Hello! I’m writing from 30,000 feet over somewhere near the Texas-Arkansas border, on my way back to DC from sunny Austin. This year’s South by Southwest conference was a ton of fun, relatively informative (we’ll get to that faint praise in a minute), and the topics of conversation ones that will be relevant to marketers for a long time to come. Read on for my top 10 takeaways from the event:
Brands and digital academics – at an impasse? At this year’s conference, I made a conscious effort to attend more academic-led panels than I had last year. For the most part, these weren’t business or marketing or strategy professors; they were social scientists studying behavior on social and digital platforms. And after a few days, I noticed one interesting thing: the two groups seem at an impasse over critical issues in this area. On one hand, marketers and businesspeople typically adhered to (implicitly or explicitly) the idea that human behavior was more or less predictable and that with some smart solutions and a little Big Data, businesses (and sometimes nonprofits) can solve key problems of understanding what we’re going to do and why we’re going to do it. On the other hand, the themes emerging from academic-led panels – based on the actual observation of how people use these platforms – emphasized the inherent variability and adaptability of human behavior.
One of my favorite events, for instance, was “Tweeting the Drug War”, examining the emergent citizen behavior in the wake of widespread official media intimidation by drug cartels operating in the US-Mexico border region. In that area, reporters who inform the public about drug cartel activities are threatened and often physically harmed or killed by the gangs who do not take a liking to this; as a result, mainstream media organizations are unable to report the news. But Mexicans living in the region instead created new platforms for getting the word out; they used Twitter and other social tools to inform each other in the absence of professional media. Show me that in your agent-based models.
I, for one, think the academics are right; if they are, there will need to be a big re-thinking of the way we measure and attempt to shape consumer behavior.
Marketing’s models of customer learning are due for an update. Probably the second-most-fascinating panel of the long weekend (after “Tweeting the Drug War”) was “New Knowledge Ecosystems: How & What Do We Know?” This was of key interest to me personally because our major B2B research for 2013 involves the hows and whys of how the buyer organization “learns” (to use the word very loosely).
The gist of the panel discussion was that learning occurs in a group context. Observations about the world (biases, warts, and all) filter into a group – whether it’s business buyers or scientists within a particular discipline – and are then hashed out within that group. New “knowledge” is what emerges. I’m not sure whether this is happening more because of digital, more transparent media, or whether this process is simply more visible now – it’s plausible that both are true.
But in either case, Marketing’s model of information transfer – give information to customers, measure engagement with that information, and hope for the best – is threatened by an environment in which information is known to be absorbed in a group context. Marketers aren’t totally blind to this – shareability of content is important for just about any shop worth their salt. But great content will need to be more than simply sharable – it’ll have to get to the right “nodes” within a network to achieve the greatest influence.
Medium-centric thinking is beginning to slow down – and that’s a good thing. Last year, I noticed that tons of panels and discussions focused primarily and specifically on digital channels and platforms. It should go without saying, but this kind of thinking is difficult to justify; investments in a particular medium shouldn’t be based on how cool it is, how much buzz it gets, or how many target consumers are using it. There should be one (and only one) criteria for channel investments: can the investment do something good for our customers and ourselves, and does that good outweigh the cost of investment? And if the answer to those questions is yes – what good, exactly, do we expect it to do? (Nothing vague, like “engagement” – only specific metrics with revenue impact need apply).
Refreshingly, there was relatively little of this. For instance, in “B2B Social Marketing: Blazing New Trails”, panelists (including super-smart MLC member Jeanette Gibson of Cisco) talked about the specific outcomes marketers could influence with specific channel investments like video. (We also think video in B2B-land is very cool, perhaps even cooler than in the B2C world).
MLC members - did you attend SxSW this year? If so, what did you think? Let us know below.