SXSW 2012: What the Future Holds for Online Communication

South by Southwest (SxSW) is one of the biggest marketing, technology and online communications conferences in the world. Held every March in Austin, the conference brings together more than 20,000 of the brightest minds for five days of learning around social media, content creation, public relations, web design, human computer interaction and more. (Even videogames!) From celebrity keynote sessions and small panel discussions to networking events and Hollywood-worthy parties, the conference is about building a better online and digital media world through innovation, creativity and collaboration.

This year several Pierponters were lucky enough to attend – Jen Pearsall, Brian Block, Terry Hemeyer and Mike Gehrig. It was an overwhelming and extremely rewarding five days. And after attending 43 hours of panels and sessions, networking for nearly 35 hours, walking about 44 miles, meeting hundreds of people, presenting at two panels and sending about 500 tweets, we’ve pulled together a few of our major takeaways to share with you.  (You can also check out the short video we put together immediately after the event here.)

We should note: One of the best parts of SXSW is it forces you to step outside your comfort zone and explore topic areas you may not be familiar with. As communications professionals, we’re in the trenches when it comes to creating social media strategies, developing enticing content and analyzing our Google analytics. The sessions that cover these topic areas are interesting, but they often don’t provide us with a lot of new insight. Instead, what we find the most intriguing – and often the most useful – are the sessions outside of our areas of expertise. To keep our minds tuned to our industry as a whole, not just the area we work in, we use SXSW to explore and understand unfamiliar topic areas that still impact our clients. 

So without further ado, the top nuggets from SXSW 2012:

1. No one knows how to measure the ROI of social media. While you do want to ensure that your social media program is effective, it’s important to note that determining full value can be hard to measure! In fact, even the big corporations are struggling with it. (In one session, a Disney marketing exec admitted that even with 30 million likes on Facebook, the company stills has no clear strategy for how to monetize those fans, or even what the estimated value of each “like” is.)   While the ROI of social media may not be black and white, the value of social media can be measured against what your company is working to accomplish. It may not be direct sales, but instead media attention, goodwill branding, fundraising, lobbying, etc. Some of this can’t be quantified, so only trying to create a direct correlation between a social media strategy and arbitrary sales number may undervalue the general brand affinity you’re creating through online relationships.

2. User experience is more important than ever – even if you’re not a designer. During a session entitled “The Secret Lives of Links,” I heard Jared Spool, a leading authority on interface design and technology humanization, discuss how to successfully use links to keep people on your site and engaged. If people can’t find the information they want easily and effectively, they will leave your site. Case in point: 66 percent of ecommerce purchases happen with NO “pogo sticking,” (jumping back and forth between multiple web pages). Another Spool stat shows only 18 percent of people find the information they need on a site when the use the back button. (The back button is literally the button of doom!)   The bottom line is we have to design and create sites to accommodate the way humans behave and seek information. Quite simply, if you don’t give users the content they want in a way that it intuitive and natural to find, they’ll leave your site. Plain and simple.

3. “Big data” is still big. The topic of “big data” remained hot at SXSW, just as it had in 2011, and 2010 and, well, you get the idea. There was more than one session about it and the topic came up frequently in casual conversations we had throughout the week. In a nutshell, big data is about using the data collected – from what we search on Google to what we buy on our credit cards to who we spend the most time talking to on our smartphones – and successfully turning it into useful and valuable information for brands. From retailers to politicians, there is opportunity for almost every organization to use data to predict and suggest behavior. It’s mindboggling, and raises more than one question. (Privacy concerns, anyone?) How we learn to bring this data together into useable information, and then leverage it to impact buying behavior, will be a big topic in the coming years.

4. To really make an impact with your innovation, stop planning and just do it. From product launches to developing new communication strategies, you can’t plan for everything – not only will you inevitably find yourself in “analysis paralysis,” but over-planning stifles innovation and creation. On day one of SXSW we saw a great example of “doing” when the MIT Media Lab discussed how it cultivates its world-renowned community of creation and innovation. Instead of mapping out a detailed plan, its researchers are encouraged to find a problem and tackle it with only a “compass” and general idea of where they want to go. They then embark on a journey of undirected learning that allows new ideas to pop up and be explored.  These ideas often change the way we live – E Ink, used in the Kindle and Nook, as well as the popular video game Guitar Hero, are both spin offs from the lab. While we’re not advocating we completely toss our marketing plans and media lists, we do think it is important to step outside your schedule sometimes and just explore. Read an article without “needing” to read it, or engage in a conversation simply for the sake of learning. Innovation and greatness are driven by creative thought, not hour after hour doing the same thing over and over again.

5. Be agile. Continuing the same theme of “doing,” agility and flexibility are the keys to effectiveness. A panel entitled “Marketing’s Shift from Waterfall to Agile” discussed how digital marketers can learn quite a bit from crisis communications professionals, who have to be ready to change direction and take action in a matter of hours (or even minutes). A plan is great – but you have to be ready to roll with the punches. Creating a compromise between strategy and action means success in the real world.   (And we recognize this isn’t easy. Even the SXSW conference struggles with this – despite the controversial Kony 2012 video being one of the biggest trending topics on social media during SXSW, not one panel really delved into it and discussed its impact and reception. Why? Because panel submissions for the 2012 conference in March began in June of 2011!)

6. Work with journalists. Traditional media sources are  working hard to keep up with citizen journalism. In the panel “Open Web, Open News,” the discussion focused on the difference between journalism “on the web” vs. “off the web.” Currently, most news outlets are using social networks to promote the news they provide and manage the resulting conversations. But, how can they better manage and promote news from other public sources? The media recognizes that news will be reported long before they arrive to the story and continue long after they have covered it. Reporters want to be part of the editorial process in real time. They also see that some of their exclusivity is lost when anyone can create posts on breaking news.   Juggling between producing their own news and leveraging that “of the people” is something the media is tackling. The Houston Chronicle does a great job by highlighting relevant tweets on their home page featuring the #HouNews hashtag. Businesses need to learn how to find and insert themselves positively in those first and final public conversations that are capturing the attention of reporters. As newsrooms develop tools to find and manage developing stories stemming from social media, businesses must adapt their communications to fit this changing journalism environment. Activities such as status updates, check-ins and photos posted online often create the stories, not necessarily the paragraphs of well-written press releases.

Not all of the presentations we attended could be covered here, but we wanted to highlight these important topics. The people we have met, the apps and startups discovered and the knowledge taken away from SXSW is invaluable. You never know exactly what you will learn until you witness expert marketers and everyday leaders who three or four years ago never thought Twitter would be useful for anything candidly discussing all aspects of online communications. We hope you’ll be interested enough to either submit your own panel or attend the conference next year.

Do you want more information? If so, email Brian Block or Jen Pearsall.