Seven lessons from SXSW

The Jackman Reinvents team breaks down the key takeaways from this year's fest.
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By the team at Jackman Reinvents 

Alfred Chan, Sarah Gencarelli, Mirko Greenwood, Cale Jones, Dani Ng-See-Quan, Jake Prapavessis, Steve Taylor, Zahra Rajani and Arnaud VandeVoorde contributed to this piece.

After hitting the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, some overarching themes emerged: The world has changed, and consumers hold the power. Embrace data. Seamless connection of emotions and technology to curate products and content, and create experiences, is the future of retail. You can only truly innovate when working with a diverse team.

Optimizing content for growth

A great takeaway from Evany Thomas, brand writer at Pinterest was: “Great solutions are the love child of data and intuition.”

In “Using Your Words: Optimizing Content for Growth,” Thomas discussed achieving growth by using different language when naming products or brands (like using fricatives to convey speed and agility, or closives to represent concrete or solid things). Thomas presented an interesting case study on using variations of text to encourage Pinterest’s signups via Facebook. Wanting to move away from “sign up” language, the company also tried “join” and “continue,” finding “Continue with Facebook” increased user signups by 811% on mobile.

The point? Test and learn, and even the best designed product can use a little explaining.

Personalization for the people

What we know: data is shaping personalization and where it’s going. In terms of the not-so-new, we heard about how brands can tailor searches for their customers. A trend on the horizon, however, is dynamic pricing in the larger retail sector (not a new concept in isolation, but new to the retail industry at large). Depending on how a consumer behaves and his or her apparent worth to a company, that company can start tailoring pricing to account for that. On one hand, it’s possible dynamic pricing could replace the notion of loyalty, if successful. On the other hand – what are the legal and operational implications?

On narrative

Incorporating narrative into brands to create superior experiences will be the future. Successful brands must have an understanding of the strategic role narrative plays and how it can be used to help inform design, products, services and customer interactions accordingly. Narrative-based experiences should increasingly inform the medium(s) brands choose to interact with their users. Giving people the ability to make choices and dictate their own experiences allow them to make stronger connections with brands.

“Stories get their name not from how they’re meant to be written but how they’re supposed to be used,” said product design evangelist Jeff Patton. With the steep rise of mobile tech, brands finally possess a powerful platform to establish narrative-based experiences. By focusing on contextual moments when users are most engaged, brands can capitalize using storytelling to increase satisfaction, ad awareness and even purchase intent.

Make shareable content with impact

In a stream of thinking parallel to creating empathy and experience in narrative, there was a lot of buzz about making shareable content with impact. Probably two of the best examples of platforms that do this are Buzzfeed and Mashable, and in two separate sessions, their respective founders/CEOs shared some lessons to viral success. The big takeaway? This statement from Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore: “To be successful on the web, you have to be very human.”

Buzzfeed’s co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti also talked about the relevance of its content as culture becomes more and more global. “The emotion of the content is more important than the information of the content,” he said. Both Cashmore and Peretti said it’s necessary to move away from analog habits and creating content that looks like traditional media. Peretti said that they didn’t intend to make a site for millennials, but instead made a site that leans to the way people use media today. He added that as an organization, Buzzfeed wants to be completely indifferent to where people consume their content, as long as the content is in front of the people they want to see it.

Cashmore’s tip? Don’t optimize for technology or channel. And, as echoed by YouTube guru Michelle Phan and COO of Lucky magazine Eva Chen in a separate discussion, make stories that are really engaging for people, but tell those stories differently and with different content on each platform.

AI: The future is now

While it’s not a new concept that companies use data to help drive their marketing, it was clear that many brands still feel unsure about how to break through the noise and differentiate. A key takeaway from Paul Roetzer’s discussion on the “Origins of the Marketing Intelligence Engine” was that using artificial intelligence to power brand marketing is the future.

Why? Roetzer said that artificial intelligence adds a cognitive layer to marketing – when applied correctly, it makes marketers better at what they do. In short, use technology to turn data into intelligence (reports, basic articles, predictive behaviour insights), and create a narrative around that. Or, as Mashable’s Cashmore said in “Media, Tech and What’s Next,” “The biggest AI opportunity is to understand what people want and when they want it. Make sense of big data.”

According to the masses at SXSW, the future – of jobs, of innovation, of education – is also a harmony between humans and machines, each harnessing the power of the other.

“Humans working with machines will always do more than with machines alone,” Isaacson said. “Never in history, no matter what data point you look at, does technology decrease the number of jobs. It changes the number of skills you have to have.” But early education is critical to creating this harmony – just like some people say students should study Latin, they should also know how circuit boards work, Isaacson said.

The next big thing in retail

Speaking of AI, David Roth, CEO of WPP The Store and Jon Bird, global director at Y&R LabStore, noted during “10 Inventions that Will Revolutionize Retail” that AI and vibrant data (connecting individuals’ data clouds to anticipate customer needs and serve them in a better and more interesting way) will be transforming forces in retail, along with the usual suspects – holostores, augmented reality, smart vending, wearable payables, among others.

Meanwhile, in “Bricks Over Screens: Why In-Store Still Matters,” Derrick Lewis of Rapha and Michael Saitano of Design With Reach expounded on the importance of using the store as a place to create experiences for customers. Rapha, for example, has a focused brand purpose – to make road racing the most popular sport in the world. Every experience shouldn’t be about the ROI or selling products, Lewis said, but about engaging consumers by showing the brand relates to them and is passionate about the same things they’re passionate about.

In Rapha’s case, the store houses a coffee bar, and has become a hub for cyclists to meet and start their rides, or meet world-renowned cyclists who participate in the sport professionally. Credibility is king, and that’s how you win lifelong, loyal customers, he said.

Saitano added that the store becomes a clubhouse for your best customers to geek out. They shared a great quote from RJW Collective, which isn’t a new idea, but pretty concise: “Consumers don’t want to be spoken to, they want to be spoken with. Brand awareness and equity are born of the dialogue between brand and consumer.”

Diversity seeds innovation

A major focus point for the thought leaders in attendance at SXSW this year was how critical it is for companies to employ diverse teams for true innovation to happen. In the context of these conversations, diversity applies to both skillset and gender. But diversity has to be more than just a buzzword. Astro Teller of Google, in his “Moonshots and Reality” session, said it plain: “People love saying ‘fail fast’ and ‘diversity’ but it’s hard to actually do it. Working with people who look just like you and think just like you is not going to help you succeed.”

Megan Smith, chief technology officer of the United States, speaking to an audience question in a separate panel about the benefit of having more women working in tech, stated the point simply. “It’s just a proven fact that diverse teams make better products. If you want better products, better reach and better economics, have diverse teams.”

Biographer and Aspen Institute founder Walter Isaacson, in the same discussion, pronounced that innovation isn’t actually the result of a single person’s light bulb moment – it happens in teams. “Any great innovative step came from someone having a great vision and connecting it to an engineer, a designer, a team of people to execute it,” he said. Why? Because an idea remains an idea without the team to execute it – or as Isaacson said – vision without execution is hallucination (add that one to your wall quotes). Integrate!