5 Key Insights from SXSW

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SXSW isn’t over.

But even at the halfway mark the event has been jam-packed with insights and ideas that will propagate brands to success in our always-evolving medium.  Below are five key insights from my first two days.

1. Sell less. Give more.

Clients hear this and they freak out.  But don’t give away, give back; Give people information they can use and share and they will come back and build your brand.  Remember that consumers chase their passions and interests on the web – you can either facilitate them or be irrelevant.

[Apologies to the audience member who brought this point up so eloquently in the “Design Thinking to Save the World” panel, I did not write down your name.]

2. Spend more time on the edge.

“The brands who are going to win are not the ones who sit back and wait for platforms to hit critical mass before investing.  The brands who will win are those who identify the right partnerships for their brands and help push the platforms to critical mass,” Bonin Bough, PepsiCo Director of Global Social Media.  Added FourSquare co-founder, Dennis Crowley: “If brands are willing to experiment with us, we’re willing to experiment with you.  We like when brands call us with crazy ideas.”

The Internet has never been about reach – it’s always been about engagement.  To succeed, brands must be nimble and fearless enough to invest in emerging platforms that can engage their users.  Waiting for mass adoption is just asking to become irrelevant.

Investing in a developing technology certainly carries a certain risk, but Brands are just out of practice.  Just as brands 50 years ago helped develop television by investing in and  developing innovative programming to engage their consumers (see: P&G’s soap operas), we’re entering a period where brands need to take an active role in shaping the growth of the Internet.

3. Keep It Simple, Stupid

“You have to dumb down design so people understand what they’re getting.”  Designers need to simplify the mental math for consumers.  Use powerful tools like analogies to drive understanding.  Choose words and images carefully to evoke meaning and emotion.

A great example: the trash bins here are labeled “Compost / Recycle / Landfill.”  That last word makes all the difference, forcing us to think of the end result of our behavior.

[Again, apologies to anonymous audience members whose thoughts I used here.  You are brilliant.]

4. Sharing Will Save the World

There has been no shortage of panels and individuals preaching the value of collaboration, open-sourcing, and collectivism on the web.  But no one makes the point quite so eloquently as Clay Shirky.

According to Shirky, evolution has conditioned us to share information freely.  When you give away information freely, it does not diminish yourself but it does improve the well being of the other person.  Evolution conditions us to engage in this kind of sharing freely, intrinsically rewarding us with positive emotions and social rewards.  After all, he notes, we have a word for people who willfully withhold information: “spiteful.”

As the Internet continues to transform goods and services into information (see: dictionaries, music, software, medical advice) we are rapidly transforming industries of scarcity into industries of abundance.  That is to say, the value they sell has become so freely shared that it has been completely devalued. Abundance is far more disruptive than scarcity.  Our economic model, after all, is built on scarcity.

The result has been a sea change in the way society and groups can operate and the influence they can create.  Examples abound, including Pickup Pal, an innovate ride sharing service that is giving local buses cause for concern, Patientslikeme that is upending the culture of medical care, or Nisha Sheehan who effectively used Facebook to fight for social justice in India.

“Used to be, you could do little things for love, big things for money. Now you can do big things for love, too.”

5. Restructure for “New” Marketing

One of the biggest pain points for digital marketers is the inability of their clients to engage in social media.  This ineptitude is not from lack of desire, but, often, from a lack of organizational structure to support it.  Social media requires “marketing” to leverage the resources and capabilities of the entire organization including PR, Guest Relations, Operations, Customer Support, R&D and more.  Engaging in social media means being able to respond to social media – a two way street that not only lets your brand affect consumers, but also lets consumers affect your brand.

On the agency side, digital and legacy marketing shops are struggling to incorporate the two sides of the marketing spectrum into their thinking.  Traditional shops tend to focus more on demand generation, trying to create groundswells of demand around products and brands.  Digital shops are more comfortable satisfying customer needs (the social, emotional and business needs of increasingly multi-screen digital consumers).  Both types of agencies will need to become more adept at straddling both sides of the marketing landscape to truly lead brands into the future.

That’s all for now.  Onto the second half of SXSW!