My one and only SXSW post, I promise.
I did an experiment and hit SXSW without saying anything on it on social media. I used Foursquare and GroupMe for some local action, so I could find friends and the like, but didn’t do anything on more widespread social media. I didn’t want to contribute to others’ FOMO. I did post a few pictures on Instagram, but they were only of non-human things, cute photos, stuff that could have been anywhere - a laptop stand, an oil painting, a statue. You know, hipster emo stuff. No bands, no friends, no panels, no action. No mention of SXSW.
After doing so, I can now say it was really cathartic, and the world would be a better place if everyone did the same thing.
We are, after all, being played. I sat down for a lovely interview with a reporter named Norene Malone from the New Republic, who expressed skepticism that all the marketing work there was worth it. I walked her through the numbers, both from an earned media perspective and a Tipping Point/brand influencers perspective, and assured her it was actually totally worth it for someone like GE to spend 200, 300 grand at SXSW, and how there’s even a pretty solid argument for a young startup to make a go of it. It really does make financial sense for these brands to be here. And it makes sense because we are all too happy to talk about it.
Now, I mean, I’m not saying this in some curmudgeonly anti-advertising way, grumble grumble, get off my lawn. I don’t think advertising is evil. But man, it sure does feel weird at this level at SXSW. I can’t help but feel like we’re not only all being played, but we’re also helping brands figure out how to play everyone else. Why is that? I’ve sort of been mulling it over, and I think it’s because we view SXSW as a window into our future a bit. We try out these apps that need a high density of connected users all in one place, and we see if they work or not, so we have some insight into whether they COULD work in a world where millions of people have downloaded them. The whole place is a bit of a future lab. And when I think of SXSW that way, I LOVE GroupMe and Foursquare, but, man, Twitter sure gets annoying, and Instagram gets pretty insufferable - I don’t want all of my friends to be in the same place doing the same things one block up the road. I want them out in the world doing amazing different things. Whatever, I digress. The advertising, though, is terrifying, isn’t it? If that is our future? A future with a branded experience every 50 feet? I suppose it is. I suppose we’ll buy everything online and brands will need real-world outlets just as brand activators, points of interest to give influencers an anchor to their branded tweets.
It’s interesting. Online, brands are getting smarter and better and learning to do awesome shit for us. But offline, they’re almost getting more annoying. No, no, that’s too harsh. A Samsung Galaxy Lounge™ is definitely less annoying than a giant billboard on the side of a building.
This is the thing - all of this is really just being done so that brands don’t have to pay for media, so they don’t have to pay for our news. Yes, it’s more authentic to have a brand recommendation coming from a friend. Yes, I will listen to friends more. But can that be the ONLY thing? No. I want brands to support the media. I’m writing a whole book about it, but generally speaking when economists talk about whether advertising is good or bad for our economy, they agree broadly that it’s good, but the number one thing that puts it over the edge into the good camp is that it pays for our media. I am starting to think we should respect brands who are willing to pony up and support the NY Times and whatnot rather than just trying to leverage social. Because when they save that money, when they only have to spend $10 million on media instead of $100 million on media, where does that savings go? What happens to that other $90 million? Does it go to the customers in lower prices? No. Do the employees get raises? No. It goes to the shareholders.
This reads more like an attempt at a manifesto than I mean it to. I am just saying, wow, it was nice to not tweet a lot about SXSW. And even though I was actually at SXSW, it was nice to not read about SXSW on Twitter the whole time.
I WILL SAY, SXSW themselves? They did a great job. The conference has largely worked out its growing pains. Austin could use one or two more large hotels - the housing situation is a joke. A complete catastrophe, but that’s out of the SXSW’s control, I suppose. I thought it was going to be terrible, and it wasn’t. Congrats, SXSW. I suspect you’re plotting to move the whole thing to Vegas or something, but, really, it was a wonderful time in Austin, as always.