Surf’s Up: Five Business Trends That Made Waves at SXSW

By Editorial Staff / Starting a Business / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

The tech and business trends making waves at this year's SXSW include smart wearable devices, social messaging, and more.

South by Southwest (SXSW) started out in 1987 as a music and media festival based in Austin, Texas.

Although it continues to be the largest music festival of its kind, it is now branded as SXSW Music Film Interactive to reflect how it has grown to become what some critics term a zoo of celebrity spotting, high-tech wizardry, and small-business breakthroughs.

This year's mid-March conference even featured an appearance by Barack Obama, whose interest in science, technology and gadgetry has earned him the title of "Geek-in-Chief."

As Venture Beat notes, “SXSW kicked off this week with thousands of marketers descending... for food, fun, and a glimpse at new and emerging technologies that will impact how brands connect with consumers. Even in its 23rd year, SXSW Interactive’s influence and role in innovation is not waning.”

Here are five business trends making waves at SXSW.

1. Everything Is Virtual

According to AOL Digital Prophet (like we said, the gathering attracts the technogeekorati with job titles like this and, yes, we just made up the term “technogeekorati” to demonstrate our own geek cred) David Shing writing in Adweek, “SSW’s darling this year was not app, it was virtual reality.”

VR (as the technogeekorati refer to it) has the potential to revolutionize not only home entertainment, but myriad business and education platforms.  

The New York Times, for example, offers a sort of newsfeed that combines a smartphone app with a Google VR Viewer made out of cardboard, of all things, like something you’d get out of a cereal box.

Something a little less mundane, and the sort of thing you might see in mid-20th century science fiction films, is the Oculus Rift, a headset that connects to a PC.

It provides visualizations that let experience in full three-dimensional representation (i.e., like real life) games as well as business simulations, such as architectural design, vacation destination tours, or medical surgeries

While we’re not quite ready to start living in virtual words, Shing argues the challenge for marketers is a shift from basically linear presentation to one that is multi-sensory. As an example of this shift, McDonald’s demonstrated at SXSW a VR application that allowed people to virtually paint a big Happy Meal Box.

The company has already released its version of the Google Cardboard VR Viewer is Sweden that turns, as you may have guessed, a Happy Meal box into VR goggles.

As Sulabh Puri wrote in her Times of IndiaSXSW coverage, “Virtual Reality is here to stay and the uses of this tech are immense. Private and government agencies will use this tool to train their employees as it cuts down on the costs by a large margin.

The right price is a major factor effecting its widespread. This is something that most makers are working on right now, however, once they pass this hurdle the sky is the limit."

2. Wear Something Smart

Google Glass quickly came and went. While it may have been a nerd fashion statement, regular consumers weren’t convinced that it had any practical use to make it worth looking a little silly wearing it. Google Glass isn’t in the techno scrap heap, by the way, just repositioned to more specialized uses, i.e., the medical market. But wearables continue to be touted as the next big thing.

Sony Future Lab, for example, demonstrated its Project N hands-free headphone prototype, that features voice control, a camera, GPS, and sensors. We’ve long since passed the stage where wearing headphones in public is anything unusual (indeed, it might be the norm), and this may be the next evolution.

Some wearables demonstrated at SXSW, however, shared more in common with Austin’s unofficial slogan of keeping it weird. This includes, as Wareable reports, a pet wearable that purportedly tells you how your dog is feeling, the Telepathy Walker to get directions while you’re walking, and the Remidi glove that acts as a digital interface controller to run MIDI music software.

While you’re not likely to see these in widespread use any more than Google Glass, wearables remain something where everyone is looking to come up with a product that might actually end up being useful beyond the concept stage.

Related Article: Determining Which Social Media Platforms Your Business Should Focus On

3. Social Media Is So 2015... Social Messaging Is What's Happening

The SXSW program guide suggests that the next multi-billion opportunity is in messaging apps. According to the guide: “WhatsApp, Snapchat, Kik, have overtaken social networks as the dominant social platforms in terms of active users. 257 billion text messages are sent per day and, with that, a huge opportunity to engage audiences where they are spending most of their time.

But advertisers and technologists cannot approach messaging as they did social or other apps. Mobile messaging is much more personal and users are younger.”

Live-streaming apps such as Periscope and Meerkat are expected to satisfy an increasing appetite for on-demand, real-time video. And not just for entertainment, but business applications as well. writer Dianna Labrien notes, “While Microsoft and Disney scramble to get on top of the live-streaming phenomenon, the next Mark Zuckerbergs are out there, already planning the next apps that will bring live-streaming to a new level, 3D, holistic immersion, and more.

And delivery systems for live streaming will undergo transformation as well. Mobile devices will give way to wearables. Expect to see many new startups all related to the area of live streaming over the next few years.”

Related Article: Land of New Opportunity: 4 Lesser Known Social Media Platforms

4. Dark Social

In league with the growing popularity of social messaging platforms, Dark Social will present a challenge marketers trying to measure both the effectiveness and the effects of their customer experiences.

While the term, coined in 2012 by The Atlantic tech writer Alexis C. Madrigal, sounds somewhat sinister, it simply refers to content and links shard through private-messaging apps, chats or email, as opposed to public forums (think Facebook, Twitter), where postings are easily and widely shared by just about anyone.

These “traditional” platforms are falling out of favor with Generation Z Millennials who prefer faster, more private and predominantly visual apps such as Snapchat. 

According to a Radium One study, Dark Social is three times larger than Facebook globally (69 percent versus 23 percent) and represents the majority of sharing in 19 content categories globally, including travel, personal finance, technology and automotive.

But as Greg Swan of digital ad agency space150, and an SXSW presenter, points out, Dark Social poses issues we’re just beginning to grapple with, as in, "what it means for personal privacy, and how shifts in messaging technology are shaping the media we consumer and the brands and businesses we follow.”

Indeed, those who have harnessed Dark Social data are broadening their customer engagements. For instance, according to the same Radium One study, Universal Music Group improved the performance of their pragmatic media campaigns by 300 percent using Dark Social data.

5. Conversational Commerce

Shepherd Laughlin of J. Walter Thompson Intelligence notes the increasing discussion at SXSW of “conversational commerce, the idea that we will increasingly use natural language to communicate with brands and merchants, order products and more.”

Case in point is Amazon’s “Alexa,” a wireless speaker that accepts voice commands, that has been expanded to a range of devices and functionalities. At SXSW, Amazon and Capital One launched a partnership that allows Alexa customers to “talk to” their devices to pay their bills and otherwise manage their finances.

Related Article: The 4 Most Important Trends from Social Media Marketing World 2016

As Timbuk3 song lyric goes, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.” To update the tune 30 years later, “The future is so bright at SXSW, I gotta wear shades with an Internet connection that lets me talk to it to pay my bills, play VR games, and privately stream video."

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