23rd March 2016

What I learned at SXSW (and why I’ve still got “South by” FOMO*)

Every year, Austin, Texas is literally transformed by global tech, film and music festival, South by Southwest (SXSW). Some 30,000 people from all over the world, many of them uber-geeks and digital and content creatives, descend on the city to be inspired by the “latest cutting-edge technology and thinking”. A bold claim, but let’s remember that “South by” (as the regulars call it) is held in a city with the motto “Keep Austin Weird” – and it doesn’t disappoint.

I’ve long been a believer that creative and innovative thinking – for whatever application – flourishes in open minds that are exposed to all kinds of stimulus (when was the last time you came up with a good idea staring at a computer screen?). This is clearly a mantra that South by agrees with. The line-up was immense and the most eclectic I’ve seen: think Obama in one hall, next door to social media star, Grumpy Cat (er, yes that’s right – it’s his second appearance I believe), next door to Under Armour CEO, Kevin Plank, next door to JJ Abrams, next door to someone you’ve never heard of who’s got a genuinely fascinating take on unstoppable trends that are changing the world.

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As a first timer at the event, I was overwhelmed by acute FOMO at every turn: when you finally settle on a schedule, pangs of doubt kick in over whether that ‘better living through data and evidence’ seminar you couldn’t make at 12.30pm was going to change your life. It’s enough to bring you out in a cold sweat.

My expectations were managed in advance though. ‘Don’t expect to get much out of your first visit’, was the rather underwhelming message from many blogs I read in advance of the event. Thankfully, however, the opposite was true, and I think South by has a lot to offer B2B communicators. Here are my top five SXSW takeaways that every B2B brand needs to know:

  1. Customer Experience

Relentlessly relevant brands are the ones that matter most in people’s lives. The successful brands of the future will be the ones that understand how to use content and tech – video, animation, VR, AR, data – to create great customer experiences and meaningful emotional connections.

And there are no exemptions. Even if you’re in a market place of one, B2B brands are competing for audiences’ finite time and attention with ‘powerful’ consumer brands that are already (working on) getting this right.

B2B brands need to get creative, and develop content and experiences that add value to the personal or professional lives of their audiences – entertain them or help them do their jobs better. It can feel like a bold step for some brands, particularly those operating in a more conservative space, but listen to your audience, they will tell you – or show you via their online behaviour – what they’re interested in.

  1. Virtual & Augmented Reality

VR and AR was everywhere at South by and is set to open up a completely new way for B2B brands to bring their products and concepts to life.

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One example is Microsoft’s HoloLens, the first fully untethered, holographic computer, which will be available from the end of March and enables the user to interact with high-definition holograms. The technology is still expensive as a consumer product at a little over £2,000 per unit, but it’s easy to see how early adopter B2B brands could use this kind of wearable tech to help customers visualise products, applications and benefits on a never before possible scale.

  1. Wearable Tech

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The trend for wearable tech is gathering pace. While VR and AR is exciting, it’s still relatively new technology and the experience using goggles is more suited to short sequences and certain specific applications. Wearable tech on the wrist, however, is already becoming established in the mainstream. Samsung talked about its Gear S2 watch, which is being sold as a tool for managing fitness, as well as daily life. Not dissimilar from the Apple watch.

There are lots of opportunities for brands to push paid-for content through this kind of device and, while there are obvious wins for consumer brands here, B2B brands can also “surprise and delight” audiences with timely content – around events, major industry events/announcements etc.

  1. Beneficence

Forget CSR, beneficence is how strong, successful brands show they care. CSR-wash has created a me-too landscape that waters down corporate efforts to be seen as “good” and “giving back”.

Beneficence is the rebrand CSR has been crying out for. While notably low-tech compared with many topics discussed at the event, this idea has the power to revive boards and employees on a really important issue. “Brand beneficence” is a measure of brand personality, and a powerful tool in creating that all important emotional connection with millennial audiences – as well as doing the right thing.

But it mustn’t go the way of CSR and become a tick-box exercise. Real brand beneficence will go to the core of a company and show its real commitment and belief in doing good for employees, customers, the environment and communities.

  1. Millennials

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Born between 1982 and 2000, millennials are in or will soon be entering the workplace – and many are already in purchasing or decision-making roles, so B2B brands need to make sure they are reaching and engaging this audience.

To get this right, there are some key shifts in thinking and behaviour to acknowledge. One of the most important is that this generation knows privacy in a completely different way from the generation before. They want to overshare on social media and they are happy for brands to know personal details about them because they understand (or expect) that brands will use this data to create the best possible experiences that are tailored for them and add value to their lives.

In terms of advertising, only a tiny six per cent of millennials think traditional style advertising is credible. However, 95 per cent of them consider peers the most credible source of information, which means that building strong social communities on digital platforms that advocate your brand is only going to become more fundamental for B2B brands.

The rise of mobile is nothing short of phenomenal, particularly when you compare it with take up of radio and TV. Young people use their phone up to 157 times a day – so it’s no surprise that 83 per cent of time online is spent on apps. This sends a very strong message that it’s not just about a B2B brand having a presence in the digital space, but about understanding the world that your audiences are living in, and creating content that is going to make a real difference to them.

And if you need a sure-fire way to identify a millennial? Ask them what this image is:

A: A 3.5inch floppy disk

B: A save icon

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*Fear of missing out (for those non-millennials among you)

By Sam Gregory, B2B Managing Director