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Six Things To Look Out For At SXSW 2018

From new brand experiences to brand activism

We are one week into March, which means the 2018 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is just around the corner. As with years past, the Lab will be sending out a team to Austin, TX to meet with tech startups and partners, as well as checking out the myriad of brand activations that the art and interactive media confab has become famous for in recent years. You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @ipglab for our latest updates. For now, here is a list of six major things that we are expecting to see at this year’s SXSW Interactive.

New Brand Experiences

At its core, SXSW is a film and music festival, which makes it a historically fertile playground for media owners and out-of-home entertainment brands. As always, brands will most definitely join in on the action as well. Budweiser, for one, is hosting a country music showcase in Austin for the event-goers.

Moreover, event organizers will be leveraging new technologies to improve the experiences they offer and make thing easier for the attendees. For example, Google will be erecting a “Google Assistant Fun House” a few blocks away from the Austin Convention Center to showcase their voice technology and smart home products.

This year, Austin will also host a new SXSW Wellness Expo that will provide the attendees with the opportunity to check out the latest innovative products and services in the expanding digital health and wellness industry. If what we saw at the CES two months ago is any indication, then the attendees are in for a relaxing treat.

Live streaming platforms like Facebook Live and Twitch are increasingly being used to amplify the reach of local events, and with the sheer amount of events happening in Austin next week, live streaming will be one of the primary ways for people to experience those events.

We also expect to see more brand activations that take wireless charging into account. Now that Qi is the standard for wireless charging thanks to Apple’s decision to choose it for the latest iPhones, we expect the event-organizers to cater to the tech-savvy SXSW crowd with embedded wireless charging solutions.

While some SXSW attendees love to proudly display their arm-full of wristbands to show off the events they went to, perhaps this year we will see a mobile ticketing solution that can eliminate the antiquated practice, especially since most phones now come with NFC built-in.

The Hollywood Disruption

As with previous years, we expect film studios and TV networks to set up elaborate experiences to drive buzz for their upcoming releases. For example, HBO will be returning to Austin with a special immersive experience to promote the second season of Westworld. According to event permit filings, Warner Bros. Television and DC Comics will host a pop-up experience at downtown Austin for 10 days as well. We also expect Hulu to be there reprising their memorable campaign for The Handmaid’s Tale, as the Emmy-winning series is set to return in a month.

Every year, dozens of indie movies get their premieres at SXSW in the hope of securing a distributor. This year will largely be the same, except for one company that will be on everyone’s mind — MoviePass. In January, the company behind the fast-growing subscription-based movie ticketing service surprised Hollywood by launching MoviePass Ventures, a wholly-owned subsidiary founded to co-acquire films with film distributors. So far, the company has acquired American Animals in partnership with The Orchard at the Sundance Film Festival. Will it strike again at SXSW?

In addition to MoviePass, the entertainment industry will no doubt also be talking about the increasing competition from the on-demand streaming services as well as the impact they have on viewer behaviors. Netflix has announced it will be spending over $8 billion on content in 2018 as it plans to release 80 original films and around 700 series this year. It is already outspending all digital video competitors and many TV networks, and it will be interesting to hear how the industry insiders gathered in Austin plan to deal with that.

A Breakout Mobile AR App

The recent release of various mobile augmented reality platforms, including Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, have laid a solid foundation for mobile AR to find a suitable consumer use case and give rise to the first breakout AR app after Pokémon Go. And where else would be better for such an app to burst out onto the scene than the festival that propelled the likes of Twitter, Foursquare, and Meerkat into the mainstream spotlight?

The convergence of a large crowd of early-adopting and innovation-minded attendees at SXSW has historically served as a hotbed for new apps to take off, especially considering the functional value of an AR-powered navigation app like this one would provide for the event-goers. That being said, SXSW has not had a breakout app in years, and even the last big one (Meerkat in 2015) was gone less than a year later due to the fierce competition from Twitter and Facebook.

As a side note, it seems almost certain that AR will continue to take the spotlight away from VR at this SXSW, evidenced by the decreased presence of VR startups on this year’s event schedule. As we laid out in a recent piece addressing the VR content industry, VR simply doesn’t fit neatly into pre-existing distribution channels, which makes it quite inaccessible for most consumers. Until it figures that out, VR’s path towards mainstream adoption remains unclear, which means a lot of the industry attention and capitals is now shifting to AR for the time being.

Brand Activism

Political issues took center stage at SXSW last year, as many a panel discussion focused on the fall out of the 2016 election and the consequences of an increasingly polarizing political climate. In addition to the existing programming on politics, civic activism, and government tech, the festival also added a two-day event focusing on Tech under the Trump administration. In addition, several panels also addressed Silicon Valley’s diversity problem following revelations about Uber’s sexist corporate culture.

This year, we expect those themes to carry over and perhaps even evolve into something more actionable. Debates over issues like net neutrality and gender inequality will most likely return as hot topics while gun control may emerge as a main talking point this year following the movement started by the Parkland students. Another main political theme of the event could be the ongoing backlash against big tech, in particular the major social media platforms, for disinformation and public manipulation. The world is waiting to see what Facebook and Twitter will do to address the “techlash” that they’ve been facing this year.

Since the last SXSW, many more brands have realized how important it is to champion social causes in their marketing efforts and communicate to their customers that their corporate values are aligned with theirs. It will be interesting to see how many brands are willing to take a stand at Austin, a progressive city in a red state, and try to earn some goodwill and consumer trust with cause marketing.

Better On-Demand Rides

One defining feature of last year’s SXSW was the complete chaos of the ride-hailing market as Uber and Lyft both exited the city due to municipal regulations. Half a dozen of local ride-sharing and taxi-hailing apps vyed for event-goers, yet none worked particularly well beyond giving attendees choice paralysis. This year, however, things should be a lot better with Uber and Lyft back in town. The attendees won’t have many local alternatives to choose from, either. Local ride-hailing startup Fasten announced it will shut down ahead of SXSW in Austin while Fare had closed its business last summer.

Besides the re-consolidation of the ride-sharing market, Austin may also see a spike in on-demand drivers during the festival as GM brings its short-term car rental service Maven to Austin to allow freelancing drivers who don’t own a car, or simply don’t want to drive their own during SXSW. In addition, we may see some self-driving cars rolling into Austin, as several major players in the auto industry have started road testing, which Texas lawmakers allow and Austin is eager to embrace.

The Shifting Focus of SXSW

At a time when more and more people in the industry start to question whether it is still worth it to go to SXSW, we believe there is still value for innovation-minded marketers to make the trip.

Starting out as “spring break for nerds,” the 31-year-old SXSW festival has a long-standing reputation for being cutting-edge and a little weird. In recent years, however, the festival has been largely normalized by an influx of media attention, brand activations, and marketing delegates, which has drawn its fair share of criticisms from the locals. Such normalization propelled the festival to the national stage, yet also made it a little boring.

It is up to the attendees to define their experience at the 10-day festival. As we enter a maturing employment stage of mobile technologies, SXSW may no longer be the festival where marketers go to discover the “next big thing” in digital innovation. Nevertheless, it is still an awesome cultural event that is great for getting a sense of the industry zeitgeist and media futures.



The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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