SXSW 2016: Weekend Insights


Brand activations dominated conversations at the conference center and after parties. There are fewer overall activations than in years past, but the brands that are participating at SXSW 2016 are doing it in bigger, bolder and more innovative ways, focusing on creating immersive experiences vs. quick hits.

Days 2 and 3 of SXSW 2016 didn’t produce a breakout app, service or user behavior. Conference attendees expecting something similar to Meerkat and Periscope’s rise to prominence in 2015 were left a bit disappointed. The lack of a new, bright, shiny object didn’t overshadow the important conversations about the future of new screens (VR/AR, etc.), health, data collection/utilization and civic participation, among other digitally-fueled topics. There was a palpable sense of urgency in many panels about the tech world’s responsibility to address and fix environmental problems and societal ills.

With two days to go, there’s still plenty of time for a breakout startup to claim the SXSW crown. Many have already chosen to eschew the traditionally competitive nature of the conference and instead focus on collaborative problem solving. If that spirit holds, we’ll all walk away as winners.



SXSW 6On Friday, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to attend SXSW in the conference’s 30-year history. The Keynote Conversation with Evan Smith, CEO/Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Tribune was attended by 2,000 lottery winning badge holders and was streamed online.

President Obama discussed the intersection of technology and government, urging attendees to consider how new platforms and ideas can be used to solve big problems. Obama discussed the U.S.’s voting system as one issue ripe for innovation. Citing how much easier it is to “order a pizza or a trip online,” the President believes that we can create “safe, secure, smart online voting systems” to enhance democracy.

The relationship between the government and technology is a complex one. In regards to countering ISIL’s online recruitment, Obama stated that the government cannot credibly and ethically control certain initiatives. Instead, he sees the role of government as helping organize and facilitate smart people from the private sector who can apply their expertise, “analytics, data and algorithms” to solve problems. Referencing the “U.S. Digital Service” created to solve the snafu, Obama said he hopes to institutionalize this program, allowing top Silicon Valley talent to work with the government and help them be “in constant improvement mode.”



The end of the President’s Opening Keynote shifted into a discussion of smartphones and digital privacy in light of Apple’s recent battle with the FBI over encryption in the San Bernardino shooting case. Though unable to comment on the specifics of the case, President Obama gave a thoughtful, nuanced response on the broader issue of digital privacy. He believes that American society has been built on a “healthy skepticism of overreaching government power.” However, he highlighted search warrants and TSA searches as areas in which we’ve agreed to forgo our privacy in the interest of safety.

Obama admitted that technology continues to bring up new questions with regards to privacy. He says the White House has “aggressively engaged the tech community” to understand the risks associated with unencrypting cell phone data. However, he believes that data cannot be immune to all scrutiny, or we will be “fetishizing our phones over all other values.” Obama believes we need to work towards “narrow and constrained access to data with oversight,” but made clear that he is “way on the civil liberties side of this issue.” It’s clear that these questions will continue to be critical throughout the end of his presidency and into the next one.



If there’s one strategy many brands activating at SXSW 2016 seem to agree on, it’s that the best way to amplify your activation is with a Snapchat Geofilter. Custom filters are an easy way to engage attendees and provide massive reach through attendees’ Snapchat friends. Filters are being used for larger consumer facing brands (Samsung, Spotify, Mr. Robot) as well as vendors hosting events (Refinery29, Spredfast).




SXSW 8A frequent conversation heard at SXSW panels was the increased need for brands to market moments rather than a product. Kiip Co-Founder Brian Wong discussed the importance of using the mass data we already have access to, creating customized moments for consumers.

By utilizing applications that consumers already have, and embedding experiences into the application, you can create a serendipitous experience for a consumer before they even know they have a need. For example, your phone knows that you order from Seamless around 7PM every night, so your phone starts automatically making dinner recommendations for you at 6:45 PM, before you think to order.

Wearables are taking connected to a whole new level. Brian announced that Kiip recently partnered with Oral-B on a new line of connected toothbrushes called the Smart Series. These toothbrushes offer users rewards for good brushing habits: if a child brushes two times a day for two minutes each time over the course of a week, they unlock an episode of a Disney show.

Advertising and marketing is a service, and as service providers, brands must use connected devices, along with data, to serve consumers better through their daily tasks and activities.



One of the coolest brand activations we’ve seen at this year’s festival was IBM’s interactive Watson experience, which showcased the power of data in driving personalization and relevancy. After answering a series of questions at the door, including what kind of drink you may be in the mood for, how spicy you like your food and how you spend your free time, Watson curated and personalized your experience in the studio by aligning to your wristband. Highlights included:

  • Cognitive Cooking: Chef Watson cooked up some delicious, free tacos based on USDA data and nutrition facts, as well as Wikipedia info on flavor
  • Cognitive Cocktails: Based on your tastes, Watson served you up a refreshing libation
  • VR Cycling: IBM Watson premiered VR cycling this year, with Watson personalizing your 90-second trip
  • Pepper the Robot: Pepper interacted with attendees in real-time, showcasing how the Watson cognitive computing technology can transform industries like customer service and healthcare

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Research shows 87% of people use a second screen while watching TV (Accenture, 2015). This trend is particularly strong in sports, as viewers simultaneously leverage their smartphones/tablets to check fantasy scores, watch highlights, search for statistics and talk trash on social media.

So, what happens when virtual reality transforms TV? At SXSW 2016, Oculus (in a joint panel highlighting early collaboration with the PGA Tour) said that its next frontier—after gaming—is sports. In the near future, we won’t be sitting around watching sports; we’ll be immersed in them. But when we’re stuck in one screen in VR, how are we going to check our fantasy statistics?

The answer is immersive VR experiences with content layered on top. For instance, Microsoft was promoting its HoloLens at SXSW, “Mixed Reality” glasses that layer holograms on top of the real world (AR + VR). The PGA Tour also hinted that brands would eventually be able to sponsor this layered content. Today, savvy brands are aligning their digital experiences (search, social, display) with real-time TV content. In the future, these experiences may exist in one screen, in Mixed Reality.

SXSW 10Microsoft HoloLens: Imagining the Future of Watching Football




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On Saturday, Rob Jayson, ZenithOptimedia Chief Data Officer, participated in a panel with Oracle, HP Enterprise (HPE) and MediaMath.

One of the primary themes was balancing strategies that (1) create demand and (2) convert demand. Rob commented that, in order to do this, brands must be data-led and data-informed—a balance of science (data, analytics) and art (experience). HPE illustrated this balance by the context in which it delivers messages. At first, HPE casts a wide net with brand experiences. Then, once someone is aware, it switches from brand advertising to direct response, with ads customized to how the consumer has already engaged.

On the data-side, the panel agreed that that we must first identify key consumer segments through DMPs. With tons of segments, brands must have tools to visualize which segments perform best. And, while third-party data is extremely valuable, at the end of the day, all that matters is whether your ads perform. Beyond third-party data, the panelists said that the best data is your own. Invest in this data by (1) taking inventory of your assets (sales, CRM), (2) developing a strategy to leverage this data and (3) finding ways to build your first-party data (e.g. investing in a rewards program).



The Gatorade Fuel Lab brings technology and data together for smarter re-hydration. Generic recommendations are no longer enough and data on its own doesn’t make a difference. Two of Gatorade’s newest products in the works are GX and the sweat patch.

The GX system unlocks personal fuel strategy in real-time and is a tracking solution for athletes. The pod system and smart bottle tracks an athlete’s drinking. The pods align athletes with products that fit their sweat profile as they measure their drinking behavior.

The sweat patch measures the amount of electrolytes that you lose as you sweat so that you can properly re-hydrate. Gatorade is making new strides in creating the locker room of the future based on a smarter re-hydration data.



The new modern family looks very different from years past, as diversity has continued to increase. Gone are the days of advertisements highlighting the traditional family model. Brands today need to realize that the multicultural market has become nonexistent as the general market has become so diverse.

Take Tylenol’s #HowWeFamily ad. The commercial spot highlights the new family models that we see, including multiracial and LGBT couples. According to Manoj Raghunandanan, Senior Director for Tylenol at J&J, Boomers are increasingly receptive to LGBT and multiracial advertising. They have personal connections to these demographics through their children, grandchildren, children’s friends, nieces, nephews, and so on.

Looking to the future, brands will continue to focus on inclusive advertising that relates to a broader audience. This guarantees that all viewers can find something to relate to within the brands values.




With RIO 2016 just months away, NBC Sports created a lounge for you to experience all of its sports properties. Set at the Four Seasons, NBC made it feel like you were in a backyard, with hammocks, patio furniture and more.

Lawn Games: Ranged from Cornhole, Ring Toss, Table Hockey, U.S. Open Trophy Photo Booth, Self Recorded Voice Commentary Booth

Olympic RIO Event: Tara Lipinski (Olympic Gold Medalist/Olympic Analyst), David Feherty (Golf Channel Analyst), Jim Bell (Exec. Producer, NBC Olympics), John Miller (CMO, NBC Olympics) gave their perspective on the upcoming Olympic games. At the London games, younger viewership increased; they’re expecting for this trend to continue for Rio as well. And with the time zone friendliness for the U.S., we’re expecting to see the most viewership ever, across not only TV, but also all devices.




One of the more unique autonomous things showcased this year was SmartestCart, created by Austin-based studio Chaotic Moon. The cart seeks to revolutionize shopping with:sxsw 15

  • Facial recognition tech (which enables the cart to follow you around)
  • Self checkout, along with integrated store discount cards and payment methods
  • Consumer profiles that contain grocery lists, recipes or allergies (e.g. the cart can warn you when you’ve dropped a product in that you’re allergic to)
  • Software that helps shoppers track price, nutrition, product info (e.g. non-GMO) and specials as items are dropped in the cart. The cart can also recommend alternatives (e.g. asking you if you want a gluten-free version of the product you dropped in, or something similar on sale)

The question is: are shoppers ready for this? After all, the shopping cart has remained largely unchanged since 1937. While a future like this may be a few years off, CPG brands should pay attention to this technology. We can imagine brands leveraging smartcarts to recommend their products, conquest on competitors and distribute deals.




The flashiest brand activation at SXSW 2016? USA Network’s experience for sophomore drama “Mr. Robot.” Situated in a lot in the busiest part of downtown Austin, USA Network replicated key elements of the show’s Coney Island “F Society” locations, featuring a full arcade and a working Ferris Wheel.

Mr. Robot’s activation brings the show’s dark, nihilistic look at Wall Street and tech culture to a conference that is overrun by massive brands. This ironic counter-programming approach has resonated. The space’s branded photo booth featuring messages like “F**K Social Media” and “F**K The System” have popped up all over social media, and there are long lines for custom printed t-shirts with slogans like “Social Media Owns Your Relationships.” In addition, the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, spoke about authenticity in TV on a Sunday panel with stars Rami Malek and Christian Slater.

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