5 Things We Learned at SXSW

Festival's cool factor is in question, though 'secret' apps provide fun

South by Southwest Interactive is winding down today, so the brand activations that have taken up parking lots around Austin, Texas, are being disassembled and ultimately will give way to the Music section of the festival running through this weekend. 


A handful of themes emerged during Interactive's five days of wide-ranging programs. Let's start with a painfully obvious one: While there were clearly startups pitching their technology, their existence here has been downgraded from the big focus to periphery.

For instance, that old question: "What's the breakout star this year?" Hardly anyone asked.

And it seems like the tech crowd is beginning to sour on South By. Here are some potential reasons:

1. Execs Flocked to Central Texas

There's a message in comedic actor Mike Myers' directorial debut, Supermensch, which premiered during the film section of the festival, that applies here. The documentary's subject, entertainment biz legend Shep Gordon, says he launched Alice Cooper with a simple idea: "We wanted parents to hate us." Well, Mom and Dad—in the form of brand execs—were totally at SXSW Interactive this year, and chatter around town suggested the development is why many tech kids stayed away. That's no fault of industry players, who were just doing their jobs as marketers. And in the video below, Jason Sperling, RPA svp/ecd, suggests that a shift in crowd demo could be a good thing. But it will be interesting to see in the years ahead whether South By loses its cool factor.


2. Anonymous Austin

Two interesting tech players did show up and create a little buzz—though their hubbub seems more about a digital-cultural phenomena than rising companies. A lot of people evidently wanted to leave their identities at home. Secret became the place to anonymously get things off one's chest, such as "I cheated on my wife last night." (Or at least reveal he was thinking about it.) The startup created a Secret by Southwest online destination so people at the show could get their TMI on as well as other randomness. The site, at times, is hilarious. And Whisper was also a clandestine-styled digital player that people at the show paid attention to.

3. Brands Go Bigger

Brand activations have been ridiculous in recent years, but they got even bigger this year. Pennzoil, in its first year here, rented an outdoor space the size of a dozen football fields for its Mario Kart effort. Oreo was making Twitter-personalized cookies for passersby in real time, and Chevy had some 50 "cabs" rolling around downtown, giving attendees a free ride to where they needed to go (with a limit of three miles). Check out these Instagram videos as examples.

4. Wearables Were the New Social

Wearable devices thankfully gave the show's veterans something new to talk about this year. The conference for too long had been dominated by conversations about social media and mobile. From how wearables fit in with the future of connected cars to how they can co-exist with GoPro and smartphone apps such as Highlight, it made for interesting discussions. Check out Highlight CEO Paul Davison's take below.

5. Going Wide: Privacy and Security Hawks Get Top Billing

The show's buzziest speakers were Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Clinton, which tells you that Interactive isn't quite the tech-marketer-oriented event it used to be. By switching out keynote speakers such as Foursquare chief Dennis Crowley and Scvngr/LevelUp CEO Seth Priebatsch for data privacy hawks, it signals that South By may be growing ever more mainstream. There's even a complete sports track now that includes sessions with folks such as Texas Tech head football coach Kliff Kingsbury. Once again, how the proverbial "cool kids" of tech respond to SXSW's evolution should be worth watching in the years to come. Meanwhile, one popular bar/restaurant told Adweek it sold more beer on Saturday than it did for the whole festival last year. All about the buzz, all about the buzz.