SXSW – Brands need to avoid the digital temptation: don’t try to do too much

The convention center in Austin - home of SXSW 2013Sunday at South By South West (SXSW) left me with one overriding thought more than any other; the next five years will require brands to fight temptation.

Chris Risdon of Adaptive Path set the scene with some great examples of the burgeoning range of products sold not as tools for you but as a means to change your life.  From Nike Fuel to connected toothbrushes and in checkout charity donations, the power and potential of ‘persuasive technology’ was clear. 

Add to that, Amit Singhal talking about Google Now and their attempts to give you relevant search results before you knew you needed them.  He made a great case of exactly why this is right; with Google responding to changes you don’t know about yet and telling you that you don’t need to leave for the airport yet because your flight is delayed for example.

It’s easy to see the experience falling apart a bit when it’s put into the hands of brands in the same way that SEO’s prompt for ‘branded content’ leads to some pretty rubbish content.

For every “you’d better leave now your route home is busy” I can see brands pumping you annoying messages in the aim of relevance.  “I see you’ve walked into the bathroom for the third time this morning, click here to add incontinence pads to your shopping bill” hardly seems like the future.

Whilst that’s a crass example, the temptation is for brands to play god. But as we all know it’s a pretty fine line between heaven and hell.

Brands need a moral compass

Fortunately there were some angels in the day too.  John Mackey CEO of Whole Foods summed it up when he said “integrity, egalitarianism and loyalty need to be built in at every level of our businesses”.  Businesses that are conscious are proven to outperform in the economy in every way.

On a more practical level Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why things catch on talked through the key points of his research proven STEPPS model of why things go viral.  Two of the key elements it turns out are Practical Value (giving people news they can use) and Emotion (making sure people care).  Common sense you’d think but in my experience two elements that are often forgotten in the drive to increase site traffic.

Finally, David Karp talked eloquently about the way that, as he and his team were designing Tumblr to be a positive community to foster creativity and encourage sharing, they looked at every detail of the experience and the influence it might have.  The reason you don’t comment on a post but you re-blog it is simply that comments tend to lead to low value content litter that is at best ‘LOL’ and at worst a firestorm of negativity.  Re-blogging means that people need to take permanent ownership of their comments by posting them on their own page.  It’s hard to argue this approach hasn’t worked, with over 44bn posts something’s working.

Navigating the minefield

Active and clear leadership is key; if brands are not to fall into the trap of creating dissonant experiences they need to do three things:

1.    Define their moral code:  A clear vision of the brand experience they are trying to create is imperative.  This needs to give clear direction across the business. Clarifying the way they will behave in all channels, the way they will use customer data, and how they will build value, reciprocity and loyalty with customers.

2.    Talk the talk: Work closely with agencies to ensure they understand every aspect of this experience and that the assets they create all add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

3.    Walk the walk:  Build processes and fail-safes to actively police the experience they deliver 24/7.

The challenge is not small, for many companies the economic events of the last five years mean that the fight for survival may well lead them into temptation.  Our role as agencies is to be the angel on the other shoulder.

Adam Fulford – Strategy and Planning Director, Rufus Leonard