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SXSW exclusive: First-timer reflections

The journey to South by Southwest (SXSW) begins long before the leading technology conference even begins. As first time attendees it quickly became apparent that winging it doesn’t work in Austin yet being open to possibilities is also essential essential.

Stepping of the plan we wondered if we had planned enough. Everyone looked like they knew where they were going and what they were doing and who they were doing it with. We were just trying to find our hotel!

So, how does the conference work? It is broken down into three segments: Interactive, Music and Film over a 10 day period. We attended the Interactive segment which is focused on emerging technology and even includes an accelerator. Some of the winners in the accelerator included Waygo in the entertainment category, samba.me in the social category, and Skully helmets in the wearable category.

Sessions, workshops and events are spread across downtown Austin in multiple venues. Hotels, the University of Texas and even a yoga studio provide some unique spaces. It was explained to us the SXSW is the place to go to truly be inspired and if you pay for food you are doing something wrong as there is free food everywhere. This is a place for futurists and forward thinkers to bring back innovation to the real world (and adjusting to the real world is not going to be fun).If you like to draw inside the lines then SXSW is not for you.

The first phase, Interactive, is the techie part of the experience. This is the best segment for brands and retailers to engage and get the most exposure to new tech ideas and networking with like-minded innovative thinkers.

It begins on the flight. Most of the folks on our flight were SXSW bound. How did we know? The energy, buzz and sheer excitement was tangible during the entire flight AND because we spoke to several people who were going there and there were other people on our flight wearing Google Glass (that was the aha moment!).

Upon arrival at the Driskell hotel there was a lobby full of tech hipsters. The Driskell hotel was built in the 1800’s and is at the heart of the festival social scene, power meetings and celebrity sightings. Over coffee, in one morning we saw Robert Duvall, Emmy Rossum and the cast of a vampire television show. A stop at the Driskell bar at the hotel is a MUST do of the event.

Conference sessions got underway Friday, March 7, 2014. In speaking with attendees throughout the event, they were not only technologists, but leaders of their organizations and marketers seeking out new ideas.

The big themes of the conference were Big Data, Privacy/Cybersecurity, and Connection with consumers. Data collection is clearly the future for business success. Harvesting the valuable insights is the cross industry challenge. The overall recommendation was that companies should collect as much data as possible, then use what is most valuable.

Privacy/cybersecurity and the use of consumer data was a significant theme. NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s session was the buzz of the conference and highly attended. Gaining and protecting the consumer’s trust is the new currency for companies leveraging consumer data.

Connecting with consumers is the business challenge in front of companies today. Several sessions addressed this. Consumers want highly personalized, relevant messages from retailers and brands. Technologies including mobile, beacons, gamification and social tools were among those highlighted to create the connections.

Retail Loco hosted by the Location Based Marketing Association (LBMA) was a half day event held exclusively to focus on retail and brands on Sunday, March 9, 2014. Founder and President of the LBMA, Asif Khan, has attended previous SXSW conference and was inspired to launch Retail Loco at this year’s conference. “We knew a lot of retailers and brands come to this event and we saw an opportunity to provide content specifically for them at SXSW,” says Khan.

The keynote speaker at this event was legendary retailer, Richard Marcus. Marcus says tech should have a purpose in impacting the retail customer experience. He says two things matter in retailing, “take care of customers and they come back, take care of merchandise and they don’t.”

The CIO of TGIF Friday’s, Trip Sessions, shared his goal to create a more sticky experience using technology with the aim of creating a 1-1 personalized experience. They use foursquare as a tool allowing waitstaff the ability to connect directly with guests in-store.

We keep hearing that the pace of change is accelerating from retailers and industry experts alike. This conference really epitomized that theme. From CES to NRF to SXSW, the themes have been fairly consistent. Retailers need to increasingly focus on tech and the time is now. There are many tools and resources available, but they can’t afford to wait.

SXSW has been described as “engineered serendipity.” It was an amazing experience for further cementing things we have heard at other conferences this year, exposure to new ideas, and creating connections. We are at a unique time in retail history. Successful retailers will be the ones who lever these resources to drive the customer experience. SXSW is a recommend event for learning, networking and moving into the future.


Anne Marie Stephen is VP of retail sales and customer development at iInside. Deborah Weinswig is chief customer officer at Profitect.