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SXSWi 2013: In Search of the Next Big Thing

It’s that time of year…March Madness is upon us.  For most, it’s the season for NCAA championship ball accompanied by frothy green pints of Irish ale.  But for the techno-geeks, creative chics and other innovator-enthusiasts, the early part of March heralds a 5-day pilgrimage to Austin, TX for the annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) or ‘Southby’ experience as it’s referred to amongst regulars.  In a world that barely has five minutes to spare for any one thing, you might ask, “Five days? Who has five days to be out of the office at a conference?”

SXSWi offers the best online and offline intersection of innovative minds and creativity for sparking new ideas and challenging old ways of thinking.  It is a vanguard emerging technology & media event, now seen as the industry’s ‘Mecca’ for +25K faithful to pay homage to the trends and trailblazers as well as inspire one another in the quest for the ‘next big thing‘ in digital disruption.  By ‘next big thing’, I mean anything from new mediums (apps, devices, materials) to new business models (e.g. crowdfunding ala Kickstarter) to entirely new culture (e.g. do-it-yourself democratization) that is re-shaping the business landscape as we know it today.

In an increasingly digitally complex world, there is a deeper desire along with increasing struggle to reach out and grasp for shiny, bright objects that can be held, manipulated and displayed proudly.  This year at SXSWi was no exception as the buzz around harnessing data and creating the next ‘Oreo Moment’ took hold.  You could hear a pin drop as attendees eagerly listened for tales of successful Facebook Graph Search, gamification, augmented reality, mobile apps execution and more to transform both brand consumer and employee relationships.  In addition to dizzying array of panel sessions, more insights abounded at book readings, the Startup Accelerator, hack events and Trade Show floor.  Even richer discoveries were waiting to be made at each meetup, mixer, expert mosh pit and random conversation over a shared charging station.

After digesting a criss-cross of notes, tweets and photos (I can never seem to capture / keep it all on one neat device), below is a little mashup of the big themes I took home with me this year:

Data, Baby – Data really is the square root of next-generation marketing.  Understanding what types of information you’re sitting on and then unlocking it for others via smart mash-ups.  Weather Channel recently built an engine enabling advertisers to create advertising that takes advantage of weather-influenced shopping patterns.  The ability for brands like Quaker and Burberry to relate their messaging to forecasts and current conditions drove tremendous brand lift and optimized retail foot traffic. Ads are just the beginning – soon this data will be directly hardwired into environments such as onboard computers of cars to inform driving decisions (aka what is best, safest route to the store, or forget stopping for coffee on the way, make it and take it with you).

Make Me – 3D printing has dawned and will rapidly remake the manufacturing and retail industries as we know it.  Printers come in small, convenient ‘desktop’ or even ‘wearable’ sizes and all forms of materials from plastics to rubber to silk are becoming increasingly available.  Shoes, toys and clothes are just the start.

Shared Experiences – content and platforms continue to incorporate and make sharing the centerpiece of their existence.  During the Startup Accelerator, I saw new breed of apps in this vein: ‘ClickWithMeNow’ allows up to 20 users to co-browse websites together and collaborate; ‘KooZoo’ enables live broadcast feeds of ambient video location feeds from a mobile device and the grand prize winner, ‘Plotter’ aggregates the creation and sharing of user-generated curation maps.  At the Google Playground, they are actively working with brands like Volkswagen to create apps like ‘Smileage’ which allows people to live stream their drives, share and rate with their friends. Everything now has an audience.

Wearables / Robots in Your Pocket and Beyond – wearables like Nike’s ‘Fuel Band’ represent a fast-growing market of $480M by 2018 according to Forrester Research.  Over the next eighteen months analysts predict wearables will further diversify to textiles such as a skull cap inside a sports helmet, or even your own epidermis.  Google Glass is lauded to be the next platform for mass application development.  Phones continue to be an important ‘first-wearable’ with over a dozen sensors collecting an transmitting data with every moment.  In some cases, humans can start to immerse themselves in robots of today as seen in Beam Technologies below (Rosie the Robot?!).

From my impromptu Word/Heard on the Street poll – a few of the many interesting responses to my question about what others believed to be ‘the next big thing’:

Steve Furman, Discover Financial (@stevefurman)

“Democratization of Rewards” – brands should enable consumers to use them proactively without having to remember they have them at points of sale.  Instead, consumers get a friendly prompt with advice on how to best maximize the reward via the currency and channel you prefer most.

Zach Pentel, BBDO New York (@zacholantern)

“Executing the Building Blocks” – all the underpinnings for mobile, social commerce and beyond are available.  The next frontier will be figuring out how to execute and scale.

Peter Fasano, Social@Olgilvy Atlanta (@pfasano)

“Transactions Become Personal” – loyalty programs integrated into mobile purchase automatically trigger a free appetizer or instructs the barista that you come by at 8am daily for no whip, vanilla latte with an extra shot and that you occasionally get the munchies en route to the office.

Klemens Wengert, Turner Media (@kwengert1)

“Rise of the Algorithm” – content driven based on collective knowledge resulting in a social cycle fed by the machine.  Amazon-izing the social experience in real-time.

Nate Leichter, Makerbot (@nleichter)

“You Can Dream It, You Can Make It” – 3D printing rapidly becoming accessible to the masses and opens the doors to production in previously closed fields.  Think ‘bioprinting’ (organ replacement) and ‘gastroprinting’ (food replication).  Gen Y will give way to Gen M – the Maker Generation.

What say you?  Any sparks come to mind?  C’mon people, think back to those StarTrek, Jetsons re-runs we all grew up with….there are probably a few you could imagine happening within the next 2-5 years 😉

On a special note – this year, I made a point to drop in on the book reading series and was blown away by the pragmatic wisdom many of the authors offered against a swirling backdrop of two extremes – intense ‘me too hype’ and truly ground-breaking execution of new mediums, business models and culture.  Dan Mezick’s ‘The Culture Game: Tools for the Agile Manager’, Porter Gale’s ‘Your Network Is Your Net Worth’, Matthew May’s ‘Subtraction Thinking’ and Ping Fu’s ‘Bend Not Break’ were especially exceptional and will be the subject of future posts.

For more comprehensive roundups by some of the brightest minds in the industry – be sure to check out:

Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang) – Altimeter’s Take: The Technologies that Matter from SXSW 2013

Mashable Editors (@mashable) – Hands-On With SXSW 2013’s Best Apps

David Berkowitz (@dberkowitz) – Want to Get the Value Out of SXSW? Stop Looking for the Next Big Thing (a different perspective on NBT)

After five years of attending Southbys, I’ve personally concluded that searching for the ‘next big thing’ is a lot like surfing.  In the movie, ‘Soul Surfer’ (true story of Bethany Hamilton – the girl from Maui whose arm was bit off by a shark), Bethany is about to head into the most intense surf competition of her life when her dad takes her aside and reminds her about the key to winning amidst a field of stronger, more equipped competitors.  He says to her:

“The surf is big out there today and the competition is fierce.  You’ll wear yourself out with lots of paddling trying to keep up.  Don’t just take any wave that comes along.  The greatest surfers know when the best waves are coming in, they can feel it.

You know that moment between the sets when it’s quiet, when the waves haven’t even formed yet, and the energy is still surging through the water?  That’s the time to be patient, listen to your instincts…trust it and you’ll know.”

I think that patience and trusting our instincts is the most crucial reminder for all of us as we navigate the waves of disruption, searching for the perfect epic ride on the Next Big Thing.


About Michelle Batten

Michelle Batten is a seasoned digital marketing & advertising leader. She has spent two decades in the interactive arena, working with Fortune 1000 brands + start-ups to define and execute their digital initiatives. An emerging media visionary, Michelle is currently serving as Head of Global Marketing for Mobile & Innovation Intrapreneur for Amadeus, a global travel technology company. She is also the President for the Chicago American Marketing Association. Her passions include culture + tech evolution, mentoring, experiential travel and foodspotting.

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