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Beyond the Buzzwords, Lessons on Community and Authenticity at SXSW 2022 (Elizabeth Michael Commentary)

5 min read

Relevancy. It is something we all strive for to be successful in our careers.

We need it to drive our goals and without it, we lose sight of our purpose. At its heart, relevancy is about connections. When we lose relevancy, it’s time to refocus on the present and forge meaningful connections.

That is exactly what thousands of marketers, developers, creatives, thought leaders and other curious types did at South by Southwest (SXSW), held this month in Austin, Texas. SXSW is an event comprising three festivals: Interactive, Film and Music. The Interactive festival is filled with sessions and panels with top experts. You go to SXSW to have face-to-face access to industry leaders, learn, and, well, be relevant. Every year, major themes emerge. This year, it was true community and Web3.

After two-year hiatus, SXSW 2022 felt unfamiliar and flooded with a current of buzzword-filled crypto, NFT and Web3 parties and gimmicks. Maybe I lost my relevance and touch, or maybe it was the crypto brands injecting themselves into SXSW that were off. Nevertheless, crypto-mania stained the authenticity SXSW once had for me.

I kicked off day one with Mark Schaefer, the influential marketing strategist and keynote speaker. All brand strategy is a journey of relentless relevance and Schaefer connects the two through the notion of seams.

A seam is an under defended opportunity — a fracture in the status quo. We are living in one of the biggest fractures in human history, says Schaefer, and in these fractures, businesses can find opportunity. Great businesses do not always come from the smartest or richest person in the room. They come from someone taking advantage of a seam.

Schaefer identified the following as open seams:

  • Corona-somnia. Everyone is irritable, stressed and tired. How can you help?
  • Customer service. A critical area of marketing because it has tanked during the pandemic.
  • Safety and cleanliness. Eighteen percent of consumers switch brands because of safety.
  • Live commerce. An influencer in China recently sold 2 billion worth of goods in one day on a live streaming show.
  • Sales jobs openings are up 65% and starting salaries up 20%. If your advantage has anything to do with sales, this is your time to claim your relevance.

2022 is the most important year in the history of marketing, according to Schaefer, because routines have changed. Many of these new behaviors involve the web.

A current throughout SXSW was how to make room for the human element and authenticity needed as we shift into Web3. The next generation of the internet is all about belonging. For those not familiar with the term, Web3 refers to an idea of a new, decentralized iteration of the World Wide Web based on blockchain technology and token-based economics. But, don’t let the buzzy terminology distract you. Schaefer points out that web3 addresses the “belonging” crisis in our world. The more time people spend on the internet, the more lonely they get.

What’s the difference between Web3 and the metaverse? Metaverse refers to virtual worlds, where users interact in a much more immersive way. “The first rule of the metaverse is there is no metaverse,” says Todd Kaplan from PepsiCo. There may not be a metaverse yet, but the ingredients exist. Kaplan summarizes that Web3 and the metaverse is all about assets becoming digitized — blurring the lines between physical and virtual world. A brand’s approach needs to authentically integrate, not inject into the micro-communities of Web3 or metaverse.

Creating a true community addresses demands to be relevant and make connections. No one wants to be advertised to, and Gen Z can sniff out a self-serving ad right away. Kerry Flynn, a media reporter at Axios, proposes that instead of brands creating content, they should tap into creators to make it for you. If you win the creator, you win the user.

Didi Bethurum, the VP of the Santa Fe-based marketing and entertainment group Meow Wolf, provided an example of such a partnership. Meow Wolf teamed up with the improv group GABBAGOOBLINS for the launch of an immersive art experience known as the Convergence Station in Denver, Colorado. If you are not familiar with Meow Wolf, it’s a “social impact art project” that is interactive and subversive. Wild and weird, the series of ads and collaborations launched Meow Wolf to much fanfare and hype.

You may be thinking, “This seems like a lot of work.” And you are right. Brands can go wrong quickly. But there are solutions.

Kristy Castleton, a brand experience expert, described her trademark approach scoring content based on seven factors summarized with the acronym INVOLVE:

  • intrigue
  • novelty
  • vivid
  • organized
  • lively
  • variety
  • emotion

If your content contains all seven in a strong way, it will be memorable.

Reddit CMO Roxy Young gave us a great example of memorable content and the importance of community with its Super Bowl ad. Remember r/wallstreetbets and GameStop? Reddit knew this was a cultural moment that they needed to celebrate, so it quickly launched a Super Bowl ad.

The ad celebrated the underdogs — standing behind its community as it took on Wall Street. It didn’t have major celebrity endorsements or big PR. Reddit was inspired by its community and how it impacts the real world. They made an authentic tribute to their community. It realized that a cultural moment is just community at scale. If you stand with your community, you will reap the rewards.

No matter how big or small the budget or company, what almost every big idea boiled down to was community, which seems so simple. But as displayed with the odd crypto-mania activations for the SXSW micro-community, brands can really miss the mark.

As you consider your Web3 strategy and how your brand fits into these communities, make sure to get input from the community, or deploy the community itself.

Simplicity and authenticity will win.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Elizabeth Micheal believes in dreaming bigger, living larger and achieving more. She brings this attitude to her advertising and marketing client work with Marian Consulting and Bud Agency

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