Reflections on SXSW 2019

March 15, 2019

SXSW once again stirred intense debate on questions of global significance—questions that, if answered, promise to shape the very foundation of our future on this planet (and beyond!). By the end of the first week, one eternal question remained:

Does anyone know how to ride a motorized scooter safely?

SXSW 2019 trends

Image courtesy of SXSW/Aaron Rogosin

It’s a question that’s likely to stump experts for years to come. So, while we wait for someone to solve that conundrum, here are a few observations from this year’s event…

Politicians Rally (Pander?) for the Millennial Vote.
It was a D.C. takeover this year at SXSW. Many of the top Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 presidency made an early campaign tour stop in America’s weirdest city, dominating the show’s early news cycle. So, who “won” in early polls? It was D.C. outsider and congressional newbie Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who stole the show and drew the biggest crowds away from those with more near-term presidential aspirations. Like Barack Obama before her, Ocasio-Cortez captured the attention of young people in a way her more established peers struggled to replicate. Perhaps there’s something to the authenticity of the message? The unapologetic and fresh perspective that doesn’t feel overly polished? Whatever it is, she’s connecting with people and it’s emerging as a case study in engagement.

The Robots Are Coming.
Friend or foe? That remains the essential question technologists pondered this year at SXSW. Year over year, discussion about the proliferation and use cases of artificial intelligence grows as experts grapple with our increasingly blended future of man and machine. Many experts touted the virtues of a collaborative approach to human/AI interaction at this year’s event—intersections with film, art, marketing, music, and other industries. While doomsayer warnings of a robot takeover remain ever-present, the AI conversation at SXSW took on a decidedly optimistic view of humanity’s future alongside technology.

Guerrilla Tactics Work.
Prior to my visit to Austin, I had never heard of the forthcoming Amazon Prime show, “Good Omens,” but now, I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite show of all time—and it doesn’t even air until May. With white- and black-winged angels skulking around the streets of Austin calling out “merry apocalypse,” the street-side activity beyond the booth sparked intrigue and made a lasting impact. Of course, Amazon also executed a massive activation for the show, but if you missed out on the show’s official presence, it was hard to remain entirely ignorant of the upcoming premiere. Something to consider for brands seeking additional attention outside of standard pop-up activations.

The Aforementioned Scooters… Ermehgerd.
If you rode a scooter at SXSW without incident, congratulations. Downtown Austin was littered with scooters of all kinds, which can be a problem when it’s also filled with cars, bikes and pedestrians. While shared modes of transportation continue to roll out across the country as a solution to traffic congestion, and as an answer to consumer demand for commuting alternatives, the ongoing roll out of motorized scooters at SXSW fell somewhere between chaotic and dangerous. At SXSW 2019, the scooter infestation became a public menace and a topic du jour for all the wrong reasons. Technology brands trying to infiltrate new markets and build trust must seek permission and earn their reputation (as Ketchum has often shared). SXSW represents a massive step backward for scooter brands that failed to nurture relationships with several crucially important stakeholders and instead, put the very consumers they serve in great peril.

I’d love to hear your perspective on the best of the best and what fell short of the mark at this year’s festival. Drop me a line, let’s talk!

Chip Scarinzi is a senior vice president in Ketchum’s technology sector, where he draws from more than 17 years of experience in consumer and enterprise tech. A dyed in the wool sports fan, he is also the author of Diehards, a non-fiction book that explores the evolution of sports fandom.