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Op-Ed: Three Simple—Yet Impactful—Takeaways From A SXSW Free Agent

davidtrahanAfter attending SXSWi for three straight years, we skipped the 2014 installment, so we decided to pass the mic to someone who was actually on the grounds and could provide some thoughts on this year’s event. Ladies and gents, meet David Trahan (@brooklyknight), a senior strategist at New York-based MRY. In case you were wondering, he specializes in brand strategy, digital, and consumer behavior and nerds out over airplanes, politics, and architecture. Take it away, sir.

SXSW was a playground for me. I won the trip as part of an internal MRY contest to send three employees to SXSW. I had the luxury of doing whatever I wanted (including sleeping in) with no formal responsibilities such as client schmoozing or attending certain sessions. I used this freedom as an opportunity to not only listen to panelists, but to observe the behaviors of SXSW goers and how they reacted to panels, brand installations, start-ups, and parties. I also ended SXSW as a part of the “The Story of SXSWi 2014: Eye of the Beholder” session recapping trends from SXSW 2014.

My key takeaways are as follows:

1. Curiosity > Information

Inspiring curiosity is the ultimate form of empowerment. You know the saying: give a man a fish, teach a man to fish… What I learned at SXSW is that there’s more bounty in inspiring that man to learn how to fish on his own rather than teaching him yourself. It not only instills in him a greater sense of ownership, but it allows for discovery of new fishing techniques since he wasn’t taught someone else’s way of doing things. Marketers often say they want to empower consumers, and their method of doing so becomes tools and information. Those are nice, but do they inspire? That is, do they encourage curiosity that leads to action and discovery?

This is why many of the “how to” panels got bad word-of-mouth reviews. They were just telling people how to do what they already know, focusing on the seller’s technique and not the buyer’s imagination.

As Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “To feel knowledge makes you take ownership of knowledge.”

2. Solving New Problems is More Important than Doing Something Better

Ever feel like you see a lot of startups that do the same thing as other startups? Same gum in a different flavor? 90% of tech startups fail, and I feel confident saying that a lot of failure comes from a lack of true innovation. While it’s profitable to compete in new/newly tech-led markets, there are plenty of un-tapped opportunities to build a business on solving an unmet need rather than focusing on competitive innovation.

While startups touted technology solutions that make things easier and better, panelists asked for solutions that just plain make things possible. They didn’t ask for new platforms, but rather for new ways of thinking. They didn’t ask for mobile apps; they asked for solutions. Interestingly, SMS was high on the list.

As Chelsea Clinton said, “Innovation isn’t always new.”

And FYI, Chelsea Clinton also loves diarrhea.

3. People Are Sheep, but Brands Aren’t the Sheep Dogs

The intersection of marketing and technology relies on getting people to behave in a way that favors a brand and drives profitability, however, digital has given birth to the democratization of everything. As marketers and technologists, we let ourselves think that we’re in control of that behavior, but democracy is the real sheepdog. That means technology must be built to serve it.

That’s why panelists at SXSW preached about the power of people and communities to shape the cultural narrative that ultimately decides the success and failure of all businesses. That’s why content-related startups dominated the convention room to help brands fuel the dialogue that influences consumer decision making.

As Eliza Anyangwe from The Guardian said, “When you can’t motivate the community, you’re solving the wrong problem.”

So, in the game of SXTelephone where I tell you what I learned and hope that you walk away with something valuable and actionable, I also have three action items for you:

1.       Empower consumers by encouraging curiosity and aiding in exploration – don’t just give them information.

2.       Solve real problems that people need real solutions for – don’t just focus on your competition.

3.       Fuel democracy through the individual – don’t put your own interests first.

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