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South by Southwest is Different With a Baby (Elizabeth Michael Commentary)

6 min read

South by Southwest is different with a baby — the first in a series of my “no duh” reflections on the annual culture, film, music and interactive festival.

For the past nine years, I have attended the interactive portion of the festival to absorb as much as I can from the marketing and branding experts that converge in Austin. This year’s festival, which wrapped up March 19, was my first with a two-and-a-half-month-baby in tow. While I wasn’t able to enjoy the evening revelry, including brand-sponsored concerts and parties, I was able to attend many sessions and brand activations, which made for some great photo-ops with the baby.

So why go? Call it a crash-course in relevancy. Readers may recall my recap from SXSW 2022 and the trending topic of relevance. It remains true that SXSW is the quickest way for someone to stay on top of the wave. Culture-makers, marketers and branding experts meet in Austin to get inspired and level up their skills. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” And great minds converge in Austin every spring at SXSW.

Needless to say, SXSW this year was different. And not just because of the baby. Notably absent were many of the larger social media companies, which usually speak on panels and host brand activations where folks can experience the apps IRL (in real life).

A welcome omission was the “crypto bros” and almost all talk of NFTs. It was hard to walk down the street in Austin during SXSW 2022 without being hit with some NFT or crypto content. This year, I heard little mention of the topic.

The second “no-duh” — the absences reveale where tech culture is shifting. Instead of an exciting product release, Meta announced another round of layoffs. At SXSW in 2022, Mark Zuckerberg delivered a keynote address announcing Meta’s NFT efforts. This year, Meta announced its ”winding down” of digital collectibles on Instagram and Facebook. Supporting creators and the content they pump out on social media is a noble endeavor for the social media companies, but one that they seem to be struggling to monetize. NFTs were not the shiny object that they were last year, and SXSW doesn’t seem complete without a shiny object. So what was it this year?

AI dominated. From ChatGPT to ethical AI to planning cities, creative-thinkers have been coming up with curious ways to apply AI to multiple facets of life. A healthy skepticism hung over most talks on the subject, though the pace of innovation (and the velocity of funding) in the AI space certainly appear by all objective and subjective measures to be increasing rapidly.

If crypto and NFTs were heralded as recently as last year as the dawn of Web3, does this AI revolution represent a sort of Web4? And what about other aspects of Web3 that have remained where crypto and NFTs were absent from the discussion, like AR and the Metaverse?

Meta themselves may have been absent, but that fact didn’t stop other discussions from continuing around the Metaverse (if not in the Metaverse itself just yet). Metaverse-oriented highlights included in-person experience pioneer Meow Wolf’s foray into the metaverse via mini-golf and Deepak Chopra sharing his insights on the potential for “Metaceuticals,” psychological and neurological therapies that can be administered via the Metaverse, with or without the assistance of psilocybin, presumably consumed in the physical world.

Which brings me to my next observation: psychedelics are the new cannabis. While the effects and experience aren’t exactly the same, it’s interesting to feel the same excitement around the medical and commercial potential of psilocybin and ketamine that we could feel buzzing around the cannabis industry just as recently as last year (no pun intended).

Many of the sessions on the “cannabis” track, and even the cannabis-related brand activations and events, also had a psychedelic component this year, and the absence of major cannabis and canna-tech brands from this year’s extracurricular activities was equally noticeable. It’s possible that the cannabis industry is just one of many facing macroeconomic headwinds, causing many of those would-be entrepreneurs looking for emerging opportunities in plant-based medicine to simply gravitate to the apparent next big thing. But, if you listen to innovators like Deepak Chopra describe the potential they see, it’s possible there’s a radical new frontier on the horizon, one that combines advances in medicine and technology to deliver unprecedented health and wellness benefits, on a global scale. Or, as Deepak (we’re on a first-name basis now) calls it, the economy of joy.

Back here on physical earth, reality interjected with SXSW in an interesting way this year. Just as SXSW 2023 was ramping up, Silicon Valley Bank, a prominent lender and financial service provider to many technology companies, collapsed. The stunning series of events that led to the collapse included a possible first — a bank run that precipitated largely via Twitter.

Being at SXSW during all of this was very interesting, to say the least. No, we didn’t see people hugging in the streets late Sunday afternoon when the FDIC announced it would backstop all of SVB’s deposits. Exuberance would indeed have been the expected reaction for many in attendance, though certainly not all. Jim McKelvey, director of the St. Louis Fed, addressed critics of the FDIC’s action during his presentation at Inc. Magazine’s Founders’ House, saying, “This isn’t a bailout of a big bank. This is a backstop of a medium-sized bank.” Indeed, opinions on such an unprecedented event will certainly vary, but it was great to be someplace like SXSW to debate perspectives while an event of such significance played out in real-time.

The third and final “no-duh” moment — brands cannot simply put their message out there, crafted in a bubble and serving nothing other than itself. Brands’ roles with consumers have fundamentally changed and can’t exist organically without genuine relevancy. Brands need to be thinking about how to take part in, shape or create cultural moments.

Speakers at the sessions I attended mainly talked about TikTok, leaving out the other social media companies. TikTok is where these cultural moments start and why you should focus your attention there. I cannot count how many times since my career in social media began in 2008 I have preached a “platform-specific” approach on social media, but let’s take it a step further. Brands may not even need to waste their time on social media at all if they plan on having one-way conversations. Scheduling out the same self-serving post on all social media is like shouting into the abyss. But, hey, maybe your mom or co-workers will share it.

You can’t just hire someone because they went viral on TikTok that one time (although it probably isn’t a bad place to start). You will need to have the right team in place that can help your brand collect, synthesize and identify patterns in social data that can inform key business decisions. That team can help you show up authentically with personalized data, relevant interactions with other brands and customers, iterate and grow.

Elizabeth Michael is an entrepreneur at heart. Her career began in 2008, when she started helping out with marketing and advertising at her family’s business, Paul Michael Co.

She then worked at CJRW as the director of content and social media before starting her own social media firm, Marian Consulting.

Michael also founded cannabis-focused ad shop Bud Agency with Martin Thoma, and somewhere along the way co-founded Bark Bar

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