Reflections from SXSW 2021

Tech + Health + Diversity = The Impact Zone

April 1, 2021

Did you miss the virtual SXSW conference this year? We’ve got you covered. The Golin team rounded up top takeaways and what they mean for brands in 2021.

A key focus this year was the interconnectivity of Tech, Health, & Diversity. If you’re a brand in one of these sectors and not paying attention to the others’ trends, you’re missing the mark. The impact of COVID-19 taught us just how interconnected our world really is. Brands that were able to zoom out and see the larger picture affecting audiences were well-positioned to stay strong amid the turbulence.

  • Health + Tech: In a year where we were super health conscious, we invested in tech that brought our health and wellness comforts home (think: smart alarms, seasonal lamps, weighted blankets, medi-spa devices for home, and digital home exercise programming).
  • Diversity + Health: The pandemic’s effect and disparity across racial and gender divides was clear – the two themes are very intertwined, and brands can’t only address one.
  • Tech + Diversity: Big tech was in the spotlight for their responses to the global reckoning with racism and issues like misinformation and hate speech this year. Employees and customers are demanding change and looking to the powerful industry to lead by example.

These interconnected themes carried throughout the conference, leaving attendees with clear direction on what consumers want to see and where brands can become effective leaders.

1: The Elephant(s) in the Room
It’s not just a big tech buzzword: Digital Transformation. It’s mainstream. Grandparents are using Zoom. Millennials tried (and kept!) TikTok, and brands too, are meeting us where we are – online. Technology built for life has not only accelerated, but it’s here to stay.

  • Consumer brands relied on a strong online shopping platform and apps, but live Shopping through digital video content has brought the QVC concept into the digital age. It creates a sense of urgency with limited time deals or highlighting limited availability (the way travel booking sites would) and offers a social and interactive experience that “traditional” ecommerce does not.
  • Gaming has provided a community and platform that gives brands, communities and social causes a place to connect, at scale, across the globe for a fraction of the cost of in-person stadium events, festivals or fundraisers. The Music industry is actively working to catch up to the gaming industry, too. Emergence of more integrated music collaborations between developers and record labels to make the discovery of music, merchandise and artists part of the game experience.
  • Tech brought us Health & Wellness at home, too. How many appointments did you use telehealth options for? It wasn’t just you. Apps like Headspace (meditation and mindfulness) and Talkspace (on demand therapy) brought wellness to our fingertips, and fitness apps and online classes exploded in popularity.

2: Embracing Diversity & Inclusion
Everyone needs to have skin in the game and hold themselves accountable. Our society is witnessing an entrenchment of divisiveness and a new approach, called connective democracy, seeks to bridge these divides by identifying strategies for getting people to talk across differences. Newsrooms and Corporate America can play a transformative role in this effort.

  • Diversity & Inclusion is imperative for staying in business. The stories and visuals we feed the newsroom are the ones that will help generate change. For example, people are more prone to talk or listen to people who look like them, who resonate with them. It’s critical that agencies, brands and newsrooms are infused with cultural expertise because the reality is that diversity stories should not just go to one specialist or beat reporter, everyone should be accountable.
  • Addressing the “I can’t find the right people” myth is critical. To diversify an organization you have to have initiatives/plans in place to make change happen. It takes a financial commitment and it requires others to support it – it’s more than just a one-person job. It also requires sustained effort and commitment at all levels and an understanding that leadership and representation starts at the top.
  • Talent can go much broader than the geographical location. Many proponents of flex work say hiring remote employees can help employers diversify their work forces. And creating a broader network of people from different walks of life will ultimately enrich business outputs.

3: What’s Old is New

  • Space Travel was an emerging theme at this year’s conference, with nearly a dozen sessions hosting a NASA panelist. Not a surprise, as the joint NASA-SpaceX launch broadcast drew at least 10.3M concurrent viewers. The event took place in early lockdown days, and people all over were looking for positive news and shared experiences. The virtual accessibility of the launch, journey and landing fascinated millions and brought the reality of space travel to our living rooms.
  • Audio. Yes, you read that right. With millions of people at home in front of screens during the workday, behaviors shifted and many were looking to step away from screens during their off-hours. Podcast sessions increased with the average listening time at 6.5 hours per week. The newest addition to our social media apps, Clubhouse, earned quick popularity, suggesting that people are looking for content that allows flexibility for multi-tasking. Even more, immersive audio and surround sound, as available on the newest speakers and AirPods, are “future proofing” soundbites and content.

4: Areas We’re Watching

  • Personalized content/audience-focused journalism. Massive amounts of content and more time in front of screens during an exhausting year of breaking news has resulted in information overload. A solution we’re seeing is customer-centric business models and service journalism, where the news is dictated by the consumer and their specific interests versus comprehensive newspapers covering every content area. This transformation is digital first, leaning on tech in the form of push notifications, apps and newsletters.
  • New work norms. As the world starts to open back up, we’re noticing an appetite for people to continue working from home. Many businesses may shift to a hybrid model, but there are benefits and challenges to this set-up, and a few bright spots are top of mind:
    • Remote employees will help diversify the workforces, if done intentionally.
    • Flexibility is key in order to engage groups that have been especially affected by COVID-19, like working moms and women of color. Business leaders need to think through flexible work options, expanded caregiving benefits and more in order to be supportive of employees who are juggling many responsibilities from home.
    • Many employers waded into new and/or uncomfortable territory this year for the better. Continued conversations around race, social justice and allyship allow employees to be their “whole selves” at work and build a culture of belonging.
  • Free Speech and Content Moderation remain hot themes, of course. Twitter’s removal of Donald Trump led a cascading effect, but panelists this year questioned whether tech companies are up to the task of deciding just how much inciting violence, misinformation, or hate speech is “too much?” And panelists wondered – does a tweet/post violate a service, or does a person – and who or what should be banned in result? Following last week’s Senate hearings, it’s clear we’re still divided across the US, so expect that debate to continue.

 

For more information on SXSW 2021 takeaways or to connect with Golin for counsel, please email Matt Lackie, president, global tech practice: mlackie@golin.com