SXSWi: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

A Few Insights from This Year's Festival

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Curt Hanke
Curt Hanke
"If you're looking for the next big thing, and you're looking where everyone else is, you're looking in the wrong place." — Mark Cuban @ 2010 SXSWi

Full disclosure: I entered the agency world at the end of the paste-up and the emergence of the computer keyline. As such, I've always vacillated between a hearty curiosity and healthy skepticism when it comes to the latest, greatest shiny new object -- from the rise of the Internet to the acceleration of location-based services. (And before I forget -- Foursquare users, I'm happy that one of you is the new mayor of my dry cleaners -- but seriously, enough already.)

With that said, as Mr. Cuban's quote suggests, much of the conversation at this year's SXSW Interactive Festival has been around "the next big thing." And in particular, both the means ("How do I do the thing with the thing?") and ends ("How do I measure and track whether my thing did its thing?") of what "new" means for our industry.

But I've observed an undercurrent in many of the sessions that I've attended the past few days -- from both speakers and attendees alike. We all seem to be trying to dig a little deeper, attempting to ascertain what these changing technologies mean for us, for our culture and for the people with whom we seek to interact online. While we're talking about "expanding platforms" and strategizing around "time displacement," we're all striving to understand what's really going on at a more fundamental level.

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In sum: What's really driving how these technologies are being used? What do people really want to get out of their social networks? And what are the implications for us as marketers -- not to mention our responsibility as human beings who are playing a role in shaping modern culture?

At the risk of radically oversimplifying the psychology at play here, I've packaged my insights into three key need states -- and provided some initial thoughts for marketers of all shapes and sizes.

The need to maintain a social heartbeat.
It turns out that resistance is, in fact, futile. It's been surprising how many discussions have touched on our personal desire (as well as that of consumers) to cut the proverbial cord from social networks -- to remove ourselves from these rapidly spiraling and ever-changing tools and conversations -- with a somewhat sad resignation that taking our ball and going home is simply not an option.

In his book The Young and the Digital, S. Craig Watkins (who led a book reading at SXSWi) notes that for some, the primary motivation for participating in social networks is the fear of becoming socially alienated. Said one of his research subjects, "I quickly realized if you don't have a Facebook [page], it's like not having a cellphone. And if you don't have a phone, you are totally cut off from the people around you." This, from a teenager.

That said, we need to be mindful that not everyone is an early adopter. In all demographic and behavioral segments, there are people who are grudgingly participating online. Whether we are creating content or communities, we need to consider how to allow for different types of engagement with our clients' brands. To think not just about delivering on marketing goals like visitors, fans, leads, sales or time-on-site but also in providing overall value to each of our target audiences (which should, in turn, ultimately increase the likelihood of a greater ROI for our clients).

The desire for the spotlight.
Lots of people want their 15 minutes of fame. And now, social networks are helping more and more of them attempt to get theirs on a daily basis. In her fantastic opening remarks, social-media researcher Danah Boyd cited a Technorati study that the average blog is read by six people. You read that right: six.

It's not surprising when you think about the amount of content out there. And it makes me ponder our role in championing these "wannabe celebrities." How might (or should) our clients' brands help facilitate their online fame? Toward what ends (for both us and them)? At minimum, as we are interacting with them (and at times, propagating their messages), how can we act in a manner that is consistent, transparent and respectful (think: prompts and opt-ins, not sneaky tricks, opt-outs, clicks or changing terms of service)?

The quest for community.
During a panel titled, "Is Technology Weakening Interpersonal Relationships?," media expert Matt Weber cited research that people can maintain 150 relationships online (in other words, 150 is our "max relationship capacity"). While this begs some obvious questions about the quality and nature of those relationships, we can all agree that one of the largest driving forces in social networks is our desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

And so: What is our role in facilitating these relationships? In creating safe, constructive environments? In building genuine, authentic communities? Or at minimum, in not being divisive or destructive (think: Whopper Sacrifice)?

By no means do I pretend to have all of the answers. But one of my biggest takeaways from this year's SXSWi is that we need to spend more time taking a hard look at what we're really trying to accomplish with (and for) the people with whom we're interacting online. To have our feet (as marketers) firmly planted on the terra firma that is results, responsibility and ROI for our clients. And a little less time chasing after what I fear too many people are: being "next" for the sake of "next."

Curt Hanke is the co-founder and account director of Shine, a 28-person advertising and interactive agency headquartered in Madison, Wisc., serving clients such as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Carver Yachts, Wisconsin Cheese, Kaplan Inc., and Winston Fly Rods.
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