How Newton's Third Law Applies to South by Southwest

Five Polar-Opposite Trends That Were Evident at SXSW This Year

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To understand what happened at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, pick up a physics textbook. Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion can be considered the primary law of the festival, and of the entire advertising industry: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

The law can explain practically every cultural phenomenon. It predicts how the rise of gyms and low-calorie foods coincided with the spike in obesity, and how we're in the heyday of both secularism and religious fundamentalism. Across the media, marketing and technology fields, polar-opposite trends keep surfacing, and five of these themes were pronounced during SXSW.

1. The long and short of content marketing. During a session where I spoke at German Haus, there was some debate about content best practices. Should marketers maintain an editorial calendar across platforms, or should they nimbly co-opt what consumers post about their products and category? Do consumers prefer media with high or low production value? Do people prefer shorter or longer content? I brought up Newton's Third Law during the session. A planned, beautifully shot five-minute video can be just as successful as a spontaneous, grainy, ten-second short. Other factors are more critical, such as the impact of the story, how well it fits with the channels where it runs, and the strategy to ensure the message reaches the right audience. Meanwhile, content will keep getting longer and shorter, richer and simpler, and more planned and spontaneous.

2. Multi-purpose vs single-purpose. Visa's startup competition at its Everywhere Lounge, run in conjunction with Kite, presented two different types of hardware startups. One was Knocki, a device that can be placed discreetly on or under a surface, and anyone can program it to perform various digital tasks that are triggered by knocking on the surface. It takes a page from If This Then That: If you tap it twice, then it will turn on the lights, and knocking three times will text a preset message to your spouse.

A competing startup was Hiku, a small device that uses voice activation or a barcode scanner to add groceries to your shopping list. Knocki can do anything, and its optimal use case may vary across its customer base. Hiku can only do one thing; it's taking a feature of the Amazon Echo and turning it into a standalone product. Simplicity and complexity are both proliferating with technology. Facebook, for example, has the Moments app that is only for privately sharing batches of photos with friends, while it is simultaneously turning Messenger into a platform that can be used for virtual assistants, games, shopping and possibilities that have yet to be imagined.

3. The many faces of influencers. When looking at the escalation of interest in reaching influencers, it's unlikely that there will be a totally opposite reaction where marketers seek people who are non-influential. Instead, marketers will find themselves shifting interests among many different kinds of influencers: 1) celebrities with massive reach but little organic connection to a given brand; 2) well-known content creators typically famous within a certain platform; 3) lesser-known people who have established credibility around their areas of expertise; 4) nominally influential people who have above-average engagement from their audiences and can be packaged together to achieve scale; 5) customers who may not have measurable reach but can become advocates and influence their peers; and 6) employees who can promote their organization's messages.

4. Virtual reality vs. reality. The opposite of Google Cardboard isn't Oculus Rift. No, the opposite of virtual reality is reality. As virtual reality becomes more popular, so will real reality. It's akin to why there's now cultural cachet in putting your phone away. The deeper that we get drawn into technology, the more we crave in-person interactions. There could be ramifications for other forms of media consumption should virtual reality usage become a standard part of one's daily life. If people find themselves too immersed and cut off from the real world, then they may look to overcompensate in minimizing usage of other media. Perhaps instead of watching two football games on Sunday in virtual reality, someone will watch much of one game in VR and then forsake watching the other at all. This in turn can have unpredictable effects on ad inventory, though benefits of VR's immersive ads could counter inventory decreases.

5. Congratulations on the ad blockers. Ad blockers didn't become popular because ads are so bad; they became popular because ads are so good. The ad-supported publishing model became so successful that publishers sought to run more advertising. Advertisers demanded better targeting and analytics, leading to more tags that weighed down pages. Publishers were able to reap higher prices by running higher-quality rich media ads and video ads, which in turn slowed pages further. Consumers -- increasingly on edge over privacy issues -- then welcomed a way to speed up web and mobile browsing, all the while never shunning ad-supported services outright. This means that publishers running fewer, faster, higher-quality ads have a shot at winning over consumers who don't want to pay out of pocket for all their media. This conclusion seems to be shared by Traction CEO Adam Kleinberg in his praise of Facebook Canvas.

Newton's First Law of Motion also applies to SXSW, as everyone attending there seemed to be left remaining in a state of inertia caused by overdosing on panels and barbecue. But it's the Third Law that will continue to explain our industry.