3 Trends Marketers in Asia Can Learn From SXSW Interactive


At the SXSW exhibition hall with the participants from Singapore.

South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive has become the annual place to be when it comes to digital marketing, technology, and start-ups. After many years of yearning to go, I finally made the pilgrimage to Austin this year. Over a period of five days, I tried to soak in as much as I could – inspiring keynotes, technology trends, meeting awesome new start-ups, networking, and playing around with amazing new gadgets. It was overwhelming and there were so many things I got out of SXSW. Here are three things I found most interesting for marketers in Asia.

1. Innovation Everywhere

SXSW is a hot bed for start-ups touting new products or services of all shapes and sizes. But it is also a showcase of marketing technology with brands like Mondelez with 3-D printed Oreo cookies and IBM with the Watson Food truck showcasing their tech wizardry.

Coming from Asia, where we tend to be the late majority in getting the latest tech, it was refreshing to see that many people walking around wearing Google Glass or even experiencing Square in action when paying for lunch at the food trucks.

Wearables were the main theme at SXSW this year – some of the big ones included the activity tracker Kiwi Move, Nymi (a wearable device that lets you use your heartbeat to securely communicate with all your devices), Avegant (a virtual retina display), and my personal favorite, Skully helmets, a heads up display motorcycle helmet that brings to life one of my favorite ’80s movies, Street Hawk.

I resisted for a while but finally got the Shine, an elegantly designed wearable activity tracker from Misfit Labs.

For marketers, there were start-ups with innovative marketing technologies that would help brands and agencies deliver unique experiences more efficiently to consumers. These included Sonic Notify, a technology that sends audio signals to mobile phones in close proximity that would trigger a mobile experience, ThinkLink, a platform that helps you make interactive images for storytelling, and Splash, a platform that helps you create the perfect event site.

2. Big Brands Jumping on Start-Ups

Brands came out in full force at SXSW to connect with the tech crowd. The festival saw big companies like Subway, Mastercard, Samsung, Microsoft, and Chevy targeting start-ups and techies. I was the recipient of a Mastercard surprise via Foursquare eventually cumulating to a surprise draw at the Mashable House where my start-up won a 1TB portable hard disk.


Big brands are also starting to partner with start-ups to drive innovation in tech. General Electric partnered with Quirky to make invention accessible by bringing new product ideas to life through an online collaborative platform. Intel debuted its newly acquired company Mashery, which manages and provides API technology and services to hundreds of top brands, making Intel both a hardware and software company. 3M has partnered with Evernote to capture and integrate digital storage and accessibility for all your Post-it pad notes, sketches, and ideas.

3. Privacy, Data Ownership, and the Implications for Social

There was a crossroads of sorts for privacy at SXSW: on one side, two of the world’s most visible privacy advocates, Julian Assange from WikiLeaks and NSA leaker Edward Snowden, urged tech-savvy attendees in Austin to create products that help Web users hide their activity from prying eyes. On the other, entrepreneurs and marketers at SXSW were discussing the best ways to make money off their users’ data.

Privacy and the issue of data ownership is not as big an issue in Asia yet but it will be. The sale of WhatsApp to Facebook spooked peoples’ fears on privacy and yield 8 million downloads for Telegram worldwide. SXSW 2014 saw the launch of Omlet, a social network/chat service that gives users a choice where their content is created, stored, controlled, and monetized. There has also been chatter over clandestine apps like Secret and Whisper that are anti-social in nature as they allow sharing anonymously without user names or profile photos. In fact, Secret created a real-time stream of SXSW posts that proved to be both insightful and hilarious of what people really thought of SXSW and the shenanigans they get up to at the festival.

A key issue on privacy that was brought up was that of transparency. Consumers want to know exactly how brands are using their data. The issue of data ownership was also brought up – consumers are starting to question how easily they could access, store, and in some cases take back their personal data from brands should they sever ties with said brands.

A great analogy was brought forth in the privacy debate: Children growing up in this generation may take it for granted that they will need to give up data to get access to branded services. And because it is the expected behavior, people do it without taking precautions, just as how consumers shopping online give out their credit card details without hesitation, a topic that had undergone the same debate and concerns years ago.

In the same aspect, the issue of data permanence will become a focal point as this generation grows up. How can we preserve our reputations in the digital era where everything once published lives forever and can never be completely deleted?


Visual infographic of one of top tech trends of 2014 session.

Celebrate the Future, Not the Past

The biggest lesson that I think marketers in Asia can take away is not about the tech or trends – it’s the culture of creativity and the values that SXSW holds that make it such a unique event and experience. SXSW is a celebration of the future – dreamers that are making things that will take us into infinity and beyond. Contrast that to the biggest marketing events in Asia, which are all award shows that celebrate the past and what’s been done.

To be truly creative and innovative requires risk and a culture of being uncomfortable. And that’s so aptly encapsulated by Austin’s slogan “Keep Austin Weird” – an organic movement that reflects the dynamics of the city that has been unofficially adopted by the government. It speaks of a culture of not accepting the status quo and strong support for non-mainstream individuals, subcultures, and creative personalities. To do great advertising or to make something truly innovative, we need to constantly look to the future and be prepared to take risks, be uncomfortable, and do something truly revolutionary.

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