Top 10 Things to Know about a Weekend at SXSW

Posted Monday, March 14, 2016

Stephanie McGrathMercedes Smith

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    Real life, in 2016!

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    Mercedes had a few questions for the CIA.

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    Tacos, again!

When life hands you a full weekend in Austin during South by Southwest, you make the most of it. Spying on the CIA: check. Cheering for the NY Times: check. Eating tacos: check and re-check!

We were truly inspired by a plethora of activities and talks and we’ll do a deeper dive into some of the topics right here on NATIONAL’s blog soon. In the meantime, we thought we’d share some interesting highlights:

  1. We kicked the weekend off with sugar shock courtesy of Voodoo Donuts. We both opted for something decadent and chocolate. The less said about that indulgence the better. Then, we got down to learning.
  1. On a panel titled Get Your Readers and Listeners to Pay You Money we heard from representatives of The Guardian, Slate and others discuss how to inspire people to pay for premium content. Our biggest takeaway from this talk was around the importance of doing a full, deep dive into the needs and wants of your audiences and tailoring content to suit them. Some of the speakers – surprisingly – seemed to know very little about their audiences. “Superfans” came up a lot too, along with some success stories of leveraging them as influencers. We were also interested to learn about Slate’s success with premium content that focuses on providing tools and interactive content that educate audiences about specific topics.
  1. We did a tour of experiential lounges created by Sony and IBM. This cemented our belief that VR (virtual reality) is the all-consuming topic and hope for the future, along with customization and personalization. At Sony, we played with prototypes that try to add physical weight and texture to digital images (very cool). At IBM, we were brewed custom cocktails based on a personality quiz.
  1. We were blown away by a panel titled New York Times Reality Through VR-Tinted Glasses, presented by New York Times CEO Mark Thompson and media columnist Jim Rutenberg. During this session, Thompson talked extensively about VR, yes, but more importantly about the need to evolve, experiment, integrate and change as the content and media landscape changes. “It’s all about everything, all at once – video, social, infographics …” he said, adding that “integration is the single most important thing we have to get right”. We could write an entire piece about the importance of this talk and its relevance to EVERY industry … so we will. More to come on this later in March.
  2. We ate more tacos. So far, between the two of us, we believe to have consumed somewhere in the range of eight tacos. We hope to increase this tally by the time we head for home.
  1. We visited the SXSW Health & MedTech expo, which we could have spent all day exploring. We’re heartened and excited by innovations we observed in this space. We met a woman who, along with her husband, has developed an artificial pancreas using Raspberry Pi! The system does predictive tracking of her blood sugar as she works to better control her diabetes. We also spoke with MDigitalLife about their work to understand the digital influencers in the healthcare space, what they care about and what content they might respond to.
  1. We stood in line for a thousand hours (okay, 1.5) to catch improv by The Upright Citizens Brigade, but the venue reached capacity before we got in. We then randomly found ourselves at a Coolio concert.
  1. Sunday morning began with breakfast tacos and a little spy mission. In a talk titled For All Your Eyes Only: Communicating Secrets at CIA, we learned about the CIA’s editorial strategy for sharing content with the public, how their social media manager got permission to start a Twitter account in the first place and what the big deal is with Area 51, anyway. The big takeaways here revolve around the need to plan your content in advance but maintain flexibility to respond to trends and news. Their focus on connecting the dots between all posts and their mission to Inform, Instruct and Inspire. There was so much more to this talk, we’ll explore it in more detail later this month.
  1. We found ourselves at the Fast Company Grill just in time to take in a discussion on improv by the stars of a new movie, Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard). What does improv have to do with anything? We enjoyed the actors’ perspectives on continuously training, being ready to fail and supporting their colleagues above all else (those principles apply to everything, really).
  1. Sneakers are the future, at least when it comes to delivering customized experiences. In a session titled The Future Will Be Personalized, Adidas Global Creative Director, Paul Gaudio was interviewed by Cool Hunting Founder & Editor in Chief, Josh Rubin in a captivating hour on innovation and design. Paul shared unique insights on the massive shift Adidas underwent since he joined, and on the importance of their new mindset, using design to drive business. He shared the process behind their new “Rallying Cry”, FutureCraft – and all that it stands for internally and to customers. He focused on three core innovations: 3D Printing, leather/millwork and knitting/tailored fabric, and shared his views on the impact they will have on the industry and Adidas’ ability to personalize experiences.


If this all sounds like a lot to do in a weekend…it is. But we only caught a sliver of the activity happening in Austin. You can’t stress about what you missed, but an easy way to experience more is to talk to people and hear about what they saw and their insights.