A little festival
If you have a pulse, you’ve probably heard of a festival (see: conference of colossal size) in Austin, Texas called South By Southwest, and if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably seen a hashtag or an ad or some other media referring to something called SXSW.
SouthBy (as the privy affectionately call it) started in the 80s with a few hundred attendees and has grown in nuclear proportions to be a festival that registers over 50,000 of people and shuts a few miles of downtown Austin down for two weeks.
In particular, SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) boasts high attendance and typically accounts for almost 75% of the festival’s attendees.
This year everyone was diggin’ on the acronym chili
AR, VR, AI, and so forth filled the halls of the conference center plus a few of the hosting hotels. There was also an impressive number of breakout sessions regarding the marijuana industry – but I digress.
But what about next year?
We got some exclusive insight from Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing in Austin and Author of Branding is Sex.
In her own words below, Gabor describes what 2018 will most likely have in store:
Brands, brands, brands:
SXSWi 2017 was a showcase for brand activation, but not the technology and digital media brands you might expect at a conference traditionally attended by trendsetters and tastemakers.
This year’s conference featured 360-degree, immersive, interactive brand experiences targeted at everyday consumers, highlighting upcoming TV shows, movies, retailers, apps, gadgets, and consumer products.
The 2017 fest featured everything from a visually accurate, full-sized Los Pollos Hermanos fast food pop-up focused on creating excitement for the comeback of Gus Fring (the character played Giancarlo Esposito on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) to its “Better Call Saul” prequel, to a provocative and highly immersive Gatorade sports performance experience, to Casper Mattress’ brilliant partnership with the OneNight app providing 45 minute nap respites to tired attendees at the ultra-hip and retro Austin Motel.
Each year, the activations become more pervasive and increasingly clever.
These savvy brands don’t benefit from their in-person activations alone; they grow legs with great media exposure, social sharing, and word of mouth.
I think we’ll continue to see SXSW as a platform for brand launches and unexpected activations.
However, based upon unofficial reports, the total number of events for which attendees could RSVP dropped by almost 100 from 2016 to 2017. It’s possible we’ll continue to see a decline in the number of events, with a corollary increase in more curated guest lists, as the quality of those events and activations increase in quality and excitement.
While brand activation was a big story for me this past year, I was surprised by the absence or dialing-back of some SXSW’s mainstay brands like Spotify and Samsung – brands that seem like a perfect fit for SXSW’s vibe.
SXSW has become a global stage for translating online and media brands into offline experiences.
However, many brands are finding it expensive and inefficient to garner awareness and bond with audiences offline.
At an event that hosts an estimated 70,000+ attendees, exhibitors, performers, and guests, it’s become increasingly difficult for brands to get their messages to the right people, at the right place, at the right frequency, at the right time.
Between Austin’s enhanced real estate restrictions that made getting space downtown for special events more difficult this year, and the sheer proliferation of brands and messages, Austin’s SXSW has become an increasingly difficult event at which to activate brands.
That is unless you have huge ideas, once-in-a-lifetime experiences and budgets that can cut through the noise.
Since downtown Austin isn’t getting any bigger, I think we’ll continue to see a changing brand landscape at future festivals.
Technology not for technology’s sake, but as a means to create a lifestyle:
This year’s SXSW featured an entire track dedicated to retail technology and fashion as well as lots of deep-dives on Virtual and Augmented Reality.
As technology continues to be a means for producers and purveyors of hard goods, soft goods, and experiences to deliver to their customers, SXSW stepped up its game to showcase technologies such as VR and AR and their roles in personalizing and customizing our shopping and media consumption experiences.
Since VR and AR technologies are in their infancy, this dialogue is sure to continue well into coming years.
SXSW gets political:
While SXSW 2017 featured many of the delightfully quirky and geeky attributes we’ve come to expect from the 31-year old conference, attendees saw politics – specifically the issue of inclusivity – step into center stage, on and off the show floor.
From Joseph Biden’s impassioned Cancer speech (Biden said that cancer is the “only bipartisan thing left in the United States.”), to SXSW organizers’ bathroom signage stating the conference’s pledge to being “inclusive, diverse and forward-thinking,” and opposing “discriminatory legislation,” SXSW 2017 took a very strong political tone.
This year’s show featured panels that addressed Silicon Valley’s diversity problems.
Tumblr’s CEO Tom Karp announced an initiative to support Planned Parenthood (#TechStandswithPP.) And the music part of the conference hosted showcases featuring bands affected by President Trump’s travel ban. As long as powerful people speak, exhibit at, and attend SXSW, we’ll see the event as a platform for advancing political sentiments.
While it’s been my personal experience that SXSW has been encouraging diversity, 2017’s actual Interactive conference attendees (those with paid badges I saw wandering around the convention center and other official badged locations) still looked like a bro-club to me.
While conference organizers claim that the entire festival attracts 70,000+ attendees and speakers of all ages, genders, ethnicities from upwards of 80 different countries, badged SXSW Interactive attendees still look like 30-40 something year old white dudes.
For all the forward thinking, futuristic nature that the conference supposedly embodies, a lot of what the naked eye sees is rooted in traditional industry structures.
Aside from panels about diversity in the technology industry, and investing in companies run by “diverse” founders, and a handful of sideshow events and meetups, the conference itself doesn’t exactly match the faces of the technology industry I know and love.
While the industry has made some important strides towards inclusivity (and had many setbacks too – recent news of Uber’s President resigning amidst a bevvy of sexual harassment claims at the company doesn’t bode well for the industry’s future), I think we’ll see SXSW assuming more of a lead role in populating an event with faces that more closely match those of the industries it celebrates.
Big retailers are opting for refunds instead of returns
(BUSINESS NEWS) Due to increased shipping costs, big companies like Amazon and Walmart are opting to give out a refund rather than accepting small items returned.
The holidays are over, and now some people are ready to return an item that didn’t quite work out or wasn’t on their Christmas list. Whatever the reason, some retailers are giving customers a refund and letting them keep the product, too.
When Vancouver, Washington resident, Lorie Anderson, tried returning makeup from Target and batteries from Walmart she had purchased online, the retailers told her she could keep or donate the products. “They were inexpensive, and it wouldn’t make much financial sense to return them by mail,” said Ms. Anderson, 38. “It’s a hassle to pack up the box and drop it at the post office or UPS. This was one less thing I had to worry about.”
Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc., and other companies are changing the way they handle returns this year, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) to weigh the costs of processing physical returns versus just issuing a refund and having customers keep the item.
For instance, if it costs more to ship an inexpensive or larger item than it is to refund the purchase price, companies are giving customers a refund and telling them to keep the products also. Due to an increase in online shopping, it makes sense for companies to change how they manage returns.
Locus Robotics chief executive Rick Faulk told the Journal that the biggest expense when it comes to processing returns is shipping costs. “Returning to a store is significantly cheaper because the retailer can save the freight, which can run 15% to 20% of the cost,” Faulk said.
But, returning products to physical stores isn’t something a lot of people are wanting to do. According to the return processing firm Narvar, online returns increased by 70% in 2020. With people still hunkered down because of the pandemic, changing how to handle returns is a good thing for companies to consider to reduce shipping expenses.
While it might be nice to keep the makeup or batteries for free, don’t expect to return that new PS5 and get to keep it for free, too. According to WSJ, a Walmart spokesperson said the company lets someone keep a refunded item only if the company doesn’t plan on reselling it. And, besides taking the economic costs into consideration, the companies look at the customer’s purchase history as well.
Google workers have formed company’s first labor union
(BUSINESS NEWS) A number of Google employees have agreed to commit 1% of their salary to labor union dues to support employee activism and fight workplace discrimination.
On Monday morning, Google workers announced that they have formed a union with the support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the largest communications and media labor union in the U.S.
The new union, Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) was organized in secret for about a year and formed to support employee activism, and fight discrimination and unfairness in the workplace.
“From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively. Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade,” stated Program Manager Nicki Anselmo in a press release.
AWU is the first union in the company’s history, and it is open to all employees and contractors at any Alphabet company in the United States and Canada. The cost of membership is 1% of an employee’s total compensation, and the money collected will be used to fund the union organization.
In a response to the announcement, Google’s Director of People Operations, Kara Silverstein, said, “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”
Unlike other labor unions, the AWU is considered a “Minority Union”. This means it doesn’t need formal recognition from the National Labor Relations Board. However, it also means Alphabet can’t be forced to meet the union’s demands until a majority of employees support it.
So far, the number of members in the union represents a very small portion of Google’s workforce, but it’s growing every day. When the news of the union was first announced on Monday, roughly 230 employees made up the union. Less than 24 hours later, there were 400 employees in the union, and now that number jumped to over 500 employees.
Unions among Silicon Valley’s tech giants are rare, but labor activism is slowly picking up speed, especially with more workers speaking out and organizing.
“The Alphabet Workers Union will be the structure that ensures Google workers can actively push for real changes at the company, from the kinds of contracts Google accepts to employee classification to wage and compensation issues. All issues relevant to Google as a workplace will be the purview of the union and its members,” stated the AWU in a press release.
Ticketmaster caught red-handed hacking, hit with major fines
(BUSINESS NEWS) Ticketmaster has agreed to pay $10 million to resolve criminal charges after hacking into a competitor’s network specifically to sabotage.
Live Nation’s Ticketmaster agreed to pay $10 million to resolve criminal charges after admitting to hacking into a competitor’s network and scheming to “choke off” the ticket seller company and “cut [victim company] off at the knees”.
Ticketmaster admitted hiring former employee, Stephen Mead, from startup rival CrowdSurge (which merged with Songkick) in 2013. In 2012, Mead signed a separation agreement to keep his previous company’s information confidential. When he joined Live Nation, Mead provided that confidential information to the former head of the Artist Services division, Zeeshan Zaidi, and other Ticketmaster employees. The hacking information shared with the company included usernames, passwords, data analytics, and other insider secrets.
“When employees walk out of one company and into another, it’s illegal for them to take proprietary information with them. Ticketmaster used stolen information to gain an advantage over its competition, and then promoted the employees who broke the law. This investigation is a perfect example of why these laws exist – to protect consumers from being cheated in what should be a fair market place,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney.
In January 2014, Mead gave a Ticketmaster executive multiple sets of login information to Toolboxes, the competitor’s password-protected app that provides real-time data about tickets sold through the company. Later, at an Artists Services Summit, Mead logged into a Toolbox and demonstrated the product to Live Nation and Ticketmaster employees. Information collected from the Toolboxes were used to “benchmark” Ticketmaster’s offerings against the competitor.
“Ticketmaster employees repeatedly – and illegally – accessed a competitor’s computers without authorization using stolen passwords to unlawfully collect business intelligence,” said Acting U.S. Attorney DuCharme in a statement. “Further, Ticketmaster’s employees brazenly held a division-wide ‘summit’ at which the stolen passwords were used to access the victim company’s computers, as if that were an appropriate business tactic.”
The hacking violations were first reported in 2017 when CrowdSurge sued Live Nation for antitrust violations. A spokesperson told The Verge, “Ticketmaster terminated both Zaidi and Mead in 2017, after their conduct came to light. Their actions violated our corporate policies and were inconsistent with our values. We are pleased that this matter is now resolved.”
To resolve the case, Ticketmaster will pay a $10 million criminal penalty, create a compliance and ethics program, and report to the United States Attorney’s Office annually during a three-year term. If the agreement is breached, Ticketmaster will be charged with: “One count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, one count of computer intrusion for commercial advantage, one count of computer intrusion in furtherance of fraud, one count of wire fraud conspiracy and one count of wire fraud.”
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