Why experiences led the way at SXSW 2018

Thought Leadership

“Free stuff & baby goats”. Viceland was an instant classic. Counterculture at its finest right off Rainey Street.

Amidst the usual din of talks and pitches, expos, technological eulogizing and a mishmash of predictions ranging from the bold to the outdated, experience was the real winner this year in Austin.

From those goats to the stunning Westworld activation courtesy of HBO and the clever folks at Giant Spoon, which had eager minds waiting 9 hours in line to experience first hand.

From the extravagant Great Big Story speakeasy pop-up, brainchild of founder Ben Whitla, to an auditorium of mixed reality Next Gen gaming booths from Sony’s Wow Studios. And I haven’t even mentioned Ready Player One.

Experiences dominated the agenda and the SX social conversation, despite insightful efforts from Sadiq Khan, Melissa Gates and even Arnie Schwarzenegger.

This wasn’t just experiential marketing; that would be to underplay the significance of the shift. This was real life marketing offering a greater value exchange for consumers than we’re used to seeing. And it was awesome.

Forward-thinking brands already embrace the importance of experience within their marketing strategies. Leon Imas, Global Identity Director at adidas, shared a vision of how emerging technologies will enhance the live sports experience; Jason White, Global Head of Marketing at Beats by Dre, talked about how real human experiences and interactions are shaping brand narratives now and increasingly in the future.

Yet this felt like a breakthrough year for experiences and the role the tangible plays in socially-led creative thinking. With all-time heightened consumer trust issues, perhaps to experience it really is to believe it.

Of course, the meaning and value of “experience” extends well beyond the hullabaloo of brand moments and the Austin convention center.

What has always made South By so special is its ability to connect likeminded people. Forget about the six degrees of separation principle. This is more 360 degrees. Newly-created chains of “friends of friends” are literally everywhere and this year was no exception.

In fact, for whatever reason, it seemed to exceed previous years; rival agencies were closer, friendlier than ever, brands less guarded, media more “off the record”.

Perhaps this increased sociability was an inadvertent reaction to the industry-wide struggles advertising has faced over the past year or so. A timely opportunity to share burdens and brainstorm over BBQ.

Net result being a stark reminder the real lasting value in this great event often comes long after speakers are unmiced and iPhone batteries have died.

So there it is. Experiences win SXSW18. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. And make sure you book your tickets for next year now.