The Pardoxes of SXSW 2011

Submitted by Kip on Wed, 03/16/2011

 I just got back from my first ever SXSW event. They are celebrating their 25th year as a Music Festival and 15th year as an Interactive Gathering (the “Davos of Digital”).

I wanted to share some of my impressions from this year’s SXSW gathering but before I do, I wanted to strongly recommend a book (“The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains”) I read on the way to Austin from California. It was published last year by Nicolas Carr, author of “The Big Switch” (another great book). I thought it would be an appropriate book to help put all of the hype I’d see in perspective.

Nicholas is not some Luddite who hates the Internet or technology…far from it. He’s a big fan of the Web…he’s just concerned if we’re not careful as a species, the “unintended consequences” of using the Internet is going to fundamentally change our ability to think and developing the ability to concentrate (which I think we’d all agree is critical to our future success).

For example, in terms of the ability to think in terms of the “big picture”, he says: “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves….whenever we turn on our computers, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption’ technologies as the blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow terms it.”

Carr’s done an impressive job of reviewing all the current scientific research that spending more and more time online is doing to our ability to think. Spoiler alert - it’s not good: “What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?...the news is even more disturbing than I suspected… when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning.”

And he’s confirmed one of my pet peeves I’ve noticed over the past couple of years: the urgent need for everyone check their smart phones every 5 minutes to see what’s new in their inbox or status update (and I’m as guilty as anyone…just ask my wife): “Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it….the near-continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Net also plays to our natural tendency to “vastly overvalue what happens to us right now”, as Union College Christopher Chabris explains. We crave the new even when we know the news is more often trivial than essential.”

The net of all of this is pretty sobering: “Michael Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment. As we multi-task online, he says, we are ‘training our brains to pay attention to the crap. The consequences for our intellectual lives may prove ‘deadly’.

So are you ready for some SXSW after that sunny set-up? Here were some of my impressions and take-aways from the week, including some interesting paradoxes I observed:

Paradox #1: Not every business needs to actively participate in social media; rather, the prime directive for all businesses in regard to social media is to be “committed to the dialogue” - Social media is now part of our landscape and the way we do business. Any company that thinks it’s not a big deal is as mistaken as companies that thought the Internet in the mid-90’s was no big deal. But that doesn’t mean all companies should have an active social media campaign. That requires a serious commitment of resources, especially the human kind.

In fact, the more “mainstream” social media becomes, the more likely a lot more companies are going to launch their own Facebook/Twitter/YouTube/etc. campaigns (and do them quite badly since they won’t be based on a sound strategy and will be under funded). What all companies should be doing as a fundamental part of doing business today is listening to what their customers are saying about them – there was an abundance of examples from SXSW where this is really starting to pay for companies.

If you’re not willing to listen and respond to what your consumers are saying online, your long-term odds of survival are pretty bleak (especially if you’ve got social media savvy competition). So what does that mean? At a minimum, you should be using tools to monitor what bloggers and others are saying about your brand and comment immediately (for a list of free or inexpensive tools to do this, check out

Paradox #2: Social media is not the alpha and omega for any successful business: it just helps contribute to its success. Take any brand or company that’s benefited from social media….Zappos, Ford, Apple, etc. Were they successful before the advent of social media? Yep. Did social media help? Sure, in some cases it’s helped define just how much they care about their customers (as with Zappos and Southwest). But a great social media plan won’t fix a broken brand…it can only help make a great brand greater.

Paradox #3: A great website doesn’t necessarily translate to a great mobile experience – There were some enlightening presentations on the growing importance of mobile marketing. As of this month, there are over 300k apps out there.... iTunes just had the 10 billionth download of an app.

One of the biggest “lessons learned” is the importance of recognizing the work needed for the development of a strong mobile presence for a brand. What do your website and mobile app have in common? Not a lot when you get right down to it:

  • Brand trademark
  • Brand positioning
  • Brand “look and feel”
  • User profiles

And what do you have to develop for your mobile app that’s different from your website? Oh, let me count the ways:

  • User interface
  • Visual design
  • Security features
  • Native code
  • Service layer/architecture
  • Authentication
  • QA/build and release

As mobile matures, there will be more apps that will be “self-standing” (i.e. independent from their website) and in some cases become more important than their counterpart website (and even take the place of that website). Until that day comes, make sure you give mobile the attention and resources it deserves.

Paradox #4: The Internet can be a huge help and a major liability for those who want to create a democracy for their people. The best SXSW speaker I got to enjoy was by Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody”. Since I love history, he made some interesting observations such as:

  • Pornography has been with us a long time – the first erotic novel was published in Italian in 1499 while it wasn’t until 1665 for the first scientific journal to catch up.
  • The rapid growth of the Internet and social media has made access to others much more important than access to information (since we’ve always had access to mass media generated info but now everyone in essence has turned into their own publishing center).
  • Social media is this generation’s version of what rock and roll was in the 1960’s (i.e. “my generation is different and we’re going to change the status quo”).
  • Revolutions don’t usually happen overnight…the Kifaya (Enough Is Enough) Movement in Egypt has been active since 2004 and represented a broad spectrum of Egyptians who wanted change. Social media help ignite the spark that was waiting to happen.
  • But it can also work against those in favor of change. The government of Sudan, seeing what was happening in Egypt, took out a Facebook fan page and announced an anti-government rally. Then they simply arrested everyone who showed up!

Shirky concluded his presentation by laying out what he called “the dictator’s dilemma”: in essence, while oppressive governments like the one in Sudan can use social media to suppress change, the long-term advantage is with those who want change since it’s now next to impossible to control what’s happening anywhere in the world (given all the cell phones and smart phones in existence). Hello YouTube!

Paradox #5 – While businesses are obsessing about hitting various social media milestones (such as Facebook fan count), they aren’t necessarily putting their money where their mouth is. For example, American Airlines has had a significant increase over the past 6 months in their Facebook fan count to 136k fans (but they’ve still got a long way to catch up with Southwest Airlines 1.3M fans).

Despite this growth, they only have 1.5 people responsible for their entire social media program (and one of those is from their agency). What’s worse is American asked for their fans to provide their frequent flyer number and an amazing number of them provided it to them. And what did American do with it? Put it on a BIG spreadsheet…and nothing else. Here’s a perfect opportunity to really understand if their Facebook fans are more valuable to the business to non-fans and they don’t bother to do the analysis. What a wasted opportunity to prove the value of their social media efforts!

Paradox #6 – The best time to build your social media network is when you don’t need it. Too many companies have unrealistic expectations on just how long it’s going to take for social media to have a positive impact on their business. Just like a marathon, creating and nurturing a social media program has to be viewed with a long-term perspective. You’ve got to stay focused on which consumer’s your program is serving and make sure it’s providing relevant, valuable information to them.

While this kind of effort will never have the same kind of immediate ROI that you can get from other marketing investments (such as paid search), over the long run it can be one of the wisest investments you can make in your brand and your business in creating loyal advocates who’ll be there when you need them the most.

Conclusion - If you’ve never been to SXSW, I’d highly recommend going next year (and be sure to sign up early since it sells out and hotels are tough to get if you wait). It’s a fantastic networking event and some of the speakers and panels are great.

On the other hand, other keynote speakers were not very impressive at all (stop the press: Barry Diller thinks the Internet is a wonderful invention!) and some of the panels were pretty weak and unimpressive (# Big Fail to Brian Solis: stick to writing books and clean up your language when you’re on stage…it’s not very classy to hear F bombs in a public forum).

I’ll let that be my last paradox observation from this year’s SXSW. I’d be interested in hearing what others got out of this year’s SXSW or if you’ve got a different take on anything I’ve noted.