SXSW Is a Mishmash, Just Like the Media and Marketing Industry

Virtual Reality, Meerkat and Snapchat Generate Festival Buzz

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The VIP line outside Tumblr's party Monday night.
The VIP line outside Tumblr's party Monday night.

Unlike certain previous SXSW Interactive festivals where attendees and press coalesced around a single topic, this year's event was all over the place. With so much to do and so many people to meet, a tyranny of choice reigned supreme. It was the perfect microcosm of the media and marketing industry.

Here, four trends Ad Age is watching.

Virtual reality edges closer to the mainstream
If you didn't see a cluster of people in Austin with goggles strapped to their faces and silly grins, you weren't at SXSW this weekend. Although virtual reality goggles remain out of the hands of the average consumer, brands continue to experiment with the ways they can bring experiences to life. And so did the porn industry, which was the topic of one panel on Saturday called, "The Future of Porn is 3D Virtual Reality."

Ad Age eyes virtual passengers during a Toyota virtual reality test drive at SXSW
Ad Age eyes virtual passengers during a Toyota virtual reality test drive at SXSW

Toyota, teaming with its social agency 360i, simulated a test drive with Oculus Rift, Facebook's virtual reality headset. The virtual experience felt a little rudimentary, but it signalled one of the growing applications beyond the niche world of gaming. Rothenberg Ventures, a venture capital firm, converted a barber shop downtown into a VR showroom, letting visitors test an assortment of immersive worlds, from a courtside basketball game to a bomb-stricken Syrian street. Consultancy MediaLink walked marketers from luxury goods brands and quick-serve restaurants, like Dunkin' Donuts, through the display.

Start prepping a live-stream strategy
Just as the conference kicked off, the buzziest startup may have been killed by a tech giant. Meerkat, an app that lets users live stream video directly onto Twitter, started gaining traction in the weeks before SXSW. Its young proprieters were zig-zagging around Austin, dressed in its signature bright yellow. A woman at Austin–Bergstrom International Airport used Meerkat to live stream suitcases and duffel bags lapping the baggage carousal.

But then, on Friday, Twitter confirmed it had cut off Meerkat's lifeline: its access to the platform's social graph. It came shortly after Twitter announced it had snapped up a competing service, called Periscope, which has yet to release its product. (Twitter actually quietly acquired the company in January. A few agency executives on hand who have seen Periscope in action were impressed with its design.)

Meerkat's blip on the radar, however, signals that ubiquitious live streaming could be coming soon. A few agencies have already toyed with the product, using it to live stream a car launch and a sports event. And Meerkat could live on. Several attendees speculated that it could thrive despite Twitter's obstacle -- particularly if it attached itself to a platform like Snapchat.

Snapchat-mania grips media industry.
Publishing executives at SXSW seemed to have one thing on their minds: Snapchat Discover, the platform inside Snapchat where 11 media companies are publishing articles and videos directly. While panelists of media execs discussed topics like sponsored content and native advertising in front of dozens of attendees, their private cocktail chattered gravitated towards Snapchat.

New-media execs especially are convinced the messaging app -- and messaging apps like it -- represents the future of the publishing business, and they're angling to get their own companies on Discover. The open rates on the stories published to Discover are rumored to be high as are the cost-per-thousand impressions (CPMs) publishers charge advertisers to appear in the app. (Re/code reported last week that they're charging $100 CPMs.)

The takeaway for publishers: If you're not already thinking about how you'll publish to Snapchat and other messaging apps, you're hopelessly behind the competition. And if you haven't at least had one meeting with Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, someone at your company had better arrange one, like, right now.

The line to see Grumpy Cat.
The line to see Grumpy Cat.

Big brands crash the party
Every brand is a tech brand now -- or at least wants to be one. Major marketers ramped up their presence at the festival, in attempts to capitalize on digital trends and appeal to the young, tech-savvy crowd. Equinox Fitness, the gym company, unveiled a massive, flashy digital screen for spin classes, built with R/GA. McDonald's and GE claimed huge chunks of real estate, featuring start-up contests and showy stagecraft. Visa roped in NFL stars and John Legend for its events; the payments company also said it would hire 500 engineers in Austin this year.

For the ad agencies on hand, the festival was a chance to scope out tech trends, too, but it also served as a way to ensure clients don't bypass them entirely. A few years ago, media agencies would send a small handful of digital specialists. This year, John Wren, the Omnicom CEO, arrived on Monday.

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