The March on Austin: Washington Casts a Shadow on SXSW

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Former President Obama in conversation last year on the first day of SXSW Interactive
Former President Obama in conversation last year on the first day of SXSW Interactive Credit: Getty Images

The South by Southwest Conference promises to have a very different tone than last year, when then-President Obama was warmly welcomed for a keynote presentation on civic engagement in the 21st century. For the creators, marketers and entrepreneurs descending this weekend on Austin, Texas, politics in the wake of President Trump will surely be top of mind, perhaps even overshadowing some of the innovation in virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Instead of undermining the value for marketers eager to enlist technology in their work, however, the dynamic might highlight connections that are increasingly important to recognize.

"Rather than a piece of technology or launch of a new app, this year's conference will really be about the way all the things happening in politics are being threaded through what everyone does," said David Grant, president of PopSugar Studios, the video unit at publisher PopSugar. "While in the past typically the focus is on a few new toys to play with, this year it is about how do these new toys affect journalism access and the ability to distinguish between real and fake news?"

From New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's opening keynote to a panel on sexual harassment and gender bias in the advertising industry, social impact and civic activism will be a running theme throughout the music, film and entertainment confab.

This year's dialog will focus on how "social media can drive organized protests and provide support for causes our current administration has reprioritized," like the environment, gender equality and women's rights, said Neil Carty, senior VP-innovation strategy at consultancy MediaLink. "I will be interested not only to hear the dialog around how people plan to take action, but also which brands enter the conversation, and if so, how."

Brands will likely use the stage to share their company's perspective on the current political climate and champion issues that matter most to the authenticity of their brand, said Helen Crossley, head of audience insights research at Facebook.

Tinder will discuss its partnership with GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group, to move beyond identifying users as only "man" or "woman"; Refinery29 will sit down with pop star Kesha for a conversation on cyberbullying and how women must take ownership of their online lives; CNN's Van Jones will dissect social and political issues of the day; and Mark Cuban and other tech executives will discuss how they worked both with and against government regulation to achieve disruption.

"Fake news" will inevitably become a topic of debate among the media personalities and publishers taking the festival's many stages. The dispute over facts has led to consumers becoming hyperaware of the content that appears in their social media feeds, both from news organizations and marketers.

"For brands, especially for those creating content around highly polarizing topics, they will need to take new practices around fact-checking and topic alignment to make sure they're engaging around topics that make sense for the brand, but also don't alienate others and jeopardize sales," MediaLink's Mr. Carty said.

The environment also heightens the importance of authenticity, the subject of at least six sessions at SXSW this year. "There is a shift away from interruptive TV ads to content people want to watch in its own right," said Jody Raida, director-branded entertainment at McGarryBowen. "This is not about content masquerading as a long ad. Brands need to tell stories like Hollywood filmmakers."

How to reach fragmented audiences on a variety of platforms and devices will be an important theme, with panels set to tackle the rise of over-the-top platforms like YouTube TV, cord cutting and on-demand media. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality will also be hot, with dozens of sessions dedicated to the technologies, along with the application of chatbots and live video.

This year will be about expanding the applications of VR and how machine learning can improve human efficiency, Facebook's Ms. Crossley said.

Attendees will also see voice-control technology moving beyond Amazon Echo and Google Home, said Shelby Saville, president, central region, innovation and investment platforms at MediaVest Spark. "Voice-activated content will be on our radar as people do more without taking devices out of their pocket," she said.

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