SXSW: Embracing the Crowd with a Hacker Mentality

I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival as a moderator on a panel about crowd-funding and entrepreneurship. Considering every one of the more than 25,000 people at the festival had their eyes fixed on their phones, there’s plenty of content and conversations surrounding the show available in the social sphere at #sxsw, so I won’t try and out “Grumpy Cat” the crowds. But here are a few observations:

“The Crowd”

The uniform last week in Austin was plaid shirts, big glasses, tattoos, and beards among the digerati. However, there was also a lot of talk among these elites about “The Crowd.” There were at least a dozen different talks on the power of accessing this crowd, which could refer to either one’s own social network or a larger community, to hack a system. In my case, the system was financing. Platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Kiva, and connect entrepreneurial ideas to capital by disrupting the more traditional means of banks, community-based economic development, and venture capital firms.

These crowd-funding platforms have democratized access to capital. While crowd-funding business ventures are currently limited by regulatory and fraud concerns, there’s strong support for it at many levels. Many made the case for the transformational power crowd-funding has to unleash a huge swath of entrepreneurial activity among business owners and start ups everywhere. It’s about making the process to raise money virtually frictionless for entrepreneurs by pointing towards a way to monetize our social networks. Our understanding of what it means to be an “investor,” an “owner”—even the market itself—will surely change as this emergent behavior expands. Just a few days ago an avid group of fans helped bankroll two million dollars for their dream project, a Veronica Mars movie—$10,000 got you a walk-on part—and saved the studio hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing and marketing costs. It’s a win-win situation.

Industries and institutions are ripe for this kind of democratizing disruption. The questions now are: How can we shed light on new opportunities for brands that act generously and openly with valuable customer advocates, and what can we glean about emergent trends and tastes from crowd-funded projects?

Everyone is selling something

SXSW is a festival by design, not a conference. As a result there is lots of schmoozing and socializing. Startups are selling their ideas to potential users, agencies, and clients, and agencies are selling their coolness and insider insights to their clients. The “pitch” is just part of the culture at South By. Social media and digital media on the whole create an always-on and ready-to-respond environment for brands that is hectic and unrelenting. The speed of change, demand for response, and an abundance of options make selling a strategic priority.

So, how can we simultaneously strengthen our relationships with clients and customers while opening doors for opportunities that add value (technology, media, and production partners)—even if they also compete for attention and resources?

Makers, hackers & storytellers

There is a distinct melting pot feeling at SXSW: Makers with their pride in craftsmanship; hackers with their disruptive tendencies; and storytellers who can capture and sell the optimism. This trio can make quite a marketing stew of innovative solutions and valuable relationships.

Kraft made a big investment at SXSW with program sponsorship and various activation points throughout the festival, and Oreo was also a standout example of the marketer embracing the maker and hacker mindsets within a branded story. Oreo has made a big investment in social media in an attempt to connect to a new generation of Oreo customers. Some of activation ideas were fun (green screen Austin), while others were more traditional advertising activations, such as T-shirts on pedicab drivers—but overall it was clear Oreo is willing to hack its own brand in order to reinvent itself within the burgeoning SXSW community.

The ability to create a product people want to use, and a willingness to innovate within an emotionally resonant context, can both change behaviors and impact the trajectory of entire industries. Doing it well takes care, courage, and creativity. Do you have what it takes?

Seth Friedman is managing partner of Tribal Worldwide.

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