10 Intriguing Things That Helped SXSW Rock Again

In recent years, South by Southwest Interactive has gotten so big and unwieldy that some folks have grown skeptical, wondering aloud on social media if we all should be "over" the five-day festival, even before it began. They wondered wrongly.

This year, the brand activations were fewer and generally smaller compared to some of the ridiculous monstrosities of 2014. And the dearth of bombastic marketing made room for people to more comfortably maneuver around the Austin Convention Center, improving the overall experience. In a lot of ways, the festival's focus made a healthy return to tech, at least compared to last year. And a large marketer, McDonald's, surprised attendees with a popular activation.

Here are 10 things that made the trip to Austin, Texas, fascinating and memorable.


You Did It Again, South By (Finally)

After a five-year drought without a clear break-out hit, Meerkat took the show by storm.

The app—which is a like a social-video version of FaceTime that incorporates Twitter—generated perfectly timed buzz right before the show began, and scores of attendees downloaded and used it. Some presentations were streamed via Meerkat, and one ad exec was spotted watching a CMO Club panel on his phone while hanging out on the sidewalk rather than attending in person. He evidently was near the panel but thought it'd be more fun to take it in on Meerkat. Hey, what's new and hot is new and hot.

It was the buzziest app at SXSW since Foursquare in 2009. What’s more, three-week-old Meerkat told The Wall Street Journal that it had 120,000 users going into South by and later informed Mashable that it grew 30 percent daily during the festival.


Death by Glasshole

Apparently, you can still use Google Glass, as there were a few people spotted—and by "few," we mean three—wearing the tech spectacles at SXSW. Brave souls they were, considering the "glassholes" tag that they've suffered in the last year.

We already knew that Google Glass was dead, but this show was the official nail in the coffin, complete with Google X leader Astro Teller's admission that his plans went awry due to marketing miscalculations. Against a SXSW backdrop that was colored by wearable startup pitches, the lack of Google Glass was notable.

What a difference a year makes. Last March, marketers were abuzz about brands like Kenneth Cole and The Weather Channel developing Google Glass ads. Fast forward 12 months, and the device is already just a footnote in tech history.


Wearables Were as Buzzy as Expected

There were around 80 Shark Tank-styled startup contests this year, and they produced a long parade of wearables pitches. For instance, there was Tinitell, a wristphone for young children. With just a few buttons, it lets kids easily call their family members. And it connects with smartphone apps, allowing moms and dads to determine whom their children can speak with.

A wide range of health-tech products were also presented—from meditation devices to brain-chip monitoring systems—while fashion brand Swarovski showed off its jewelry fitness product called Shine. And there were even wearable drones.


The Internet of Things Is Becoming an Actual Thing

Marketers talked up everything from smart lamps to connected cars throughout the festival. So get ready for more Internet-wired appliances and vehicles coming to stores near you.

"There are a lot of smart appliances for the kitchen already, with more launching every day—just checking [digital fundraising platform] Kickstarter shows you where the industry is headed," commented Kevin Yu, CEO of SideChef, a social-cooking mobile app.

The Internet of Things will provide marketers with new data management challenges, said Roberto Moctezuma, founder of app ThereThere, during a talk called Contextual Applications: The Next Wave.

"There will have to be very sophisticated rules compared to what we've been accustomed to," he said.


McDonald’s Was “Cool” for a Night

The Golden Arches didn't get booed off the stage, despite a painfully bad PR start when indie band Ex Cops last week called out the fast-food brand on Facebook for not paying performers. (The brand reversed its decision and compensated the performers with cash.)

On Saturday night, the burger slinger's music-based, big-tent event—which was the size of two football fields off Red River Street—was actually rocking and rolling. The space was packed for hours, with lines of people waiting to get in late into the night.

Mickey D's offered free bacon cheeseburgers and crispy chicken sandwiches that, frankly, seemed to be of much greater quality than the normal, in-store fare. Additionally, patrons were offered french fries with special flavors (garlic, ranch, etc.) and all the gratis booze they could drink.

Six-foot Ronald McDonald statues dotted the grounds, and the static clowns wore hipster attire while taking selfies with smartphones. People, of course, couldn't resist taking selfies with him and sharing the silliness on social platforms.

What's more, people appeared to be enjoying themselves quite a bit. Call the night a win for McDonald's, which received mixed reviews for its accompanying food-truck play.


Dear Robots: Welcome to South By

Whether it was Sirius FM founder Martine Rothblatt talking about the robot clone she was making of her wife or a fake protesters who warned against the perils of artificial intelligence, what once seemed like a far-in-the-future, sci-fi concept suddenly was afoot.

There was even marketing-panel chatter about how "house robot" data will be used by homemakers and perhaps even retail brands (think automatically ordered kitchen supplies when your cupboards are empty). Robot commerce, anyone?


Digital Advertising Was Definitely Here

Stats-based advertising didn't take a backseat to sexier tech conversations, as panels on cross-channel marketing and data-driven storytelling were aplenty. Indeed, sometimes broccoli was the main course instead of brisket.

Software players and marketers like Campbell's and Mississippi University said they are making headway in reaching the one-to-one consumer relationship nirvana that every modern brand wants. It's all about meshing purchase behaviors with social and mobile data via companies such a People Pattern and Ninja Metrics.


Brands Expanded Realities

For the second year in a row, virtual reality and augmented reality had noteworthy moments. Take DirecTV, which held an eight-hour digital entertainment innovation lab that included demonstrations about how TV home viewing can be transformed with VR headsets Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear.

And virtual reality content house Jaunt premiered new, film-like programming, including a comedy.

Additionally, HBO's Game of Thrones' augmented reality activation was a huge hit, with lines forming around the block.


The Ride-Sharing War Came to Texas

Marketplace frontrunner Uber didn't let challenger Lyft—an official sponsor of South by Southwest—own the five-day tech festival by sending Houston and Dallas drivers to work in Austin.

Early last week, Lyft struck a deal to offer rides at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. But then Uber reacted by forging a similar agreement.

In other words, there was more of the cat-and-mouse activity the two brands have become known for.


Austin’s Tech Boom Has Never Been So Obvious

The three or four-year-old narrative about Silicon Valley startups moving to Austin is still true. Adweek spoke to a few companies that recently relocated to Texas, and simply looking up at the crazy amount of high-rise construction downtown makes it abundantly clear Austin is booming.


A Star Is Rising

Bonus track: Gary Clark Jr. played at GSD&M's gigantic party on Monday night, and the singer-guitarist—with his distorted and soulful style—proved again that he's worthy of the legend-in-the-making hype.

So often at corporate parties, the drinks and conversation drown out the performer on stage. That wasn't the case with Clark, who had hundreds of onlookers eating out of the palm of his hand.

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