide strong incentives for restaurants to reduce food waste — spurring marketing innovations such as menu items with smaller portions, similar to today’s “heart healthy” choices.
6. A commission structure could be set on market trading — a “tax” on each trade — to be used to fund hunger relief programs.
7. The high visibility of national restaurant chains promoting reduced waste/hunger relief would build consumer awareness as well — perhaps making the cause as popular as recycling, which has become the standard human behavior to reduce trash.

It’s just one idea, inspired by a truly interactive SXSW panel. SXSW organizers, we’d like to see more such real engagement next year. Learn more at We Can End This or submit your ideas at Goodzuma with the user name and password “SXSW.” And Scotty: Nicely done.

Image: Guuleed

SXSW attention deficit disorder has some ‘real’ advantages


So we got home tonight from SXSW Interactive, the web-internet marketing festival, having learned a few things. Facebook is emulating the Twitter live “stream” (to become the Experian prospect database of the now). Mobile advertising still doesn’t exist in any scalable form (but like the Great Pumpkin may be just around the corner). Quants can predict outcomes of baseball and elections but not stock movements (because too many public companies lie). The psychology of game play can guide better design (in web sites, product usability, and marketing campaigns).

But the real finding is the web is now merging with reality.

This is both a good and bad thing. Bad, in that people no longer pay attention. The geeks (OK, and us) spent much time ignoring elite speakers to type their own commentary on iPhones or laptops into Twitter, with hashtags (brief codes beginning with an “#” symbol) allowing others to search for the backchannel snark. Everyone justified this as a new way of adding personal value to the presentations, but face it, if you’re typing you can’t listen, or at least listen well.


The good spin, though, is sometimes the backchannel created a powerful overlay on reality — real insights from your peers on the current debate; the contact who finds you in a room of 1,000 people after you text your shirt color; the location of the person you need to meet on the roof of the Mashable party. We think Todd Sanders did it best — this Wisconsin-based webmaster couldn’t make SXSW, so had friends email him photos with vacant areas allowing him to be photoshopped in. The entire series is hilarious, bordering on art masterworks. Here, Todd arm-wrestles Plaid interactive agency president Darryl Ohrt over a booze bottle, when Darryl was actually holding nothing. Soon numerous people were staging photo shoots to feed Todd; uberblogger Chris Brogan posed with his arms around air; Todd became a meme within the SXSW hip crowd, who in turn looked for his next photoshopped feed back.

It’s scary people don’t listen. It’s cool that ideas, moving from the virtual web community into reality, give us new things to listen to.

Privacy vs. publicness: The genie will be collected in the bottle


Author Jeff Jarvis sat behind us at the SXSW privacy panel yesterday, typing away frantically at his keyboard. Thirty minutes into Danah Boyd’s onstage discussion, Alan Wolk, sitting to my right, laughed and pointed to his laptop — where we both read Jeff’s blog post dissecting the very seminar we were in. So we Tweeted the privacy report to our friends …

Ironic, isn’t it, that our very observations of a privacy discussion were not private.

Human privacy has left the building, and discussions on if, how, and why people may wish to opt-out of systems that collect their data are becoming antiquated. One point missed in the privacy panel debate was the inevitability that large data sets on your personal behavior will be collected — because in the history of technology touching data, information is always compiled. Consider:

1. Criminal records are now standardized and shared across states and countries.
2. Tax records are now consolidated at national levels.
3. Your financial history — yes, perhaps one of the most personal things about you — is monitored with every credit card swipe and compiled into vast credit profiles by companies such as Experian and TransUnion, and are available to anyone at anytime you request a loan or subscription service.

People are not up in arms that their financial or past mistakes are collected and shared, yet a citizen from 100 years ago would be shocked at how much information is already compiled. Over time, technology gradually pulled these records together, and we all eventually accepted it.

So let’s look ahead at the next two waves of inevitable data collection:

4. Healthcare information silos, now critiqued for the wild inefficiencies they create in health treatment, are finally being addressed by the Obama administration, which hopes to create universal health records.
5. Social media information silos, now collected by numerous popular internet subentities, will be consolidated as well.

Privacy is a new idea, about to go away

Alice Marwick of NYU said at the SXSW panel that our current notion of privacy is a relative novelty; for millennia humans lived in tiny communities with few walls where everything you did was known by others. It was only modern society, where people moved around more, spend time in isolation at home, and can shift personas between high school and college and each subsequent job, that made “privacy” something within an individual’s control. Technology is removing the walls we have so recently built, and there are too many entry points for data for anyone to stop its consolidation by opting out of certain privacy controls on Facebook or Google.

Technology is converging all the data sets, as it always does, and this time it includes your social connections (Facebook), your personal preferences (Google), what you are doing at this instant (Twitter), and your GPS location (any cell phone).

You can’t opt out of this new anti-privacy universe. The genie is pulling all data into one bottle. Get ready to give up control.

Photo: Liel Bomberg