5 Tech Trends that Mattered at SXSW 2019

Another year, another South by Southwest Conference & Festival. Film and music typically garner attention for flashy activations and big budget experiences — your news feed may have been flooded with activations like Game of Thrones blood drive, expo novelties like 3D-printed Sushi or brand stunts like tacos falling from the sky — but Interactive continues to be the biggest attendance and revenue driver. And with 135 tech sessions geared toward enterprise tech and AI, 50 sessions dedicated to blockchain and crypto tech, 100 focused on medtech, and another 50 for augmented/virtual/mixed reality applications, SXSW Interactive was more B2B than ever.

Heading into this event, SXSW’s Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forest noted that “digital distrust” was one of the major themes he saw across content submitted. Many discussions revolved around the unique challenges companies face in earning consumer trust and embracing new technology in a world now dominated by data breaches and mismanagement of users’ personal information — echoing our Brands in Motion 2018 global study, which also highlighted this lack of trust in tech.

Because other event recaps may only tell you what food to eat next time you’re in town, we thought you might benefit more from what we saw as the five key trends in this year’s event as you plot your course for the year ahead.


1. Fake news is more than a daily Twitter rant: looking at trust in journalism

In addition to the media houses and their activations (ranging from the FastCo grill to Vox’s Deep End), the Interactive Festival featured more than 80 sessions on journalism or the state of the media. Speakers from the BBC, Reuters, Daily Dot and more tackled challenges in the newsroom ranging from  burnout to internal politics to competing with brand journalism.

But no matter the topic of the session, if there was a journalist involved then the audience Q&A always circled around to one thing: the general public’s mistrust in media. Thankfully, many in the media are finding ways to combat disinformation and rebuild trust. Outlets like the AP, Washington Post and others presented on how they’re developing or already leveraging tools and technologies that help journalists recognize disinformation faster and make high-volume newsrooms more efficient.


2. AI/VR/AR get more human: empathy in focus

SXSW moved away from big picture AI what-ifs toward real-world use cases. Interactive sessions showed how AI could help journalists do their job or enhance the fan experience for sports. Other onsite examples ranged from agriculture, healthcare, insurance and employee productivity, to personal finance on how A.I. is being inserted everywhere, offering real value and solutions. If you’re telling AI stories, focus on practicalities — not what the technology could do one day, but how it can make consumers’ lives better right now.

Virtual and augmented reality has been a staple of SXSW the past few years. However, this year it felt like 90 percent of the activations were locking attendees into a headset. Our team was particularly impressed with the BBC’s emotional part story, part documentary “Nothing to be Written” on WWI communication between soldiers on the front lines and their families, specifically focused on the "fill in the blanks" postcards that British soldiers in World War I were restricted to sending. We loved the twist on an older communication medium, and how the BBC used AR/VR — a technology that’s easy for many to characterize as isolating or cold — to tell a warm, human story.


3. Ignore the scooter complaints: The real news was in the air

Although scooters may have been the talk of the town, locals know those little stinkers are here all year. No, what was new at SXSW came from the sky. There was definitely an increased eye on aero at this year’s event, with multiple aerospace companies on the expo floor. Visitors enjoyed flight simulators and drones flying overhead, and aviation companies partnered with rideshare providers to tackle urban mobility from the skies.


4. The party train has left the station, welcome to private event junction

Don’t worry, if you are attending SXSW you will ultimately find yourself at a party (LinkedIn sure turned it up this year) and the drinks and passed apps are often free — but one trend we saw this year was a shift to private events.

More often than not, festivalgoers on the ground were turned away because they weren’t “on the list.” Although this might help companies and brands be more strategic about who attends their events, it does make it harder to meet new folks, like media, and network. Historically, the evening cocktail hour events have been a prime time for impromptu networking, but this year, companies were siphoning off some of that opportunity for themselves.


5. Eyes on 2020: You can’t avoid politics

As a festival, SXSW is always evolving. It started with music, then expanded to film, which was followed by tech, and now we have a new topic: politics.

More than 10 presidential candidates were at the event, speaking about a variety of campaign issues. A key trend among most of them was data privacy. This was most prevalent at the start of the event, when Senator Elizabeth Warren unleashed a manifesto titledHere’s How We Can Break Up Big Tech.” In many ways, Warren’s proposal set the tone: In a post-Cambridge Analytica world, SXSW attendees and presenters were more introspective than ever about the safety of their personal information or online persona.


Brands in Motion and politics at SXSW

Brands in Motion shows consumers’ expectations that technology will transform their lives have never been higher — but distrust is also very high, and consumers want change. At a festival like SXSW, the presence of politicians has the potential to be the spark that lights the powder keg for your brand — whether your brand comments on politics or not.

It’s important for your staff on-site to be able to handle these conversations transparently. Keep in mind these findings from Brands in Motion:

  • 84 percent of respondents fear their personal data is not secure
  • Consumers are demanding that brands use technology ethically and that they moderate their content
  • It’s not enough to talk about data privacy or ethical third-party usage policies — customers want proof
  • An overwhelming 97% of respondents globally said that brands are responsible for their own ethical use of technology
  • 94 percent of respondents say if brands can’t regulate on their own, the government should step in — it’s regulate or be regulated

Responsibility and ethical treatment of personal data along with content moderation have been at the forefront of tech coverage this year, and if SXSW is any indication, that conversation is only gathering steam. Ethical leadership in these changing times in a must. How will your brand navigate these turbulent waters — either in tomorrow’s media or next year’s SXSW?

March 15, 2019

Matt Trocchio
GM - SVP, Austin