Every year for the last 30 years, tens of thousands of inquisitive minds descend on Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest (SXSW). With this mass migration and collaboration comes inevitable innovation. Each year, there are a few key ideas from the Interactive portion of the festival that make it through the chatter, and become tech phenomena. With Mashable’s CEO Pete Cashmore declaring that “If you can break out here, the theory is that you can make it anywhere,” SXSW has become an indicator of a creative endeavour’s future success.
With the 30th anniversary of SXSW in 2016, it’s the perfect time to look back at the ideas that made 2015 notable, and to check in on where these innovations are now. In doing this, we are able to not only take a walk down memory lane with the privilege of hindsight, but to consider and map the life of an innovation that got it’s jumpstart at one of the largest film, interactive, and music festivals in the world.
The big SXSW breakthrough
A golden example of how an idea can skyrocket through an introduction at SXSW, Twitter is one of the festival’s biggest success stories. As Twitter co-founder Evan Williams explains, “We didn’t actually launch Twitter at SXSW—SXSW just chose to blow it up.”
This happened in 2007, when Twitter experienced breakout success after being showcased at Austin’s famous technology and ideas festival. Responding to a Quora question about how other entrepreneurs might try to follow in Twitter’s footsteps, Williams wrote that it was all about connecting with the right crowd at the right time: “By the time SXSW 2007 rolled around, we were starting to grow finally and it seemed like all of our users (which were probably in the thousands) were going to Austin that year.”
The Twitter story is now the stuff of legends, but it’s taken many years of thinking, sharing, discovering (and, yes, partying) for SXSW to become “The Most Social Festival in the World.” Hootsuite’s original documentary goes behind the scenes and hear from top influencers:
Recognizing that the innovation-hungry audience they were looking for would be in full force at SXSW, the Twitter team did everything they could to spark interest at the conference. They worked to show visualizations on displays in the hallways, with the $11,000 bill the only money they had ever spent on marketing at the time. And it seems it was worth every dime as over the course of the 10-day event Twitter’s message volume tripled, from only 20,000 messages per day to 60,000. The real-time information network we have today had yet to go mainstream, but Twitter caught on like wildfire among the ultimate early-adopter crowd at SXSW.
Twitter is far from the only example of the Austin crowd catapulting a new social technology from irrelevance to ‘next-big-thing’ status. In 2009 it was the location-based network Foursquare. In 2012 Pinterest won the coveted “Breakout Digital Trend” award. That same year, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom was a featured speaker. He sold his photo-sharing app to Facebook two weeks later for $2 billion.
It’s now an article of faith among influencers, entrepreneurs, and media that SXSW is the ultimate proving ground for new social media tools and products. According to self-described technology evangelist Guy Kawasaki, “if you can be useful and handle things at South by Southwest, you have a shot at the rest of the year.” Why? Again, it comes down to the crowd: “It’s a uniquely social event because there are so many people with common interests, speaking the same language, using the same tools,” he says. If you want to get ahead of the curve and see what the future year brings in the realm of digital and technology, pack your bags for Austin in March.
To see how this theory proves true, we take a look at three big trends that took off during the 2015 edition of SXSW and see how they’ve lived up to the hype.
At 2015’s event, virtual reality emerged as one of the hottest new tech innovations. With virtual reality (VR) bringing a new way of storytelling and multimedia messaging to start-ups and big brands alike, most were keen to see what this rapidly evolving area could do. With panels by innovators such as those behind Oculus Rift (one of the most popular VR headsets) and heavy discussions surrounding the future of such technologies, it was clear that virtual reality had a huge presence at SXSW 2015. With public relations firm Porter Novelli reporting that during SXSW 2015 “VR headsets dotted brand activations from the gaming expo to the exhibition floor,” it would be odd to ignore the effect VR is having on the technology and start-up industry.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also spoke to the value of VR after their acquisition of Oculus by saying “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.” The possibilities of this for brands and organizations are endless, but what has happened in the virtual reality world since last year’s SXSW?
With Business Insider Intelligence predicting that by 2020, 26.5 million Virtual Reality units will be sold (an annual growth rate of nearly 100 percent), the last year has been a positive indication of this trend. Including virtual reality as one of his predictions for social trends taking off in 2016, Hootsuite’s CEO Ryan Holmes explains: “Facebook has already begun incorporating Oculus technology into its 360 Video. The unique videos, which have rolled out on News Feeds, allow users to experience scenes from different angles (looking right, left, up, down, etc.), on both web and mobile devices, creating a more immersive experience.”
Since then, companies have begun to jump on the virtual reality train. Fox is streaming this year’s March Madness in Virtual Reality, Six Flags will be offering Virtual Reality on their roller coasters, and Amsterdam has just seen the first Virtual Reality cinema. With the consumer version of the Oculus Rift now available for pre-order on the company’s website as of March 2016, the virtual future seen at SXSW 2015 is closer than ever.
2015 was also the year that Snapchat first hit critical mass at SXSW, which is a great indication that the festival can be a Midas touch for many companies. While the has been around since 2011, the 2015 festival was when it truly became a serious player in the social media marketing game.
As Romain Vezirian put it, “Snapchat was everywhere at SXSW.” He continues to share how Mashable incorporated Snapchat in their marketing during the festival, saying “Anyone who would send Mashable a snap would receive a reply with a picture they needed to screenshot. The image could then be used to get into a private speakeasy hidden in the Mashable House.” While Snapchat projected $50 million in revenue in 2015, the 2016 projection is estimated between $300 and$350 million—six or seven times the 2015 value. With such a meteoric rise in the last year, it will be fascinating to watch where Snapchat goes from here.
With social video a huge topic of 2016, live-streaming was one of the hottest themes during the 2015 edition of SXSW. Festival goers were using apps such as Meerkat, Teleparty, and Periscope to share live moments from the event, a possibility that proved desirable for larger platforms to capitalize on.
While many touted Meerkat as the one to watch, the push that SXSW gave to live-streaming allowed bigger fish Facebook and Twitter to recognize the power in the technology itself. A Meerkat live-stream was used during a SXSW panel by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to stream her official swearing in of the chief of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office Michelle Lee, and another live-stream app, Stre.am was a finalist for SXSW’s innovation awards.
Since 2015’s SXSW, the live-stream has been making moves towards the mainstream. As Hootsuite’s CEO Ryan Holmes predicted for 2016, “Expect to see live streaming reach a whole new, mainstream audience in the year ahead as Facebook rolls out its own mobile streaming functionality, generally referred to as Facebook Live.” Facebook has slowly been rolling out their Live feature, announcing in February 2016 that this would now be available to individuals in more than 30 countries around the world. In active competition with Facebook, Twitter-owned app Periscope reached over 10 million users in August 2015, making it obvious that the buzz around live-streams seen at SXSW in 2015 was warranted.
As a testing ground for social media and new technologies, South by Southwest is a force to be reckoned with. SXSW and social media have interwoven stories because they’re driven by the same things: the desire to connect, discover, share, and learn. The festival is a fundamentally social space—in the way participants connect with each other, the way speakers connect with crowds, and the way organizers and staff keep it all humming along for ten days. Recognizing the power that SXSW has in influencing the world of cutting-edge ideas, technology, and innovation, we can’t wait to see what 2016 will bring. Whatever it is, it will be big. And it will be social.
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