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The Cult of Learning: A SXSW Observation

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SXSW is a brilliant chaos. But Microsoft Advertising Head of U.S. Brand Marketing, Ritu Trivedi, thinks education is at the festival’s heart

The Cult of Learning: A SXSW Observation

SXSW is like no other event in our industry. A dizzying blend of massive brands whose taglines are synonymous with mainstream culture, startups that you have never heard of, and everything in between – all looking to make a dent in a vast ocean of clamor and chaos. Austin is a unique space where brands attempt to outdo each other, showing up in a bigger, bolder way year-after-year. 

A growing trend that really stood out this year was that big brands and startups are partnering together more and more in the spirit of improvement and learning. Obviously the goal is to spur innovation, adoption and create meaningful experiences – but what they really want is to help. Help consumers be more productive, add convenience to their lives, and also delight. Our own SXSW event echoed this sentiment by bringing our startup accelerator Microsoft Ventures, which helps technologies like Gamewhisp and Qukku bring innovative services to market and reach new customers. We invited brands and agencies to ‘meat up’ (pun intended) with this startup community over BBQ, food and music – fostering conversations and open dialogues about innovation. 

Another marketing trend that continues to become bigger and better at SXSW each year is brands taking over parts of downtown Austin – emblematic of how brands are weaving themselves contextually into consumers’ lives. Take what GE did for example. By creating a BBQ Science Lab, they were able to immerse SXSW attendees into a world where their technology, when applied to the local cuisine, could show the depth and range of GE’s capabilities in a creative and delicious way. Their contention: science and research are applicable to everything, and we have a complete comprehension of that, even when it comes to smoking a brisket. 

Another great activation was the full-scale replica of the Bates Motel, promoting the popular TV show, where attendees could stay the night – if you were one of the lucky few to be extended the highly-coveted invite. 

These examples just touch the spear of local activations and events that had SXSW attendees clamoring to get in – whether it was those featuring celebrities or up-and-coming bands, or those utilizing social media, beacons, robotics or the Internet of Things. At SXSW, it’s chaos masquerading as a must-attend, must-be-seen event. But that’s what we all love, right?  

As advertisers and marketers we thrive on chaos because what eventually emerges is a sensation of innovation and creativity.  And most importantly – connection.  Surrounded in that energy we recognize that we have an inherent need to evolve, hastened by our innovative industry.  We have to embrace the opportunity to provide experiences beyond expectation. 

But where do we start? We have so much information, data and insights, but we still need to continue learning.  

The speaking sessions and panel discussions are geared towards this goal at SXSW – but it’s the brands, startups, and everything in between that are consistently and inventively trying to educate through experience. Educate attendees on their latest product, capabilities, their value proposition, or just the fact that they exist. The intention is to teach SXSW attendees something new, and elicit a feeling. 

That is what’s so special about SXSW. Whether you’re a digital marketer, an IT engineer or in an indie band, everyone is invited to get dirty, get hands-on, and leave with more valuable knowledge than when they arrived.  

The rate of innovation is only accelerating.  We need agents of change, brands, agencies, and individuals who are comfortable pushing forward in the nebulous atmosphere of our industry.   

Next year, if these trends continue, naturally the approach will have to evolve as well.  As digital citizens, our desire to adopt, transform and evolve all starts with the requirement of learning.  Opening our minds to recognize the rate of change is good and necessary. As digital marketers, this should be our mantra during SXSW and beyond.   

Ritu Trivedi is Head of U.S. Brand Marketing at Microsoft Advertising

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