Doomed to fail? Assessing top SXSW trends

The&Partnership's Scott Suthren on why marketers should bring along a huge grain of salt to SXSW.


By Scott Suthren

Inevitably, the hype engine that is SXSW spits out a super-duper app or trend that explodes out of Austin like the bats under the bridge and captures the collective imagination of our distinguished profession.

And inevitably, that same app or trend fizzles and drops like bat guano into the Colorado River. This year, there will be no exception. Here are my thoughts on which stars will swell and bloat in 2015 and then settle down on a slow march towards sunset or Google Glass-esque reassignment.

To get some perspective before we start, it is worth looking into the past to recall with a tear in our eye some of the hopefuls that graced the halls of the ACC with their crowdsourced braggadocio only to be flashes in the BBQ pan.

In 2011, group messaging was on everyone’s mind., Beluga, and Kik were hot properties. Admittedly, it is true that messaging apps are one of the hottest properties in the digital world now, but for very different reasons. That success was not born out of SXSW, it has come out of the East with the rise of Line and WeChat.

In 2012, everyone was risking severe eye strain staring at Highlight, hoping to be highlighted as proof that proximity apps like it, Glancee and Sonar were going to be the next Twttr (Twitter, for the younger folk). So much for that.

In 2013, there was a large amount of buzz around a gesture controller called the Leap Motion. Fast forward to 2015, a scant two years later, and the new ways to control your device focus on voice and, in the case of the Apple watch, the simple watch crown that has been around for hundreds of years.

Now on to 2015. Brace yourselves. Who would have thought that a furry African ground dweller would create such buzz? Live streaming tool Meerkat quickly earned the break-out app moniker. Then Twitter killed its access to their social graph. Sigh. Live streaming? Really? Maybe for 1% of the post-post-dotcom-boom crowd. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, stopped the “life livestream” side of their business in favour of Twitch.

Virtual reality is having its second run at the title of most hyped trend. The first time around we all donned these crazy helmets with visors and stood on a ringed stand that looked vaguely like a hanging plant pot. The new tech has been vastly reduced in size and is leaps and bounds ahead of the old stuff when it comes to hardware. However, we are still donning crazy visors, staring up at the ceiling and looking really funny. A cool product alone does not make an experience valuable beyond the initial novelty. The mass public will need to see a use case or narrative that is relevant and relatable before they will embrace looking really, really funny in public.

Beacon technology (and IoT by proxy) continues to froth and foam with promise. The indefatigable SXSW GO app has included beacon technology that allows you to see and connect with others around you at one of the enabled locations. Pretty cool once you get past the Aldous Huxley-esque feeling of collective surveillance.

However, based on my anecdotal research, nobody is using it. I mean, really, can you imagine the opening line: “Hi, an app pointed out that you are here and thinks you might be of value to me, so, ‘Hi!’” What would be great is if the app could give you a shot of real courage so that you could overcome your fear of SXSW social rejection and just introduce yourself to someone the old fashioned way.

So, as the festival draws to a close and the digital pilgrims head back to their bases to evangelize about the future present, hopefully they will take a lesson from history and debrief their crews back home with a massive grain of salt. Trend predictions out of SXSW have a spotty record – wait, wasn’t there a study that pointed out that a large study group of economists were only 50% accurate about their predictions? There you go. Grab a coin, grab a list of SXSW 2015 trends, and flip away. You will be known far and wide as a savvy digital prognosticator. For now.

Scott SuthrenScott Suthren is digital strategy director at The&Partnership.