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The SXSWI conference has grown steadily for 20 years due in large part to its buzz factor. This year’s SXSWi was different—the buzz factor was missing. In fact, the recurring theme of hallway conversations this year was precisely the lack of buzz—no dominant brand, launch, technology or story this year. No sign of the highly sharable “it” apps and mobile technology chatter of the past. This guest post comes from Metia's Deborah Hanamura who gave us her take on what she got out of SXSW last month....

"The biggest marketing splashes at SXSW came from well-established brands that are digitally savvy, but not necessarily digitally centered, such as Oreo, American Airlines, Pepsi and Doritos. Chevy received a lot of attention with their “Catch a Chevy” promotion, but much of the interest could be attributed to the lack of shuttles and the general desperation for transportation. It’s also notable that BlackBerry invited a fresh look at their phones by sending skulking vans around the outskirts of the festival, while Doritos proudly dominated every snack stand and party.

Still, there wasn’t another darling to celebrate this year.

From Microsoft to Facebook to Google—nearly all the tech companies scaled back their efforts from last year and took a back seat to personality and celebrity.

Rachel Maddow, Al Gore, Nate Silver, Elon Musk and Tina Roth talked about everything from search algorithms (and how we should ignore them) to space travel, democracy, creative environments and baseball. And while it was exciting to be at SXSWi and interact with famous people, I attended to focus on interactive trends and innovations. I saw only two trends emerge from this year’s conference:

1) People want a more personal experience

Repeatedly at SXSWi I saw businesses banking on the idea that personality and eye contact produce better brand interactions, even if that “eye contact” was with a hologram. For example, 3M bet on the appeal of a more human experience by applying projected video content to a human shape made of acrylic. In its exhibit, visitors were greeted by an attractive female “virtual mannequin” who seemed to be speaking and looking directly at viewers as she promoted herself as the new product. Even though the video for the purposes of this exhibit repeated itself in a loop, it presented the intriguing possibility of more lifelike and personalized interactions between consumers and technology for the express purpose of attracting attention and selling a product.

Smartphone technology was also used to stimulate interactions between virtual phenomena and real people in the physical world. One session, for example, highlighted the successful cat video film festival held at Open Field by the Walker Art Museum, where a silly and popular Internet meme—funny cat videos—was projected onto a movie screen in front of an adoring live audience. Similarly, Austin practically vibrated with the buzz surrounding the real-life presence of Mashable’s Grumpy Cat, with hundreds of people waiting in the rain to take advantage of a photo opp. In both cases, it was interesting to see communities of real people in the physical world coalescing in real time around phenomena that owe their popularity to the timeless, virtual world of the web.

From attending SXSWi, it was obvious that marketers will be challenged to simulate personal connection on a mass scale. The ante is raised for brands as consumers look more discerningly for companies and products that they can connect with, and for interactions with brands that feel human. And every form of technology—from new modes of machine-human interaction and interface design to data management, CRM systems and data capturing mechanisms—will be implicated this new imperative.

2) Marketers are readying for a shift in the way we leverage content and brand strategies

Historically, marketers have identified the cornerstones of a brand, and have driven those cornerstone messages into the market relentlessly until the market echoed them back . It occurred to me that those days may be over as I listened in on a session by Matthew May, author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, who focused the marketer lens on what he feels is a critical shift in the way content is used in branding strategies. May delivered a reading from his book and took a game-changing dive into the tenets of subtraction that marketers could apply to their brands.

May summarized his theory with this phrase: “Marketers, release control and start collaborating.” What he means is that marketers, rather than completing every sentence and directing every conversation, need to learn to invite customers to define the brand as well. Collaboration is the key concept here. When you allow your customers to apply their impressions to your brand, when you give them the space to interact with the brand on their own terms, you may actually discover opportunities that were not previously on your radar.

This is a major shift in thinking. Marketers no longer have to maintain absolute control over messaging and obsess about the trap of “required” branding. By treating customers as collaborators, marketers will have a stronger understanding of the relationship between a product or service and its users, and they will also learn to build relationships that can transcend transactions. In order to excel in today’s socially driven marketplace, it’s critical to stop making statements and start creating conversations. And that includes listening."

Deborah Hanamura is the Director of Marketing at digital agency Metia. She is known for creative direction, campaign strategy, event management, market intelligence, branding, sustainability, corporate social responsibility. Business development, strategic partnerships and sales. Her writings can be found on 1to1 Marketing and CRM magazine. She can be found via twitter @debhanamura or via her blog.

Heather Taylor

Published 2 April, 2013 by Heather Taylor

Heather Taylor is the Editorial Director for Econsultancy US. You can follow her on Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest.

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