Five Digital Communication Trends from SXSW

Five Digital Trends from SXSWThe problem when something is hyped beyond all recognition is that you expect the impossible. And when it comes to hype, SXSW is right up there.

So I went to SXSW for the first time last week with conflicted expectations. On the one hand hoping for a silver bullet that would point the way to the future of our industry, but also with a big dose of skepticism as to whether a conference could ever deliver that.

There was no silver bullet. Rather, there was sitting in sessions, listening to the great and the good of the digital industry, and talking to fellow attendees. During this time, I found myself identifying trends that will be fundamentally important to digital communicators over the next 12 to 18 months.

I’m not going to talk about mobile/first screen, wearbles or privacy in isolation. They are certainly trends, but they are such prominent trends that you don’t really need to travel to Austin to pick them up.

Instead, here are five trends that, although less immediately obvious, are important for brands to think about in 2014.

1. Don’t be evil

Google’s famous motto is more relevant today than it has ever been.

Social good was a key theme at SXSW. There was a whole stream dedicated to it, but the issue fed into other parts of the conference too.

The way a brand or organization behaves is more visible than it ever has been in the past. If you act in a way that isn’t ‘good’, you will be found out. It’s not just ‘appearing’ to be good anymore, instead it’s actually walking the walk.

In his keynote, talking about data collection, Edward Snowden said, “Whether you are Google or Facebook, you can do these things in a responsible way where you can still get the value out of these that you need to run your business.”

With so many tools at our fingertips, the boundaries between what is responsible, fair and decent and what is just downright dodgy are eroding.

Julian Assange and Edward Snowden clearly have something to say on this issue. I went to a few other (less well publicized) sessions that focused on social media crisis situations and, while many issues occur without any forewarning, it seems to me that many can be avoided by acting in a reputable way from the first place.

As communicators, our job now is to advise across and throughout a business to protect and uphold reputation.

2. Eyeball hunting

If you believe Eli Pariser, author of the Filter Bubble and CEO at Upworthy, the old adage of ‘create great content and they will come’ just isn’t enough anymore:

“The important thing is to get people to really great content that they love. The headlines are only as good as they accomplish that goal. We don’t do well unless people love it so much that they share it.”

Yes the message is important, but the way you communicate the message is almost as critical.

Upworthy and others are pioneering new ways to reach the public and are encouraging them to engage with content they otherwise might not have had an interest in. We need to become smarter about the way we package our content and the way we deliver it to people.

For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about how he is using Hollywood-grade special effects and an introduction from the President to launch his new series on the history of Space.

3. Smack-down: life-stream versus privacy

No prizes for predicting that privacy and wearables would be big at SXSW.

However, I think there is an interesting issue that sits between the two. While we talk about privacy on the one hand, we also promote wearables and liberal social sharing with the other. Sony’s SmartBand is a bellwether here, as are apps like Timehop.

It stands to reason that if you record key moments, you might also want to create a lifestream like never before and take wearable technology outside the confines of just health and fitness.

So this friction between hyper-sharing and life recording and how that impacts the privacy debate is, to me, more fascinating. Google Glass was everywhere, and we’ve had success using it here at Ketchum recently, but when I saw someone wearing it in the restroom at SXSW, I started to question exactly this issue.

4. What is a brand’s role?

What’s the role of a brand these days? Increasingly, if you look at the marketing campaigns that were publicized at SXSW, you’d be forgiven for being confused. Are brands entertainers, publishers, service providers, and your social conscience? It’s often hard to tell.

This is both an opportunity and something to approach with caution. It’s easy for us to take our eyes off the ball and create great content that engages with consumers, but does very little to really promote and further the brands we work for. Yet on the other hand, you get brand experiences like Nike+ that offer compelling branded services while still building equity and driving sales.

Working out how a brand can add value and engage, while still driving the bottom line, is the new imperative for marketers.

5. Innovation as a differentiator

I have an underlying feeling that, as an industry, we are struggling to really innovate. I think this is due to a number of factors. Digital communication has never been easier to do, so brands are flocking to it. It’s cheap and easy, and the barriers to entry are low.

Take brand marketing at SXSW itself. So many brands all clamoring for attention, but no one is really winning and no one is really doing anything that you could call truly innovative. It pains me to see the level of investment that went into flyers and free drinks (OK, not complaining so much on that one).

It strikes me that our industry is playing out pretty much exactly on those lines. Lots of brands doing the same thing, all of them failing to innovate to succeed.

It’s not easy, but there’s an opportunity here. Those who think differently and innovate with creative solutions are the ones that will succeed. As Steven Johnson, one of the more engaging speakers at this year’s event said in Where Good Ideas Come From:

“Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”

SXSW might not have delivered a silver bullet, but it certainly provided a tangled bank from which great ideas will hopefully flow.