It’s impossible to leave SXSW without being energized and excited about future possibilities. And this year — my sixth — was no different.
After reviewing my notes and chatting with others to identify top trends and insights, I’m here to reflect on the biggest observations from the conference. Below are ten of the most thought-provoking trends and insights observed from SXSW Interactive 2015.
- Meerkat restores the focus on startups. Just when the masses have taken over the festival, Meerkat — the new live-streaming app that syncs up with Twitter to let people broadcast a live stream from their phones and in real-time — bursts onto the scene. It dominated the conversation at SXSW with people “meerkatting” everything. Since launching in February, it has exploded to a Top 200 app.
- Brands rule the day. Brand activity took over Austin, with Pepsi, Visa and McDonald’s featuring the biggest marketing presences. McDonald’s and GE claimed huge chunks of real estate, featuring startup contests and R&D BBQ testing. Visa roped in sports stars and John Legend for events, while Mophie and A&E found interesting and relevant ways to contribute. “Brands embraced new tech and emerging platforms to create unique experiences to elevate both the brands and the startup — whether it was CW partnering with neural mapping company Emotiv for live brain scans or USA Network working with SXSW beacons to allow Mr. Robot to ‘hack’ into SXSW attendees’ phones for free snacks,” said Fred Schonenberg, Founder of VentureFuel.
- Virtual reality is nearing mainstream. Brands at SXSW continued to experiment with ways to create value through integrating VR and mobile devices. The focus was less on the technology and more on the possibilities for storytelling to impress customers. Game of Thrones, Samsung, Beyond Sports and The North Face all offered brief immersions into experiences people could never have in real life.
- Context is what matters. When it comes to wearables, context is paramount. Our relationship with technology is changing — from the tech we wear to the more intimate data we share. The next step will be technology that uses anticipatory data. In the age of context, personal data takes account of the individual’s own habits and needs to intelligently drive an individual towards an action.
- Storytelling is now “storyselling.” When you think of creating content, it’s not just a question of reimagining — it’s about re-engineering the way content is developed, promoted and shared. Ten years from now, mobile phones will be everyone’s hub for content consumption and that means brands will need to follow the lead of Thrillist and Red Bull to incorporate both content and commerce to find new ways to directly monetize users outside of the current advertising models.
- Content remains king. Content, specifically video, is still king. But whoever controls the content rules the kingdom. The social titans — YouTube and Facebook — know how much a captive audience means to advertisers and media companies. Rather than fighting this, the bigger opportunity for content-creating brands is to embrace these titan’s power as gatekeepers by focusing on quality content that can be distributed. If storytelling is the key, it all starts with great content and real world action, not shares and clicks. “We’ll see authentic content and voices become far more important than scale or tonnage,” said Sanjay Sharma, President and COO of All Def Digital.
- You need to tell a story. The takeaway from several dozen panels, from Biz Stone to Crossfit Brand Chief Jimi Letchford, was about knowing your brand story and staying true to your community. Ultimately, it’s product, community and people that make a great brand. You MUST have an emotional connection to what you’re working on. You need to be asking your community what they love about your brand and your team must be emotionally invested in order to do great things.
- You should own the real-life conversation. Technology innovations have impacted the fan and the brand experience, and everything in between. People inherently want to share a social experience together and are fueled by the desire to be part of something. Customers should drive your brand engagement. We’re moving rapidly from a spectator to a participant culture, where special moments happen when technology brings people together who are not connected in real life. “There was less noise on the “buzz” front and more real conversations,” said Ryan Williams, CEO at The Influencer Economy.
- The future will be dangerous. An organization called Stop the Robots came out to SXSW to protest the unchecked demand for the emergence of AI and intelligent robots. Drones, robots, self-driving cars and the Internet of Things all face huge security, privacy and ethical challenges that need to be addressed. The technology is going to be here before we know it, and understanding and managing digital disruption are key elements needed to embrace constant technological change and tomorrow’s opportunities.
- Failing early is good. The keynote speech from Astro Teller (the “Captain” of Google X) was focused on the need for all companies to take risks and fail fast. In his words, “Failing early is cheaper than failing late.” The faster you can get your ideas in contact with the real world, the faster you can discover what is broken with your idea. Bumps and scrapes are critical for informing the future of products. Get out there: Learn fast, fail fast and aim for 10x better.
A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.