Image Credit: sxsw.com/press
We heard quite a bit of lamenting this year that SXSW is not what it used to be — from cute tweets announcing how “over SXSW” folks were before the festival started to questions of whether the event was worth so much focus, hype, and investment. These detractors complain that it’s no longer the place we’ll see the next blockbuster startup launched or witness the birth of the next megatrend; that it’s been bought by big brands trying to purchase a slice of “cool.”
But there’s a massive blind spot in this pessimism. Yes, those who came to SXSW searching for the definitive megatrend that will define the rest of the year likely left disappointed. Megatrend hunting is attractive to people with a broadcast media mentality. They approach SXSW framing it as a big data problem – looking for a reductive set of insights poised to change the world. The sheer volume of sessions (over 800) to choose from, the variety of topics, and the velocity and pace of the festival make it impossible for any one person to process and absorb it all. Instead, SXSW is a smorgasbord — and serendipity dictates what you end up with on your plate.
The beauty of SXSW is precisely that it is a sprawling festival about nothing, and everything, at the same time. Over five days, 30,000 people from many disciplines, with varied interests and diverse backgrounds, young and old, converge on Austin to share knowledge, learn, network, and, yes, party till the wee hours of the morning. If you are open to serendipity, this is one of the best times and places in the year to expose yourself to it.
For example, I set out to immerse myself in sessions related to the maker movement and Internet of things. As a result of scanning session titles too quickly, I accidentally found myself in a session entitled “Lights, Camera, Action: MAKER LABS Live in Austin”. Turns out, the session was about Maker Studios, the Disney owned gig that helps independent short form video content producers make better and more engaging content. They spoke with the creators of the Walking Dead about how their platform and data improved content. The session had nothing to do with the maker movement, at least in the way I’d thought about it previously, but their talk opened my eyes to independent content producers as makers, combining their art with data driven insights to produce something of greater value. My serendipitous error would never have happened at a more focused event like maker faire, or through web research.
Talking about mistakes, another recurring theme was how important it is to fail. Astro Teller of Google X observed, “If you’re not failing at least some of the time, you could be learning faster.” I heard the same theme from Todd Yellin at Netflix, who talked about the redesign of their browsing experience for kids. After many months spent designing and building a beautiful, colorfully busy experience their research said kids should love, the experience simply did not perform in A/B tests. They scrapped it, but instead of sweeping it under a rug, as many brands might do, they used learning to avoid a major investment in a complex redesign when they launched in Japan. There’s an important lesson in this for us as marketers: Be bold, take risks, fail, learn.
Another ingredient for serendipity is diversity. We lament just how little of it we have in the advertising and tech sectors. And to be honest, while gender diversity was abundant at SXSW, racial diversity was scant. But I did take away some important insights, like how relying on employee referrals actually exacerbates the diversity problem. A panelist observed that 91 percent of a white person’s social network is also white. Seems obvious in hindsight, but it had not occurred to me how changing the mix of sourcing in our recruiting efforts would yield immediate impact.
For me, SXSW 2015 did not disappoint. I met some really weird people. I learned a lot. I enjoyed several moments of serendipity. And I’ll be back next year.
Sheldon Monteiro is CTO of marketing agency SapientNitro. He is also co-lead of SapientNitro’s Chief Marketing Technology Officer University.
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