The Rise of the Bots and The Fall of VR – What I Took Away from a Week at SXSW

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With an endless list of sessions, panels and parties, the weeklong SXSW Interactive Conference is a battle with lines, FOMO, heartburn and exhaustion. In case you missed all that, here are a few of the trending topics from this year:

Chat Bots and (the Lack of) Artificial Intelligence

Chat Bots dethroned VR as the trendiest interactive marketing topic of 2017. As the novelty of messaging with a chatty robot wears off, people are demanding that bots have clear and understood purposes. Brands need to be okay with people leaving the bot experience if they aren’t finding what they are looking for – and provide “outs” for people to do so.

The takeaway: until bots are given actual intelligence, success lies in them serving a specific, narrow purpose well.

A Mobile-centric Video Strategy

Brands are still using :30 TV creative for their mobile video placements. But the storytelling devices used in the :30 don’t work in a mobile social feed, where people spend 1.7 seconds with a piece of content. The first TV ads were radio spots with an image on the screen, and that’s where we are at with the maturity of mobile video. Biometric responses to full-screen (vertical) mobile video show that people have more emotional reactions to moments on mobile versus TV screens, allowing for deeper neural connections with brands.

The takeaway: adopt a mobile-optimized video strategy to unlock the potential of the more immersive mobile screen.

Why VR/360 Sucks

The darling of the 2016 conference was still well represented this year. But conversations turned to the shortcomings. Most emerging formats start in the art world, and have decades to develop before being commercialized. But in the case of VR, the tech industry invested so heavily that the format has been pushed towards monetization too quickly.

The takeaway: start with the story and then determine if a more direct sensory experience would enhance it or just be a gimmick.


Fueled by reduced attention spans, fractured media consumption habits and the rapid pace of tech innovation, our industry is getting pushed towards doing things much more quickly. Netflix is using A/B testing to rapidly drive and optimize their product design, moving into iterative A/B tests as soon as they have a winning variation. Agile methodologies are finding their way outside of the web development world, with brands leveraging design sprints for all types of projects. New tools for rapid prototyping of websites using real data feeds (APIs) are enabling prototypes that can be tested with a much higher confidence level.

The takeaway: the fast pace of tech and platform changes is creating new challenges - and new opportunities. Test early and often to minimize big investments before everything changes out from under you. Again.

Influencers and Authenticity

People are increasingly using their time online for discovery. No longer are we typing what we need, but instead discovering things visually – and then searching for it. But that doesn’t mean that social platforms can’t be action-oriented. Instagram shared that 75% of people reported taking an action based on something they saw in their feed. Influencers are a powerful way for brands to insert themselves into that discovery process in a more authentic way. Louis Vuitton and ShopStyle are thinking about influencers as virtual store windows and are adopting always-on approaches to their influencer strategies.

The takeaway: as time spent on social media continues to rise, the way people are using the Internet is shifting towards discovery. Influencers can connect with your audience in that setting in a more native, authentic way.

After a week at SXSW, all the trends, buzzwords and stats start to blend together in weird ways. The chat-bot conversations start to sound like the ones about The Internet of Things. Authenticity starts to feel like a new gimmick. Linear TV is dead, but people are spending more time watching it than ever before. If there’s a takeaway from all of these converging viewpoints, it is that brands can’t lose sight of their audience. The latest marketing or tech trends are only as effective as they are useful to people. Brands need to stay true to who they are and continue to find ways to tell their story to people in meaningful ways. And make chat bots.

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