SXSW 2014: Content Marketing, the Rise of the Dark Net, and the Maker Movement

Austin hosts the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival, with the Interactive, EDU, Film, and Music events running from March 7 to 16. As for the Interactive tracks, the sheer scale was as overwhelming as ever. Along with a predictable gaggle of “NSA” panels and discussions – Edward Snowden was a featured speaker – there were sessions on social data and business analytics, content marketing, the rise of the Dark Net, and continued growth of the Maker movement. These apparently disparate themes are related: in each there is an unmistakable element of “self-built” and “individual control” at the root.

Start with data and analytics: To be sure, there is plenty of interest in simply measuring, and social media and its use in business continues to be a prime area for development of tools, techniques, and services related to the use of data in sorting out the effectiveness of a social technology implementation. But even more than that, the question I heard over and over being asked of technology providers on the tradeshow floor was, “Does this have an API?”

More telling, the most common response was, “It’s on our roadmap.” In other words, just as it happened with social media – think adoption of Facebook and Twitter here – the demand to take control and do something on one’s own is being driven, again, by consumers. In this case, “consumers” means businesses wanting to do something that aligns with their own objectives: rather than 17 disconnected point-solutions, what the marketing and customer care teams really want is the ability to knit them together with existing business technologies (e.g., CRM, SSO, and product catalogs) to build digital business platforms that serve their specific needs. Sound familiar?

The takeaway is that businesses are pushing for the same individual control over the tools they use (nothing new there) and how they can make those tools work together toward their own ends (the new part) as consumers did in taking control of their personal media publishing and consumption 10 years ago.

Content marketing is an example of this DIY mentality coming to an advertiser near you: In addition to advertising on existing programming, brands are increasingly creating content of their own and building an audience around it. Red Bull, and its media division Red Bull Media House, are masters: As one of the largest brand-based content producers, Red Bull Media House produces content shown across its network of thousands of distributors around the world. Last month Coca-Cola announced a similar effort. This kind of “make it myself” spirit makes sense, too, as brands with sufficient lifestyle, passion, or cause alignment discover the power of creating branded programs that consumers pay attention to, and more importantly share through their social activities.

Next up, a selection of “Dark Net” panelists focused not just on the “NSA spying thing” but on the more relevant questions of “so what?” and “now what?”

The “Dark Net” refers loosely to the parts of the Web – estimated to be much larger than the known or “discoverable” Web – that is not indexed by search engines and therefore not seen by most people. As panelist Andrew Delamarter, director of inbound marketing at Huge, put it, “It’s the spaces and technologies used to avoid personal identification on the Internet.” Think Tor, PGP, VPNs, and Bitcoin.

Beyond the suspected nefarious activities, the rise of the Dark Net really signifies a growing awareness of the trade-offs between privacy and the value received as a result thereof. If you’ve never see Josh Harris’ Quiet: We Live in Public, it’s worth a viewing.

For business, the relevance of Dark Net technologies and the answer to the question “so what” is “expect more customers to read before clicking” in regards to Terms of Use and Terms of Service, or worse, to simply assume that (you) will do something evil with their data, leading to the answer to the second question “now what?” The combined lack of adequate review by most consumers prior to accepting most Terms of Service and Privacy agreements and revelations that business’ use of customer data in combination with data purchased from “other sources” probably far outstrips anything the NSA has done in terms of developing individual customer profiles suggest changes ahead: left unchecked, this means that consumers will be more likely to mask their identity than to openly share it.

This is already impacting the way in which social data is published, shared, and consumed: Mainstream apps like SnapChat, for example, have a far more anonymous character than, say, Facebook. To this point, the Facebook acquisition of WhatsApp is now being challenged on the grounds of privacy protection, citing the extreme differences in approaches to the use of personal data by Facebook versus WhatsApp.

In fact, this challenge on the ground of privacy rules itself came about after the similar issues relating to Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, meaning that businesses on the social Web really do need to consider not “how to protect themselves” via legally dense privacy policies but rather how to guide their customers toward meaningful understanding and acceptance of mutually beneficial terms. Otherwise, if consumers really do shield themselves, then much of what has been invested in “right content, right time, right customer” will be laid to waste by a shift toward anonymity through services like Silent Circle or Anonyme. Think about your own privacy policies and your internal standards on your use of customer data in this regard: If your customer base was suddenly “anonymous,” how would that impact your ability to market or serve your customers?

Finally, the Maker theme itself. “Maker” refers to the “DIY/build it myself” spirit typified in everything from books like Furniture You Can Build at Home to 3-D printers to the growing popularity of microshops and affordable (less than $10,000 rather than more than $10 million) computer-controlled manufacturing equipment.

The net is that new, small businesses are able to create prototypes that lead to funding, or in many cases actual products that can be sold. In his SXSW session, “Maker Democracy Spurs Innovation,” author Mark Hatch cited the works of a dozen businesses ranging from tiny start-ups that successfully manufactured their products themselves to large organizations like GE that turned mandates for breakthroughs into ideas and then into actual products in record time using maker-style prototypes. Firms like Autodesk have been fueling this market for years (Disclosure: Autodesk is a customer of my firm, Lithium) and now this same ability to create “things” is spreading to everyone. Expect to hear “does this have an API?” a lot more.

Why is “maker” significant and how does it relate to social media and business? As Mark Hatch put it, “Maker behavior combined with markets like Etsy produce a nearly frictionless pathway for creative commerce.” Now fold this back into content creation, to the adoption of software platforms that facilitate customer interaction and collaborative behavior and the ethos of the social Web itself: the role of business changes. Going forward it may be that business is less about “telling you why what we make is what you need to buy” and more about “showing you how you can use what we make to do what you want.” That is a truly significant shift, and it’s one that is very much on display this week in Austin.

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