Contagion @ SXSW: three key trends this year

Another SXSW Interactive has flown by here in Austin, Texas. On the Tuesday night of SXSW the city transforms from a Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue digital lovefest to the most hipster music festival type vibe you could imagine. From the clichés of nerds and ad wankers to thousands of budding DJs and bands, it’s the right time to start to reflect on the incredible knowledge sharing and inspiration and try and make sense of where the business world is heading.

This year the Kiwi contingent at SXSW grew again. We hosted two Kiwi meet ups, the SXSW outpost of the ‘flat white meet up’ in New York and San Francisco and the original ‘Interactive to Music’ handover getting agency types, start ups and American expats together to share their SXSW story. Amongst the chaos, I’ve tried to compile the key relevant trends that got everyone talking, blogging and yes, of course snapping, that businesses need to take notice of.

@tommybates co-hosting the Kiwis at SXSW flat white meet up this morning. #SXSW #sxswi #austin #flatwhite #kiwisatsxsw

A photo posted by Contagion NZ (@contagionagency) on

1. Social messaging is the exciting new brand frontier 

It’s no secret that social media is everywhere. Facebook and YouTube are now omnipresent the majority of peoples’ daily rituals and are therefore a consistent layer in a media plan or communications strategy. However, both were founded in the age of desktop and are now saturated with grandmas, bosses and yes, advertising. 

With this cultural context in mind, people are shifting and under 35s – millennial, generation ‘Y’, and digital natives – have already become obsessed with mobile-first messaging apps to connect with the people, brands and things they love.

Recent research has suggested people are using Instagram for their self expression and Snapchat, and other messaging apps, for connection; roles that Facebook and Twitter used to play and own. Facebook has recognised this with the acquisition of WhatsApp, and Instagram, and a high profile failed shot at snapping up Snapchat.

With this knowledge, brands are now investing heavily in trying to figure out how to tap into this user behavior.

Snapchat in particular has become a popular platform for brands to target young’uns, with its continued evolution in trying to attract ad dollars. With success such as ASB’s Snap Scholarship campaign and brands like Durex having more cut through than on other social channels it’s a great place for engagement. Even the White House is now snapping

Brands are also starting to tap into WhatsApp for both CRM [customer relationship management]and news, with British Vogue using it for breaking updates

Probably the biggest app on everyone’s lips though is Facebook Messenger. Following in the footsteps of China’s WeChat, Facebook is trying to build an ecosystem inside messenger which allows users to do anything from book an Uber or chat with customer service or in Disney’s case, Miss Piggy

Facebook has also started looking at ads in messenger, as it moves all of its apps toward a more Facebook-like experience, including Instagram.

Many are saying this could be the biggest development for brands since Apple’s App store launched.

2. The search for the ‘unique’ and the ‘real’ in an age of mass content production

Some people reading this may not remember the days before the web. My first real memories are growing up in Dunedin in the ’90s as a teenager, downloading rare Pearl Jam B-Sides on Napster, which took all day at school to download a shit quality MP3.

What this shift to digital entertainment and memory capturing has meant is that people are looking for real things in an age where photos, music, opinions and yes, brand experiences, are so common. It may have come to some as a surprise then, that the two most popular Amazon Christmas presents weren’t e-readers or iPhones but vinyl record players and Polaroid cameras. This aspiration for real and tangible is something that all of us who still love a good magazine or book will appreciate.

Brands are also tapping into this need to ‘search for real’ phenomenon through both technology, using live streaming apps like Snapchat, and experiences to create real, unedited encounters that bring some form of ‘aura’ or uniqueness to the brand in a world where anyone can roll out content through social. MTV SnapDoco and Taco Bell have done this well in the United States. 

It comes as no surprise that Snapchat was the hottest platform this year at SXSW, even without an official presence, as it understands the social currency of a unique experience.

Its geo-filters were the hippest, accessible social device there and they were the most talked about brand on Twitter.

3. Virtual reality is now ‘mainstream’ but WTF does it fit in?

Everyone from Samsung, Dell and even McDonald’s showed off VR experiences at SXSW and Fortune magazine called it the tipping point for VR.​

But the question is how will it be used effectively and not just as a gimmick. There are plenty of examples out there of brands using VR/360-degree video like this Infiniti video that allows you to experience a drive closer to the real road trip you dreamed of.

But what about for the every day brand?

The big question that Fast Company asks is: can VR deliver more emotive and thrilling experiences than a movie or a game? Well yes it can, but where and how these experiences are delivered is the big unsolved question. Not everyone has a headset, or wants to wear one, so is a 360-degree video better than normal video on a smartphone or laptop?

Bumping into the likes of 8i at SXSW, a Kiwi-based company who are pioneering the VR space, suggests that we are on the brink of inspiring, mind-blowing entertainment and storytelling opportunities beyond the geeky or scary perceptions of what we know today. CNN suggested VR was game-changing when it said: “… you’re going to be able to go from a two-dimensional screen and actually walk into a website. It’s going to change everything”. But for marketers and the general public, maybe this is a scary brave new world.

  • See more of our SXSW coverage here

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