Top 9 SXSW 2021 Digital Takeaways: Fresh from Virtual Austin

April 12, 2021by Hiebing

Rather than everyone traveling to SXSW, SXSW went to everyone in the way they’ve become all too accustomed to traveling: virtually. Even without the real-life sights, sounds, experiences and let’s be honest– the tacos, that make this Austin festival an annual draw for people all over the world, this year’s takeaways were still plentiful. Here are the nine our team identified as noteworthy for today’s marketers.

  1. The Need for Speed. The traditional approval processes and testing windows don’t match up with how quickly brands are required to produce content responding to current events and trends. For example, TV spots were turned around in three days instead of months to respond to BLM, and major brands are embracing quick trends and memes on TikTok – where you’ll miss the viral moment if you don’t move quickly.
  2. Unlocking TikTok. Speaking of TikTok, the platform uniquely affords brands the opportunity to market at the speed of culture. To be successful, we have to accept – and embrace – the fact that there’s no way to anticipate the next viral moment. The key is to respond in real time whenever that moment arrives. Some ways to prepare for the unexpected: Establish an always-on dedicated listening team, facilitate real-time collaboration, test and learn and above all, make TikToks for TikTok (vs. recycling content from other platforms). This will give you a track record of success and the ability to gain momentum when opportunity knocks.
  3. Purpose in Action. The importance of purpose – and the expectations around it – continue to gain traction in the brand-building landscape. As social justice issues flared in 2020, they illuminated brands that had been walking the walk with purpose and those that had not. Today’s consumers are fed up with purpose-washing and have begun holding brands accountable. According to the SXSW panels, the pursuit for purpose needs to move beyond advocacy into action and commitment that leads to measurable progress and powerful change.
  4. The Infusion of Empathy. It was amazing to see how empathy is being embraced across so many categories to connect to the target. Brands and advertisers are acknowledging the wide spectrum of experiences and where they can not only fit within current narratives, but improve them to make the world a better place. From political campaign design and social justice communication to AI technology and the future of transportation, empathy was top of mind for those aiming to forge meaningful, impactful connections.
  5. A Local Lens.Though the COVID-19 pandemic is global in scale, it plays out locally. From hospital capacity and vaccine eligibility to stay-at-home orders and up-to-date business hours, consumers’ daily news consumption has veered local. As we tell stories within our communities, brands stand to potentially benefit from this renewed trust in local news – and they can leverage it by finding ways to articulate the meaningful ways they contribute to lives of residents for the better.
  6. Location Data for Good. When the pandemic hit and concentrated urban areas virtually shut down, knowing where and when to get essentials was more important than ever. Advertisers and location service companies saw the opportunity to use traffic data “for good,” transforming digital outdoor to alert people where they could grocery shop with the least amount of traffic in real time. And now new behaviors centered around “fresh air” have taken hold – dining outside, walking, curbside pickup, patio entertaining – and delightful digital experiences (in lieu of physical ones) are redefining the currency of hospitality for 2021 and beyond.
  7. Unraveling the Social Dilemma. Social media rolls unchecked through our public and private lives and at times can be fueled by a public narrative that plays up fear, fake news and conspiracy. At the same time, it brings out the very best of us, connecting us as individuals and fostering the value of humanity, inspiring us, making us laugh, providing emotional support and more. Leaders at SXSW spoke about the next evolution of this important touchpoint, navigating how to regulate the bullying that can take place and trying to solve the dopamine loop it can create for users — two very big issues to solve, but worth endeavoring for the upside this space provides for us.
  8. Fear Tactics Aren’t What They Used to Be. We’ve all seen the messages “Only One Left!” or “Don’t Miss Out,” which are intended to trigger an innate sense of fear or loss aversion and drive us to act. With the magnitude of the events that occurred throughout 2020, the fear of “missing out on a product” pales in comparison to the other fear people have been dealing with. After what they’ve been through, consumers are less open to trying something new or find themselves struggling to make what they deem to be sound decisions. Because of this, brands need to adjust their messaging and find ways to help, educate and empower customers to make decisions autonomously and confidently. Otherwise, we’re only likely to drive them further away.
  9. Emotional AI.With the exponential growth of technology and the use of artificial intelligence throughout our daily lives, there’s an increasingly greater need to humanize that technology. The emergence of AI involving human perception and emotion is beginning to take shape to provide the empathy that’s missing. Future technology will include facial recognition and voice pattern identification, all of which will be collected, qualified and quantified as emotional intelligence.

There’s a lot happening in the marketing space right now, and these diverse takeaways from SXSW 2021 are cases in point. If you’re looking for a partner to help you navigate and leverage the latest marketing trends to create momentum for your brand, email Dana at to set up a call.

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