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Five insights from SXSW: Wearables, millennials, live streaming and swords

I would like to say receiving texts in the middle of the night saying “I just waved a sword around a giant picture of my face to make feathers and antlers!” are completely surprising, but during SXSW it’s anyone’s game really. And whilst I quietly napped here in New Zealand, my stateside friends were wrangling their way around booths and experiences, concerts and talks disseminating the latest ‘big thing’.

For the uninitiated, SXSW takes place every year in Austin, Texas – always interesting because of its well earned place at the cornerstone of the intersection of music, film and interactive at a time where the three are increasingly blurred. Originally formed in 1987, ‘South-By’ grows year on year, and is recognised as a must-be-at event that has had its part to play in the success of Twitter, Foodspotting and for a while there Foursquare (does anyone use that anymore?)

This year, the interactive part of the event was a bit of a grab bag – referring to it ‘as a mishmash, just like the media and marketing industry’. They aren’t wrong. Trending topics covered everything from content marketing and health, through to social and equality. We had big players revealing new plays in everything from payments (Facebook) to logins (Yahoo) and the inevitable crazy s**t. So if you like me, were sleeping whilst SXSW interactive partied on I have put together five insights from SXSW with a bunch of links, for deeper delving if you so wish…

1) Wonderful (or woeful) wearables
In a conversation that seemingly will not go away, wearables were once again touted as the subject du-jour this SXSW. Clothes embedded with solar panels which can charge your smartphone may well be handy at Coachella, but in light of the (possible) defeat of Google Glass, it’s really hard not to be cynical about it all. Ring Zero (Logbar) popped up again (yep… those guys) along with a plethora of other tech bits and pieces you put on your body. If I sound wary it’s probably because I am viewing the passion for wearables through the lens of my previous career in fashion, and plentifull critiques surrounding the privacy of IOT. It is notoriously hard to get people to wear anything, let alone something that can track their every move and report it back to a third party. That said, if you are keen to strap some computers to your body, there was plenty to get excited about. As many of these products are still in their infancy or yet to hit the market in a big commercial release, those with an eye to pushing wearables can keep an eye out on the price effective Misfit / Swarvoski collaboration, whilst those with more Yeezy like budgets can have a look into the Apple Watch. Looking forward, wearables are set to enjoy a bit of a boost with an overall trend toward wellness, so keep an eye out for a bunch of new fitness and health trackers breaking through this year, with the longer game belonging to the more serious realm of medical innovations. 

2) Live in the live-stream
The week started with a whole bunch of anticipation about Meerkat, an app that let users live stream video directly onto twitter. The functionality was easy, the service stable – what’s not to love? In the weeks previous we had seen Meerkat live streams pop up everywhere, and as the SXSW interactive opened, their signature yellow clad team stood out amongst the hordes. Then on Friday, Twitter confirmed it had cut off Meerkats lifeline – its access to the platforms social graph. Shortly after that announcement came the further announcement that Twitter had snapped up a competing service – Periscope. It’s not all doom and gloom for Meerkat, who have emerged as the sort of underdog that you root for during game time as they are 2 points down in the final moments. Meerkat or no, the one thing that came through this week is video, especially live streaming will be a thing. You can add it to your video strategy right next to Snapchat, which now has Discover in its tool belt. Meanwhile 500Videos will have the beautiful mess converts happy, with an app that lets you draw on video content in a cute, twee, Pinterest friendly sort of way. 

3) Brands, brands, brands
Like most cool things that people create with an authentic feel and a friendly collective movement, it can take people aback when it’s obviously being leveraged for marketing purposes. Everyone likes a campfire sing along, but a campfire sing along sponsored by your local marshmallow company can feel less cuddly and more futuristic nightmare. Obviously SXSW is not impervious to the creep of marketing, so the plethora of brands (some unrelated) present this year put some on edge.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love marketing and brand (hence why i choose to do that for a living) so I know that in the case of SXSW, brands that take up booths pay for the privilege, funnelling more money into SXSW proper, enabling them to attract bigger speakers or leverage more spectacle. I can’t help but think that people’s uncomfortable feelings about this is less a complaint about commercial context and more on thoughtful marketing. Maybe people will notice you much more positively if you come through the door with a little humbleness, authenticity and some relevant messaging, or in lieu of that – a juice bar. If you can’t offer something relevant, be prepared for the trolls. A stark reminder for anyone marketing anything these days.  

4) MILLENNIALS, McDonalds & Drones
A big topic of discussion around SXSW was, how do we talk/interact/instruct these wiley millennials, and its possibly this question that fed into a bit of the kerfuffle with the brands representation. It has been proposed that the reason why McDonalds made its unlikely appearance at the event, was less about its plan to deliver food via drones and more about getting onside with this younger, edgier, notoriously harder to market to demographic.

Search for ‘millennials’ in the SXSW schedule and you come up with 55 results, covering everything from ‘Solving the Millennial Content Challenge’ to ‘Youth Activism in a Post-Snowden World – tags: Millennials’ and the social chatter reflected that. For those of us building innovative tech businesses, or fostering startups, the millennial question is usually one of, exploiting a unique need of the demographic to build a business (Uber) or attracting teams to your innovative business. Whilst there was lots of chatter about what millennials do and don’t want/like/need in their marcoms/content; the best insights have been around the attracting talent angle, this piece from sums up the topic nicely, without veering wildly into the all too common ‘these crazy kids!!’ territory. Need I remind you all, your parents did not understand you either, and you all turned out OK, marketers still figured out how to sell to you, the world kept turning.

5) Innovation in Schools 
Whilst conversation raged on about all things tech and interactive, I kept coming back to a piece I read about SXSWedu, an educational conference that takes place before the interactive portion. Here at GridAKL we are passionate about creating entry points for young people into innovative industries, from traditional tech based roles through to creative problem solving around everything from agriculture and farming to robotics. So when I chanced upon this article about new frameworks for learning, that highlight gamification, online schools and in school coding programmes it made my heart soar. Big picture thinking that is real food for thought.

Anya is the resident wrangler of communications and brand for GridAKL, when she is not working she is reading everything she can about random goings on in the industry. If you have random news you think she should know – tweet her