The Deep Impact of SXSW

13 March 03

“New ideas require old buildings” -Richard Florida quoting Jane Jacobs

I just spent five nights and four days at South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. SXSW hosts three consecutive and complimentary industry conferences every March. I attended the Interactive conference, (there are also film and music conferences), where I heard from and mingled with some of the best minds–and hearts–in the new-media sphere. Many of these folks are true pioneers–they are clearly defining what can be done in a new human space and, further what it means to do these things. The common misperception is that the Interactive segment of SXSW is populated by geeks. My perception is quite different. I met entrepreneurs, artists, writers, editors, publishers, consultants, ad people, and academics. If these are geeks, then geeks were everywhere. What it really is, is a community that congregates in the Austin Convention Center for a week every year, then maintains and grows itself via the very webs we, as individuals, build.

Then there’s the impact of Austin itself–a truly dynamic American city. Austin is in touch with what’s good. Known as “The Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin has music coming out of its pores. And when the music is not live, one can always turn to trusty 107.1 KGSR, a station that represents this musical city well. Tuesday’s keynote speaker, Richard Florida, spoke of how a city is classified by its musical identity. Along with other key indicators like acceptance of gays, artists, and all kinda freaks, Florida and his team at Carnegie Mellon have created what they call “The Bohemian Index.” A high rating on this index, Florida argues, is in direct proportion to the economic vitality of the community. He spoke of how the tech boom happened largely in Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and New York, the same five cities that also rate the highest on The Bohemian Index. This is rich stuff.

As great as Florida is, Mikela and Phillip Tarlow, futurists, marketing consultants, and coauthors of Digital Aboriginal provided the most fascinating panel. They began their presentation by projecting two images on the overhead screen. The first was a photo of an aboriginal circle of about ten men sharing in the telling of a story. The next image was a photo Phillip had taken from SXSW ’02, depicting the very same tribal arrangement of people sitting in a circle on the floor and absorbed in the very same activity, the sharing of story via their laptop computers. The Tarlow’s made a flurry of cogent points touching on subjects like “The Death of Advertising As We Know It,” the need for authenticity in all endeavors, corporate and private, and the coming return to the values found in an oral, not written, culture. Technologies like TiVo, they argue, force the big marketers on TV to rethink their media strategies. If everyone is able to skip over commercials, a new form of marketing communications must and will be born.

I believe what we now call Interactive may be better termed “Conversational Media.” To speak with authenticity and honesty about a product today, the consumer must have a voice. That is, consumers are done being spoken to. Consumers are smart, savvy individuals who seek community and often find it in brands. The brands that flourish tomorrow will be the ones that allow for a back-and-forth discussion. This means Marketing Directors everywhere must relinquish control of the message. Instead the message will be developed on the street. Smart marketers will then support, not exploit, that.

An example I’d like to create for one of my clients, Coors Brewing Company, is a community blog on A blog is short for web log and web logs are the hottest thing going on the Web today (along with delivery of rich media content). If Coors Light were to take my advice and let go of the message they want to put out and instead, allow bloggers to show us the message that actually exists now, we could then work together to refine the tone of the communications we do create for traditional media. The bottom line is this: if you want to tap your real brand identity as a marketer today, first engage the consumer in multiple ongoing conversations. Then listen and do what they say. It’s simple.

Interactive has been seen as a separate reality by almost all agencies up to this point in time–many times for good reason, for traditional marketers know little about the Internet and how to play by the new rules therein. For example, marketers today do not understand that the idea of stickiness or sticky eyeballs is actually contrary to what the Web is all about. Marketers want visitors to their web site to be viewers like they are on TV, but in fact they are “users.” We all use information we find particularly useful on the Web and discard the rest. If a brand’s site does not allow for a true user experience, it serves no purpose other than as a listing for phone numbers and addresses.

I’m pushing for total integration of Interactive, or what I prefer to call Conversational Media, into the agency fold. Precisely because the open flow of information between marketer and customer and vice versa is the centerpiece of the new communications structure, it’s now time to elevate Interactive to its rightful place in the mix. It’s time to blur the distinction between an online art director and a traditional art director, for instance. It’s time for every account person and creative staffer to fully grasp Interactive’s role in building and sustaining enduring relationships with our client’s customers–online and off.

Others who had a positive impact on my stay in Austin: Hotel San Jose · Joshua Davis · Mark Hall of Ed-X · Dave Evans of GSD+M · Josh Copeland of Tribal DDB · Kelly Kiefer of Puppet Show New Media · Central Market · David Weinberger · Little City · Frank Cassanova of Apple · Darby Strong · Danni Leigh · LaLa’s · Carmelo’s · Dale Watson · Guero’s · Cory Doctorow of EFF · Heybale · The Continental Club · Ego’s · Heather Gold · and Thomas Scoville.