SXSW Key Takeaways & Next Steps

Photo: Dominique Estevez @DominiqueMireya

Photo: Dominique Estevez @DominiqueMireya

I attended SXSW this year as a speaker on behalf of General Assembly. My session focused on Digital Marketing, which included a reference to Kanye as well as a detailed walkthrough of campaign planning and optimization. I’ll be delivering additional iterations of this presentation over the next few months, keep an eye out for updates.

I ended up staying in Austin for a few extra days to check out additional sessions. Plus, the food was really good.

Here are my main takeaways.


Cryptocurrency is Stealing Blockchain’s Thunder

Way too much emphasis is placed on Cryptocurrency. While this is a cool opportunity, it’s only part of the opportunity Blockchain presents.

This is almost like building a bridge between two land masses, and only talking about how cool it would be to bungee jump off it.

Sure, that’s a cool opportunity, but it’s only part of the opportunity.

What is Blockchain? I had to Google a one sentence definition to keep this post concise. Blockchain is a public, authenticated, write once ledger of transactions, providing transparency by being public, authentication via cryptography and security by being unmodifiable (write once).

Still not sure what Blockchain is? Watch John Oliver’s segment on the topic. He did a great job of breaking it down while also incorporating Beanie Babies and a marginally OK rap video.


So, what else can we do with Blockchain?

  • The Vehicle Lifecycle Blockchain is a platform aimed to encompass all records related to a vehicle from the production floor to the junkyard. For sellers of pre-owned cars, this can mean a higher asking price for well-maintained cars.


  • The World Food Programme has used it to transfer millions in food vouchers to thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan, while also decreasing the cost of overhead associated with these transactions.


  • De Beers (the world's biggest diamond producer) aims to launch the first industry-wide blockchain to track gems each time they change hands starting from the moment they are dug from the ground. The goal is to verify the authenticity of diamonds and ensure they are not from conflict zones.


  • Digital Marketing advertisers can forego the ad buying process and just target their prospective customers directly by paying them to view the ads. The Brave browser has already started this, using their Basic Attention Token (BAT) to ensure that companies only pay for the ads that have been viewed by a real person.

As you can see, there’s a lot we can do with Blockchain, but we’ll need to focus on the big picture as opposed to the shiniest object.

That said, I still own some Crypto . . . just in case. 


Daymond John is the Truth

During his session, a teacher from a school that supports Autistic children asked if he had any advice for the students. Instead of just passing along a few words, he asked her to record an impromptu and extremely genuine message for her class.

He’s also a champion for early cancer screening, which he credits for possibly saving his life.

He stated his goal was to leave his daughters with a legacy, not an inheritance. I’d say he’s well on his way to doing so.

However, we can’t talk about his legacy without mentioning FUBU, the lifestyle clothing brand he founded in 1992. Some of us were first made aware of the brand when LL Cool J wore a FUBU hat in a GAP commercial. As you can imagine, the stakeholders from GAP had no idea they were promoting another brand.

The story of how Daymond was able to get LL is even more amazing, and it’s a timeless lesson that any marketer can learn from.

When he first launched FUBU, he gave away clothing to bouncers at popular Hip Hop clubs in NYC.

Why did he do this, and what the impact?

  • He knew they had trouble finding fashionable clothes in their size. (He solved a problem)


  • Unlike other fashion forward people, they wouldn’t just wear it occasionally. (His product inspired loyalty)


  • Standing outside of these clubs, they were very visible to his target audience, people who liked Hip Hop. (He identified Micro Influencers)


This strategy helped him land LL Cool J as a celebrity influencer, which helped expose FUBU to an even bigger audience.

Fast forward 26 years and you have the outline of a perfect Social Media campaign.

He understands people and behavior in a way that truly encompasses the ‘Empathy’ so many other brands and marketers try to project.


daymond john.jpg


Geo-Targeting could be the New Conference Booth

Early in my career, I did some offline marketing, which included attending trade shows and conferences. In 2007, I organized my company’s participation in a trade show, and totally forgot to ship our booth to the convention center in Seattle. As a result, we went to IKEA the night before and put together what we could.

I learned a few things:

  • The lines at IKEA sure seem a lot longer when all your coworkers are pissed at you for not shipping the booth to a conference.


  • Organizing big events is definitely not my thing, which is why my wife planned our wedding.


  • It seemed like some of the money spent on these trade shows could have been better allocated, even if we had a legit booth. Which we didn’t.

I’m not against the concept of trade shows and conferences, but I am against the concept of being physically present at multiple events just because it sounds like they might be a good fit. Especially if you have a limited budget.

This is why I’m a huge fan of virtual attendance via geo-targeted ads. Meaning, serving ads in the area of a these events to people who have an interest in your product or service.

For example, let’s say I just created a new smart watch. I could pay to attend the Wearable Technology Conference, which takes place in San Francisco July 11th – 12th. Or, I could geo-target the area around the convention center, and target people who have an interest in Wearable Tech as well as other IoT devices.

As a next step, I’d need to provide some sort of value in exchange for their consideration or contact information. For example, a giveaway with a new winner every hour during the conference. This would create a sense of urgency, and further the appearance that I’m an official conference vendor.

This virtual attendance strategy can done in tandem with a physical presence. For example, I was targeted with several ads referencing official events at SXSW. The advertisers knew I was in Austin, and knew I had an interest in topics such as Tech, or SXSW specifically.

Here’s a look at the specific targeting criteria.


Notice, the advertiser knew I was in Austin, and had an interest in Small business. Apparently people over 55 weren't invited for some reason.


Alex Rodriguez is a Master of Customer Retention  

He’s rich and played baseball. That’s about all I knew about Alex Rodriguez before attending his session.

I’m glad I went, because there is so much more to him than that.

During his baseball career, he started a series of investments that helped him establish an impressive portfolio. I’m not talking about car washes or starting a rap label; his first investment was a duplex back in 2003. From there, he decided to launch A-Rod Corp, which now owns or operates over 20,000 apartment buildings.

It’s important to keep in mind that he did all this while maintaining a side gig as a record breaking baseball player.

He went the Real Estate route because that’s what he knew and was passionate about. “It’s a sector I understood. We never owned anything growing up. We rented…I remember playing ball in the yard, and I said, ‘Boy, if I can be the landlord and not the tenant, I would jump at that,’” he told Fortune.

As a real estate developer, he realized the best way to be profitable was to increase rent or increase retention. He chose the latter and did so by making tenants extremely happy.

For example:

  • He gives one teacher in each complex a free apartment. In exchange, they agree to tutor the students of other tenants for 5 hours every weekend.


  • One nurse will also get a free apartment. This nurse will agree to make themselves ‘on call’ should any of the tenants need basic medical advice.


  • One (or two) police officers receive an apartment under the condition that they park their squad cars in the middle of the parking lot. They’ll also walk other tenants back from their car at night, if desired.

The result? People don’t want to leave because they’re so happy. Beyond that, he built a community of out tenants.

Other brands can learn a lot about Customer Retention from A-Rod. These strategies need to go beyond a ‘Money back guarantee’ or ‘20% off your next purchase’ email.

One way to do this is by creating a private Facebook or LinkedIn community focused solely on providing value and encouraging your customers to share their experiences.



Off topic, but his new TV show 'Back in the Game' is pretty good too. I wouldn't be surprised if he started his own network. 


Brands shouldn't be afraid to Make Enemies while Gaining Fans

Nickelback is known for being one of the most hated bands in the world. In fact, a police department in Canada threatened to play their music while driving some offenders to jail. Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters once said ‘If you play a Nickelback song backwards, you’ll hear messages from the devil. Even worse, if you play it forwards you’ll hear Nickelback.”

At the same time, a lot of people really like Nickelback. They’ve sold over 50 million albums, including five number one studio albums in Canada. That’s three more than fellow Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell combined.

By now, you may be thinking I meant to title this section ‘Bands shouldn't be . . .’ but this is totally focused on brands. To stand out in the crowd, brands need to have a distinct and identifiable personality. Not everyone is going to like that personality - as Nickelback discovered - but some people are going to love it.

Well, hopefully.

Either way, you’re never going to win everyone over, and you’re never going to stand out if you don’t take a stand on something. You don’t want to be ‘basic’.

That was the main takeaway from the last session I attended. It was led by Snask, a creative agency based in Stockholm. The founders were natural storytellers and did an amazing job of captivating the audience. To quote Gladwell, they had ‘the elusive, indefinable quality known as cool’.

We all know people like them. These are the friends who you had some great experience with, but they somehow manage to tell the story much better than you do. Even though you were there, and they didn’t make anything up. The event was the same, the way they described it was different.

This brings me to one of the many tactic level pieces of advice they offered.

“When launching something new, sometimes branding & PR are more important than the actual product.”

In late 2016, Snask was contacted by PangPang, a Swedish craft brewery. PangPang needed help advertising one of their new brews, which came in a 6-ounce bottle and had 10% alcohol by volume. This beer was half the size and twice as strong as most beers.

Snask decided to make a slight tweak, which had a huge impact on their branding and ultimately, their sales volume.

They named it Shower Beer.

As you may know, or have guessed, a shower beer is a beer you drink while showering. This is typically/hopefully something a person would do before heading out for the night. The concept doesn’t need an explanation, which is why it was such a hit.

It was effortlessly cool, just like the team behind the idea.

Within months, Shower Beer was showcased on numerous high-profile websites and television shows.


In keeping with their new established brand image, the bottle reads “Never show surprise, never lose your cool.” Coincidentally, this reminds me of something my dad used to say to me as a kid, “Act like you’re used to shit”. Either way, this encourages a coolness and confidence that further adds to the brand’s persona. I suppose it’s useful when raising children as well.

They made another great point during the session.

“If you don’t push the project and the client, no one else will and your portfolio will end up feeling uninteresting.”

This is a good reminder for all creators and branding experts to take control of a project as opposed to letting stakeholders guide your vision. There’s no clear roadmap to creativity, but it starts with rebelling against the norm.

As brands try harder and harder to tell their story in a noisy world, standing out while providing value is key to engagement and success. In fact, most Digital Marketing platforms reward engagement with additional organic reach, or a lower cost for paid reach.

Algorithms and hacks change all the time, that’s just the way it goes. You’ll need to continually develop new and unique ways to reach your target audience and provide value in exchange for their attention.

This leads me to their last point, and my overall takeaway from SXSW.

snask 2.jpg

"Nothing stays the same and neither should you. The problem comes when change happens, and you don’t."

It’s a good reminder for everyone, including myself. If you stop learning and growing, you’re going to end up telling the same stories over and over again. You'll become stagnant, and eventually start boring yourself as well.

So how do we avoid this?

Take a class, attend a conference, watch a TED Talk. There are plenty of opportunities out there, you just need to discover what works best for you. 


About Me

I’ve been in the Digital Marketing field since 2007 – most notably, helping emerging and enterprise level clients achieve their marketing goals while working at Adobe and Facebook.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is helping individuals and organizations finally ‘get it’, so they can apply their business knowledge to creating profitable campaigns.

Contact me if you're interested in Digital Marketing training, or just want to connect.