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Surprises from the First Day of SxSW 2017

By Mark McClennan, SVP, MSLGROUP

The first day of SxSW has come to a close, and if I had to sum it up, it was a day of surprises. The great conversations were still there – no surprise there. Only at SxSW can you have great conversations with communications executives at the CIA, Converse, Mall of America, McDonald’s, a law tech startup and investment bankers from Brazil.


The surprise was the fragmentation of themes and topics. The dominant theme continues to be innovation. But while last year, AR/VR overwhelmingly dominated the discussion, this year it is new approaches that seem to dominate. From changing the approach of tech, to Blockchain, to the rise of bots, communicators have even more tools, and more strategic decisions to making in the coming years. And this is a very good thing.

Healthcare continues its rise at SxSW, with some great sessions scheduled for the next few days. While financial services and fintech still have a presence, it is smaller compared to previous years as conferences such as Money20/20 and FinDevr siphon off speakers and attendees.

So what are some key takeaway and learnings?

• Augmented Reality is an opportunity that requires companies and communicators to look at things in a new way. The developers of Pokemon Go (Niantic) and the Knight Foundation addressed this topic in an opening session. Pokemon Go is still going strong, with tens of millions of daily players. What really stuck with me was a comment from John Hanke, CEO at Niantic “Tech companies are great at building consumer cocoons. We need to refocus on using technology for connecting in real life to meet human yearning.”

For communicators, this comes into play when planning an activation. If we can implement campaigns that don’t just use gamification but bring people outside together, the response can be overwhelming. It goes beyond this video of people chasing a Pokemon in Taiwan. Users have chartered planes and rented helicopters to get an edge and build a community. When was the last time one of your campaigns evoked such passion?

This also can help brands with their relationships with their cities. In many municipalities, public spaces are underutilized, and if a company can drive traffic and civic engagement, it can help build bridges.

• Blockchain is more than just a financial services technology. Many people outside financial services may not realize the impact Blockchain is having and will have. The session today should help dispel this perception. There were more than 450 attendees in the room, and hundreds more were turned away at the door.

If you haven’t delved into this tech, you should make the time. I don’t see an immediate impact for public relations but when it comes to data, privacy and new ways of securely connecting and sharing information – there is much more to come. One of the long-term Blockchain implications is this may give consumers the ability to easily control their privacy and monetize access to their data, instead of freely handing it over to large companies. If you combine this with many of the augmented and VR themes from last year – this could mitigate some dystopian fears about marketing and communications.

There were many other topics addressed on the first day, but a key point was made at the end of the day by the Real Dan Lyons – we are stronger when there is diversity of thought, experience, and background. It’s when we truly engage and empower multiple perspectives that we get the best solutions. And that is what I love about SxSW. It is one of the best places to get a wide variety of perspectives. I look forward to what the next few days will bring.
If you are at SxSW and want to discuss these topics or anything else, I can be reached at @mcclennand


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Mark McClennan is a senior vice president and head of the Consumer Technology practice and Business & Financial Services practice at MSLGROUP.

About The Author

Social Media and Privacy TraX

Mark is a social media, privacy and fraud expert who has worked tech PR for 19 years. He is chair-elect of the PRSA.

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