From robots to Meerkat: Four key themes from SXSW 2015

Bina 48, an AI creation by Martine Rothblatt.
Bina 48, an AI creation by Martine Rothblatt.

Science fiction becomes a reality and wearables make it onto the official tote bag at this year's geek fest

AUSTIN — As well as mastering the art of typing on a laptop while standing, due to the massive crowds that descended on SXSW this year, here is what else I learned from the annual tech extravaganza.

The robots are coming!

SXSW felt a bit sci-fi this year. Largely the stuff of fiction, artificial intelligence was discussed in many of the sessions I attended. This was not just the domain of futurists, though, with many speakers discussing what this wave of technology will mean for marketing.

Fans of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi TV show "Black Mirror" would have had plenty of food for thought from the event this year. But rather than all this technology and science leading us toward dystopia, Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics, outlined her vision for a world in which artificial intelligence and humans exist in harmony

While it may seem abstract to think about robots right now, advances in artificial intelligence, such as mind cloning, will have interesting implications for marketers because of the way the technology will affect identity and inspire behavioural change. We are already seeing the early stages of "cyberconsciousness" — as Rothblatt put it —  with technology like Siri, the selfie craze and social networking profiles.

While the rights of robots were discussed in several talks at SXSW, AI was also the theme for a couple of marketing stunts: a Tinder bot flirting with attendees to promote the AI film "Ex Machina" and a "Stop the robots" protest, which turned out to be a promotion for dating app, Quiver. 

Virtual reality, another stalwart of the science fiction genre, was discussed widely at SXSW. Last year, when Oculus Rift was in its infancy, HBO was one of the first brands to deploy it for a campaign, promoting "Game of Thrones."

Testament to SXSW’s trendsetting ability, virtual reality came up as a discussion point in several events I attended. Speaking on a panel about native advertising, Jill King, SVP, marketing and partnerships, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, said virtual reality was the next marketing medium the network would be exploring. 

Connected experiences, better advertising 

Unsurprisingly, wearables were a key theme at SXSW this year and the event planners paid homage to them with the "Totes Wearable" canvas bag it gave out to attendees. 

Google Glass was a big talking point last year; now Glass is history, and the shiny new Apple Watch dominated wearables chatter. When it comes to advertising on wearables, we shouldn’t be thinking about shoving a banner ad on an iWatch. Wearables and the Internet of Things affords marketers plenty more opportunities for intimate and personalized advertising, as well as a huge amount of data. 

It is crucial, therefore, that brands think about the utility that they can bring to consumers, rather than broadcasting messages on to them. Speaking on a panel about wearable ads, Jon Werner, innovation explorer at Adidas, said brands should give consumers the option to opt in to connected experiences. This puts the onus on the brand to produce content that adds value, making the consumer actually want to engage with it. 

Creating better content through connected devices was echoed by Mitch Brandow (executive VP, engagement strategy and analytics, Energy BBDO) during a panel I attended about the future of native advertising. "Where we are headed is towards […] is brands producing content and connected experiences that bring value to the consumer," he said. 

The rise of the social media celebrities

It wouldn’t be SXSW without a few celebrities rocking up at the Convention Center. This year we had Jessica Alba and Karlie Kloss talking about their business ventures and Shia LeBeoff streaming his heartbeat as part of an art project. But when it comes to marketing, do celebs still carry to the same clout as the fast growing tribe of social media influencers?

This was the subject of an interesting debate on the true influence of social media stars. Amir Mohamadzadeh, co-founder of Rosewood Creative, said the reason why brand and influencer relationships are flourishing is because influencers offer brands something celebrities can’t: true interaction with their communities around an expertise.

"They are real people with a real connection to their audiences," he said. "They are able to connect emotionally with their audiences, which brands really love."

This was echoed in a talk on the future of branding, by Niche co-founder Rob Fishman, who said that Vine and YouTube stars have more influence among a younger generation of consumers, who crave emotional connections.

But rather than singling out these so-called influencers, like Zoe Sugg, Buzzfeed’s Jonathan Perelman said the news and culture site considers all its readers influencers. "We aim to produce content that has an emotional impact, so much so that people want to put their names behind it."

Meerkat blows up

It would be remiss not to mention Meerkat in a SXSW roundup. The newly launched live-streaming app dominated social conversation and was the breakout startup of the event, despite being booted-off Twitter’s social graph at two hours’ notice. 

Like Foursquare and Twitter, which both blew up at SXSW, Meerkat’s rising star had a lot to do with the product’s natural compatibility with a SXSW crowd obsessed with sharing. (Now, we wouldn’t want the people back home to feel left out.)

Red Bull has already started experimenting with Meerkat; expect more brands to follow suit in the wake of SXSW.


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