16 Things We Learned At SXSW 2016

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It's been 48 hours since Adrian and I touched down from our trip to SXSW Interactive, and our heads are still abuzz. Before the rainy Boston weather washes away all the Austin sunshine, here are a few takeaways from the conference:

1. VR Is Everywhere

No SXSW exhibit would be complete without a virtual reality demonstration. After enough virtual bike rides and tours of Vegas hotels, it all started to feel a little ridiculous. But the novelty of the technology is starting to wear thin – brands will need to deliver robust and engaging content on these platforms if VR is ever going to be relevant.

2. Great Barbecue Can Change Your Life

Don't even get me started on the sweet and tangy sauce at Terry Black's Barbecue. Boston has some excellent food these days, but for truly transcendent smoked meat, you need to get out of New England.

3. Bull**** Is Also Everywhere

In an engaging (and extremely well-attended) session, Jon Favreau, Jon Jones, and Nina Scovell attributed the onslaught of meaningless, jargony language that has pervaded our professional world to an overabundance of caution. The opposite of B.S. is honesty and authenticity, and expressing honesty and authenticity is inherently risky. We have to avoid falling back on empty, trite statements if we ever hope to communicate effectively and memorably.

4. "Millennial" Is A Mindset

At Libretto, we lost our patience with sweeping generalizations about the so-called millennial generation a long time ago. Refinery29 CEO Philippe von Borries argued that the attributes marketers and social psychologists tend to apply to Gen Y in fact bleed across age groups. Self-expression, global connectedness, a broader sense of purpose – these are issues that concern people from 21-year-old college seniors to 87-year-old grandmothers who love to go to raves.

5. The Worst Traffic You've Ever Experienced Could Always Be Worse

Have you ever spent twenty minutes in an Uber a little over an hour before a flight and still only gone around the block?

6. Branded Content Is Also Everywhere

Spread across Austin are branded "houses" organized by companies such as Google, IBM, Mashable, McDonald's, and of course, HBO. They ply you with free stuff – including food and drink – in the hopes you'll forget you're being sold to (but still retain the positive sentiments towards their brand). The promotion is hardly subtle: one exec from a company that rhymes with "Shmaceshmook" ended her talk by literally playing an ad for her employer. But it's not hard to see why the brands pull out all the stops – everyone eats it up (see above).

7. Analog Is Surging

At least if you go by the number of talks on handmade communications and the value of physical objects. American Greetings even converted an entire storefront on 6th Street into their Analog exhibit, which featured typewriters attendees could use to write letters, calligraphers, and artist Michael-Birch Pierce doing freehand portraits using a sewing machine. Technology in and of itself is no longer a novelty – even the SXSW crowd is lusting after something that surprises and delights, regardless of the medium used to deliver it.

8. Effort Makes A Difference

Two of the aforementioned talks on analog media hammered home the same message: the greater the visible effort put into communications, the more memorable and impactful the message will be. As Ogilvy & Mather's Max Maclean and Ran Stallard demonstrated, companies that have used handwritten communications with their audience have witnessed skyrocketing engagement. It isn't just handwriting that catches people's eye, though: high-touch packaging and design makes a huge difference.

9. Human Feet Are Physiological Marvels – But They Still Have Limitations

If you ever consider going to SXSW, for God's sake wear the most comfortable shoes you have. Even with all the gel cushioning in the world, you'll probably still be in pain. You will walk and stand and walk and stand and walk some more and then stand a bit more and then walk even more.

10. You Will Miss Most of What's Happening

SXSW is basically the world's biggest FOMO Zone. We made an ambitious schedule when we arrived, and even then we were sure we'd be missing the best stuff. It takes more time than you might think to walk between venues, lines for sessions (or the restroom) will be longer than expected, and sometimes all manner of forces will conspire against you. Some things we would have liked to see – but didn't – include: a talk by J.J. Abrams on robots, an anechoic chamber art installation, and oh right – the freakin' President.

11. Gen Z Is Taking Over

Millennials are passé (and also not really a thing, as indicated above). Sessions about Gen Z dominated the space, and with good reason: by some accounts, the oldest members of this generation will be applying for and entering college soon, which means those of us who work in higher ed best pay attention (and sign up for Snapchat, apparently).

12. It Doesn't Have To Be a Revelation To Be Worthwhile

Some of the points made by the speakers seemed so intuitive that it felt like I had heard them before. But sometimes it's useful to hear other people articulate ideas that you already had a sense of. It helps solidify your own thoughts – and validate that your head's in the right place.

13. There's an App For That

When you bring together tens of thousands of techies, each with their own game-changing idea, you're bound to run into some overlapping concepts. What you don't think about, though, is the tiny ways they all deviate. Not entirely satisfied with your email client? No worries – there are 50 others that look just like it (except for that one pet peeve of yours). It makes it a real challenge to determine if you're using the right software. It also makes the exhibit hall extra crowded.

14. Get Ready For Wifi-Connected Everything

Here's an appealing concept: In the not-too-distant future, you'll ask your car for directions to a restaurant downtown; your car will let the restaurant know you're on the way and about when you'll be there; the restaurant will reserve an Internet-connected parking space for your arrival; and then the parking space will update your car's GPS to make sure you get where you need to be. We could probably dedicate an entire blog post to the Internet of Things, because it's coming fast and it's bringing with it some significant implications, as we heard from Kiip founder Brian Wong.

15. And Get Ready For Everything to Be Smarter Than You Are

The Internet of Things won't just be ubiquitous, it will be practically omniscient. IBM's Watson came up with this sophisticated personality analysis based only on Adrian's meager Twitter corpus. In a separate session, Dag Kittlaus, the creator of Siri and current CEO of Viv, discussed how his company seeks to bring artificial intelligence to the mainstream. Worried we might be on the verge of creating SkyNet or HAL 9000? Mr. Kittlaus assures us, "We don't think that will happen." Not quite as comforting as we'd hoped.

16. Remain Weird

In a city so proud of its weirdness, we'd be remiss not to make some mention of it. Eamonn Carey reminded us to take advantage of mischief and whimsy in brand communications, citing the fact that the average American downloads 0 apps per month. Once you've got your audience's attention, you'd better keep them entertained. The city itself was proof of this concept – we ran into enough inimitably quirky people over the weekend that we're sure to look back on Austin fondly.

They say that sleep is crucial to memory formation. After a weekend of nonstop action, we're going to give that theory a test run. Catch you on the flip side, South By.

File under SXSW, Branding, Marketing, Advertising

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