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3 Emerging Themes From SXSW 2014: They're Not What You Think

Big brands and tiny tech swap knowledge and DNA, while companies continue to try to crack the code of big data.
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SXSW Interactive is nothing if not a microcosm of what's happening on a mass scale in the rest of the country.

In terms of fundamental business practices, key shifts in major markets, and overall trends affecting everything from tech startups to Fortune 500s, it's all there. And once you get past the transportation hustle that led more than a few Southbyers to pay Uber upwards of $198 per ride between events, you're likely to be among the first to hear about some key trends that will surely get much more play throughout the year.

Beyond the usual suspects (yes, wearable tech, I mean you), what was most eye catching this year was how all this technology aims to change the business landscape--that is, the way we work may become transformed in the near future.

Between beer, BBQ, and busting ass to get from one place to the next, I had the opportunity to chat with some very smart folks about this year's emergent themes out of SXSW. Here are three:

1. Companies are learning how to apply big data.

Today, data and analytics are a marketing and communication imperative. But it’s simply not enough to have the data; marketers--both at large companies and emerging tech companies--require actionable insights, and individualized data, that can help drive decision making.

“The data available on digital behavior helps to inform our content strategies and channel selection,” says Diane Gage Lofgren, chief communication officer at Kaiser Permanente. “For example, looking at use patterns, we were able to determine the best platforms for reaching Millennials through our #OwnNow campaign. Purchasing health insurance is new to many Millennials as they age off their parents’ plans, and we want to ensure they have their health covered.”

This is a prime example of the many conversations around “big data” overheard at SXSW. The future of big data is “smart data” and “clean data.” In other words, it’s not enough to have it. What matters most now is applying creativity and strategy toward understanding what to do with it.

2. Brands are getting more intelligent.

This year, it was very clear that brands were in attendance for one overriding reason: to learn from and listen to emerging and fast growing technology companies.

A long conversation with Verizon’s CMO of enterprise solutions, John Harrobin, resulted in a clear understanding of why this is so important in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven landscape: “Huge companies seek the insights and agility that first-moving innovators provide. We're constantly on the lookout for startups who can be additive to our core business on both the enterprise and consumer side.”

Ross Fubini, a partner at Canaan Partners (whom I tortured with questions before boarding our flight back to San Francisco) recounted conversation after conversation with major retail brands and marketing execs (including Victoria’s Secret) that attended the conference. “They were here with the distinct purpose of learning about new technologies to present back to the C-suite. This is business intelligence at its best.”

The smartest brands--big and small--understand the upside of looking downstream (and up) for inspiration and insights.

3. The acquisition spree should continue (but with a twist).

Then there's the trend of non-tech companies snapping up tech companies. One example of this was Staples's recent acquisition of e-commerce tech startup, Runa.

"Non-tech focused companies don't necessarily understand how to use technology to deepen current customer relationships," says Ethan Kurzweil, a partner at Bessemer Ventures. "This is something small but fast-growing tech companies seem to understand and they have built solutions to solve this problem.”

Additionally, startups that have managed to build massive, loyal customer bases are prime targets for large retail brands and enterprises looking to expand into niche markets.

Beyond big data, brand intelligence and the buying habits of large companies, lies one theme that will continue to drive the future relevance of SXSW and continue to make it one of the best places to spot trends and network, while simultaneously sipping on cocktails. And that is: the excitement and energetic force of being in a concentrated area with some of the world’s brightest innovators and entrepreneurs.

IMAGE: Getty Image
Last updated: Mar 12, 2014




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