Lessons from SXSW: Neil Davidson of HeyHuman

“It’s like Glastonbury for Geeks.”

Before I got on the plane from muggy England to Austin, Texas, that’s what I was told to expect of South by Southwest (SXSW), the world’s leading tech and innovation conference. Glastonbury for geeks.

Possibly not the pull-quote you’d stick on a poster, but I went with it. With over 1,200 sessions, 70,000 attendees and a proper music festival vibe, it’s easy to get sucked into the flashy exterior, the sheer wow-ness of SXSW. But what’s the content quality actually like? Because it was quality content I went for, especially seeing as I gave Cannes a miss last year for a number of reasons, the whole thing put into perspective after the Grenfell Tower fire.

HeyHuman has been talking about the changing tides of technology at SXSW for the past six years – our agency’s been there, got the t-shirt, the tacky keyring, the works. So I was keen to experience it for myself for the first time. Does it really give attendees a sense of where the future will take us? Or was it just a rare chance for us nerds to let off steam? Let’s find out.

Day one – Ditch the bad maps

Day one was an encouraging start. Of course it was. Nothing had happened yet.

Tim O’Reilly, the leading tech author of ‘What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us’, booted things off in style. His talk centred on the need to move beyond ‘bad maps’: tales of woe suggesting AI and robots will simply nullify mankind.

O’Reilly reckoned this dystopian view was inappropriate. Using Amazon as an example during his session, ‘Do More. Do Things That Were Previously Impossible’, he highlighted the fact that robots will actually augment rather than take jobs. By adding 45,000 robots, Amazon enabled 200,000 more jobs. Say what you want about Jeff Bezos, but that’s pretty good going by anyone’s standards.

Sure, there will be tensions amidst disrupted industries – just look at the turf war between Uber and conventional taxi drivers. But if we’re able to negotiate the growing pains of progress, we’ll see humanity’s potential enhanced. For example, O’Reilly argued that an ordinary driver augmented by the Uber app transforms, navigating the roads London black cab-style in an instant. Like Trinity from The Matrix learning to fly a helicopter.

Throughout day one, there was a wider sense of acceptance regarding tech’s transformative potential, but a caveat that in order to fully embrace it, we must bolster it with real empathy. That way, we make ceding the reins of power less daunting. Slightly.

Day two – Socialise social

Hearing the latest Google and Facebook research at SXSW seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity. Amidst real issues of fake news, brand safety and commercial messaging imbalancing our news feeds, it would’ve been great for the big names to come swinging with some sort of solution, an offering of peace.

On the whole, brands and the marketing community need to turn up the heat at SXSW. They need to remember that people come here actively looking for speakers to take the tech debate forward. It’s about helping thought leaders build a better boat, not just describing the temperature of the water.

However, I got to catch Pinterest’s Raashi Rosenberger talk about how to better meet audience mind-sets during her session, The Flow State: How to Tap Into Consumers’ Brains’.

Rosenberger focused on brands tapping in to people in-flow. She stressed the need to be empathetic, to connect in ways that inspire experience rather than interrupt. For example, a paint brand analysed the data in Pinterest users’ boards, looking at the colours and suggesting new ones in response.

And The biggest takeaway? This line: “time spent is not the same as time well-spent.” All of us in possession of a Netflix subscription can attest this.

Additional insights here came from Amber Venz Box, founder of the LIKEtoKNOW fashion app. The What Mobile Means for the World’s Biggest Brands session covered how relationships between audiences, influencers and brands have matured. Influencers on LIKEtoKNOW aren’t just chasing celebrities now, but rather understanding how to engage their audiences – advising not only what to buy, but which regional outlets harbour the best deals.

It’s clear we need to see social media as a genuine conversation, as a means for discourse. Brands’ usage of such tools needs to mature further. Brands seeing higher levels of response need to be both interesting and interested. Like any good conversation, we respond best to those who actively consider what’s important to us.

Day three – Find your flow

Day three saw some solid thoughts on behaviour and neuroscience. Perfect stuff for HeyHuman, touching on our focus of being brain-friendly for audiences overloaded by messaging in the post-digital age.

New insights from the University of Michigan revealed how to tap into the flow of emotion to make communications more effective, how to navigate an online landscape where most behaviour is habitual and people aren’t emotionally engaged.

‘Emoticulture: How Date & Science Create Happiness‘ was led by Marcus Collins, SVP of Doner agency; and Saleem Alhabash, assistant professor of public relations and social media at Michigan State University. The session revealed how to use data to connect more effectively, Collins advocating a new school of ‘radical empathy’ going beyond relevance.

He shared a great example from US sandwich shop Pot Belly, the purpose of which is ‘making people happy’ through delicious food. Seems simple. Good food makes people happy, right?

It’s a bit more complex than that. Pot Belly uses data to surprise and delight customers; if someone’s having a bad day on Twitter, they might get a free treat. If it rains, or the traffic in a certain area is abysmal, offers are triggered around said areas. And this stuff works. For a business working with a modest social budget, Pot Belly’s brand interaction has increased tenfold, and they’ve experienced an in-store footfall increase of 1.4 percent.

There were quite a few sessions on empathy and emotion, breeding a sense of acknowledgement that we all should be looking to unpack neuroscience practice in communications. Because we need to maximise every one of those fleeting interactions with real emotional intelligence and radical empathy.

Day four – AI: get involved

It was all about AI here. The highlight was undoubtedly hearing from two world experts: Megan Smith, ex-CTO to President Obama and now at Shift;, and Fei-Fei Lin, AI professor at Stanford.

In Democratising AI for Individuals and Organisations, both speakers set out a vision for AI that was a million miles from Hollywood’s obsession with “The robots are coming to kill us, Terminator was actually a home-video from the future wasn’t it, aaaaaargh.”

They saw AI as hugely transformative for commerce, culture and society. The main point was that we should all start our AI journey today, or risk missing out tomorrow.

There’s a palpable urgency, at SXSW and beyond, to discover what AI initiatives exist at a national level. To find a realistic way of starting in-depth AI experimentation, or at least to get more clued-up on the topic. This could be as simple as the most emotive approach to chatbots, or thinking about integration with Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home.

AI will change tomorrow, and we need to start shaping it today.

Day five – Do you feel me?

When my final day approached, the expression ‘Do you feel me?’ really resonated. It seemed to capture the spirit of SXSW 2018. The phrase was an off-the-cuff response to a question by Alexander Manowsky, futurist at Daimler AG, on the AI panel ‘Humanizing Autonomy.’ It’s a brilliant summation of realising the challenges of tech’s potential across science, technology and culture.

We really can use technology to elevate ourselves, to better our industry and each other, if we focus on how tech can better reflect us. We’re irrational, emotional creatures. If we get the feeling bit right, technology can not only capture hearts and minds – it can and will transform them.

So it’s not really like Glastonbury, no. I mean, there was a field. There were people there. There was some music and a few hippies. But SXSW is much deeper, much more nuanced than that. It’s so much better than the usual fodder served up at marketing conferences.

However, like any music festival, you need to dig deeper than the headline acts to discover new stuff that will truly change your worldview.

Neil Davidson is managing director and partner at HeyHuman

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