If you’re reading this, we made it through another South by Southwest. The whirlwind of a conference, which takes place in our hometown of Austin, spans almost two weeks and a huge variety of topics. From panels, music shows, brand activations, movie screenings, and more, it’s impossible to experience everything. No need for FOMO — we had a team on the ground for the duration of the Interactive conference, reporting back on everything they saw and learned. Here’s this year’s SXSW recap with the top four themes we heard from the Interactive conference.

1. Diversity and inclusion have become organizational priorities.

During last year’s SXSW Interactive, there was a lot of conversation about diversity in tech. If last year was about pointing out a pervasive problem, this year was about how individuals and organizations are trying to solve it. In the panel we participated in, our Chief People Officer, Ryan Robinson, said that the foundation of employee engagement is making sure your employees feel valued and heard. This year, it seems like some organizations are doing just that. While certain sessions highlighted great work being done, others reminded us that we still have a long way to go, particularly around LGBTQ diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

“The strong, successful female leaders shared fascinating information about their projects in data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. However, the underlying theme was how it is more difficult for women to succeed in these technical, male-dominated fields and why it’s important for women to address bias and help build company cultures that foster diversity. Ultimately, the panelists concluded that though AI, ML, and NLP seem like big breakthroughs in technology, the purpose of AI is to improve humanity. These technologies and programs are created by humans for humans and should help solve societal problems, and that means solving problems for a diverse set of people.”

– Alison Kwong, Public Relations Manager, at The Girls Lounge: Reality Check

“Language and imagery in marketing should be inclusive to all people, not just the cisgendered. Half of the Millennial and Gen Z generations believe that gender is on a spectrum, but many companies do not design web, marketing, or advertising experiences with this in mind. For example, brands should target online advertisements based on intent and behavior rather than gender, adopt open text fields rather than male/female options on forms, and make sure creative work goes beyond typical gender roles. Andy Bossley, Sr. Manager of Global Marketing Campaigns at IBM, put it succinctly: ‘If your brand doesn’t adapt to this moment, you won’t have a brand.’”

-Courtney Gannon, Graphic Designer, and Alison Kwong, Public Relations Manager, at How Gender Fluidity Recasts Brand Engagement

“The panelists (from them, Teen Vogue, and the NBA) all provided actionable ways that they combat discrimination against themselves and others around them. Talusan uses data and metrics to show that her work outperforms her peers, Mukhopadhyay hires a diverse group of employees around her, and Collins works with athletes to change their perception of the LGBTQ community. All agreed that strong leadership and communication are essential for making organizational change.”

– Kerry Brunelle, Social Media Strategist, and Alison Kwong, Public Relations Manager, at How to Build an Inclusive Workspace

“This session shared examples of how best-in-class organizations are moving the needle on diversity and inclusion. In the last year, we saw diversity and inclusion metrics being added to earnings calls and executive bonus structures. The more you can put quantify diversity and inclusion impact, the more people will listen — use data to spark conversation.”

– Laura Morton, Sr. Creative Manager, at Inclusion + Tech: How to Get It Right

2. Anyone — individual, organization, or public figure — can use their platform and expertise to create change.

As I read through all of the session summaries from my coworkers, I was surprised to see the theme of activism pop up again and again, regardless of speaker and conference track. This theme of taking action was widespread and went beyond the cause of diversity and inclusion. There was a clear message across the entire Interactive conference. Anyone — whether you’re a software engineer, a supermodel, a renowned chef, or head of a global brand — can and should use their position to create positive change for themselves and the world around them. Speakers were highlighting individuals and organizations that were making a difference and encouraging the audience to find causes of their own. Now is the time to consider how your work impacts the world around you.

“When software professionals are instructed to create products that are harmful or illicit (like in the Volkswagon emissions scandal), what should they do? The most powerful deterrent is a great culture — one that promotes acting with integrity, punishes unethical behavior, and encourages team members to speak up when they have questions or concerns. Software professionals themselves are the last line of defense; they need to have the courage to stop and voice their concerns.”

– Gracie Renbarger, VP of Ethics and Compliance, and Kathy Smith-Willman, Sr. Director of People & Talent, at When Programmers are Asked to do the Unethical

“In an effort to reduce waste that ends up in our oceans, Adidas implemented plastic-free campuses and is turning recycled plastic into sneakers. Karlie Kloss, best known as a supermodel, recognized the lack of female talent in tech and created an organization that provides young women with access to a coding academy. The main takeaway: using your platform to create change is good for others and good for business. As Eric Liedtke of Adidas put it: ‘I want to be clear, this is not philanthropy. This is good business, and it’s good for the bottom line. People don’t buy what you make, they buy what you stand for. If I can prove that this is good for the world and good for the business, then I’ve done my job.’”

– Jessie Cooper, Marketing Manager, and Kerry Brunelle, Social Media Strategist, at Create the World You Want to Live In

“We need more women involved with investing in new businesses. Women are often desperate for investment to scale their business but need to be careful when choosing a partner. Successful women need to pay it forward through investment and mentorship.”

– Kathy Smith-Willman, Sr. Director of People & Talent, at The Future of Business is Female

“The tech industry claims that it disrupts people’s lives, but right now, it is only focused on the lives of some. We need technology to disrupt the lives of those who need it most, like displaced refugees. Techfugees is a movement to bring technology, like coding academies and mobile wifi routers, to enable them to better their lives.”

– Caitlin McCulloch, Manager of Advertising Marketing, at Let’s Tech the Borders Down

Thanks to technology, many people find themselves sitting inside on their computer rather than being active. One panelists said, ‘sitting is the new smoking’. Are companies responsible for thinking about their users’ health? Panelists gave real world examples of how we can use technology in the food, healthcare, and urban planning industries to combat  and improve society’s mental and physical health.”

– Larson Banilower, Agency Partnerships Director, at Default=Health: How Tech Can Refactor Modern Life

“Chef David Chang described his new Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, as telling simple stories that act as a Trojan Horse for cultural issues. Culture and food are intersecting like never before, and even chefs are expected to comment on larger issues. Chang said that he was still navigating how to use his voice for change but that he felt responsible to bring awareness to issues, like immigration, that touch the food industry.”

– Alison Kwong, Public Relations Manager, and Kerry Brunelle, Social Media Strategist, at David Chang and Scott Dadich in Conversation

“YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki walked through YouTube’s view on their role to deliver content in the world of fake news, hate speech, and general divisiveness. They are in the business of delivering the right information at the right time to as many people as possible. They are adding information cues for controversial/conspiracy theories, allowing only certain authoritative accounts to broadcast breaking news content, and refining their recommendation engine to balance between relevant and diverse content. Overall, the platform is taking its responsibility seriously and innovating on its features to meet the needs of its users.”

– Katy Castleberry, Product Marketing Manager, at Navigating the Video Revolution in the Digital Age

3. We’re still figuring out the right balance between technology and creativity…

We live in world where we have access to mass amounts of data and innovative technology, like machine learning, natural language processing, and bots. While there are obvious benefits to this, one downside may be the impact on the creative process. Across a variety of sessions, many panelists discussed their struggle with balancing data and technology with human creativity. At what point does technology infringe on or cut out the creative process? On its own, technology can’t entirely duplicate the emotion in storytelling, the personal attention of a retail associate, or the creative vision of an artist. The best brands and industry creatives have figured out how to merge technology with these more human elements to enhance the end users’ experience.

“One of DreamWorks’ team members said that even though they have so much technology readily available, it is the hearts and souls of the artists that make a great product. The quality of what you make is about the story; everyone recognizes a good story when they hear one and that will stand by itself – regardless of production quality.”

– Jessie Cooper, Marketing Manager, at Technology’s Impact on Digital Storytelling

“The panel discussed how they turn massive amounts of data into a visual story. Despite all of the speakers being in data-driven roles, they all stressed the importance of considering the human end user. All the panelists recognized the complexity of data visualizations; they wanted their end users to be able to interact with the data on their own and to form their own personal understanding and perspective of the story.”

– Kerry Brunelle, Social Media Strategist, at Data-Driven Storytelling: Perspectives & Paradigms

“While the panel focused on case studies of personalization, the panelists also mentioned that the best personalization includes a necessary human element. The dog walker app, Wag!, was highlighted as the perfect combination of tech-enabled personalization and the human touch. Marketers can’t forget that we live in the real world — how can you meld data, technology, and humanness into your work?”

– Larson Banilower, Agency Partnerships Director, and Kerry Brunelle, Social Media Strategist, at Increasing CTR with 1:1 Content Marketing

“Where does the role of the designer and the creator end and tech takes over? This was a question that four women in the fashion industry asked during a session on the intersection of fashion and technology. The women were hopeful that artificial intelligence will replace tasks like data entry, so that humans can spend more time on thoughtful creative process.”

– Kerry Brunelle, Social Media Strategist, at Game Changers: The Women at the Intersection of Fashion + Technology

“Sometimes, for creatives, too much data can be overwhelming and paralyzing. How does consumer data impact the creative decisions that are made for advertising campaigns? The session covered lots of ways to collect data for campaigns: focus groups, A/B testing, website analytics, etc. While the panelists covered some case studies, the question remains: how can you stop someone in their tracks, be heard, and properly leverage the right data to do so?”

– Nicki Spear, Advertising Sales Director, at Art Attack: Data as the New Creative Director

4. …but personalization is one way marketers are successfully using data to make technology feel more human. 

Marketers’ response to merging technology with a human touch? Personalization. While last year, it seemed like everyone was still figuring out what technology to use and when, this year, many zeroed in on personalization as a successful way to reach consumers. Whether through newsletters, advertising, software, or even print, brands want to create a personal connection with their consumers and make their lives easier. While many sessions shared success stories, just as many discussed the challenge of accessing and organizing consumer data in a way that can inform personalization.

“Alex Rainert, Head of Product and Design at The New York Times, shared that the company’s goal is not only to share news but to add value to its subscriber through various touchpoints – crossword in the morning, The Daily podcast later, looking up a recipe that evening. This company aims to make ‘every reader’s relationship to The New York Times feel more personal.’ It’s critical to reach the right people at the right time with the right content.”

– Alison Kwong, Public Relations Manager, and Laura Morton, Sr. Creative Manager, at Driving Audience: If You Build It, They Will Not Come

“Panelists from Coca-Cola, rag & bone, and Facebook walked through case studies of how they’ve run successful campaigns with personalized content. With today’s discerning consumers, brands have to create content that blends in seamlessly with the other types of content that consumers have chosen to follow. If it feels too much like an ad or creates a jarring moment, you won’t see engagement. Every panelist talked about the importance of using intent signals to power personalization and content choices.”

– Larson Banilower, Agency Partnerships Director, and Kerry Brunelle, Social Media Strategist, at Increasing CTR with 1:1 Content Marketing

“In our own panel on data transparency, there were speakers from the brand, agency, and data provider sides to talk about how each group can work together to ensure that everyone is using the highest quality data to inform campaigns. Atul Singh, Director of Advertising Technology at Dell, simply defined good data as data that does what it says it will do. Agencies, brands, and data providers need to work together to ensure that the right data is being used in the right way to reach the right consumers.”

– Aaron Winston, Content Manager, at More Data, More Problems: Transparency in 2018

“The presentation about Facebook segmentation focused on how it doesn’t matter if the shopper is online or offline, what matters is the experience and the customer. Smart marketers should leverage data intent signals to pay closer attention to shoppers, where they are in their journey, how they like to shop, and customize the shopping experience and the advertising accordingly. Think of the action of ‘adding to cart’ as taking clothes to the dressing room, think of ‘new users’ as someone walking into a store for the first time. It’s important to use intent data to target shoppers with different messages and experiences just as you would different customers in store.”

– Caitlin McCulloch, Manager of Advertising Marketing, at Reading Signals: The New Segmentation

“This was a more technical foray into personalization in software services. Engineers at Intuit, walked through how they used personalization to take TurboTax from a digitized version of a tax form to an approachable, customizable experience. To date, they’ve saved customers 120,000 hours a year and made what’s historically been a stressful process a little easier.”

– Aaron Winston, Content Manager, at Delivering Personalized Experiences at Scale


If you joined us in Austin, we hope you enjoyed your stay. If you didn’t, we hope this SXSW recap helped you feel like you were there. These were our main takeaways from Interactive 2018 — what did we miss? What themes did you see this week? What was your favorite thing you did? Let us know in the comments.

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