As the interactive section of the South by Southwest festival and conference gave way to the more entertainment-focused film and music sections, technology and marketing professionals packed up to report back to their agencies and marketing departments about distrustful consumers, advancing technology and the need to manage both.
Experiences are the new marketing and marketers have got look beyond being communicators of the brand to become involved in everything from product development to company policy, said speakers in the conference portion of SXSW Interactive.
“People don’t want to be interrupted with marketing, they want to find and learn about products,” said Ben Mand, senior VP of brand marketing and innovation at baby food company Plum Organics. “Marketing is changing to be part of the vernacular in its content.”
The big ticket in town was an interactive experience to promote the HBO series “Westworld,” where visitors took the place of characters in the story. But unlike the robot revolt of the series, speakers at SXSW said technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning will become more of a tool than an end in themselves. Robotics and machine learning will be a means to an end when it comes to building a better user experience for humans, not a replacement for them, said the experts.
Not everyone supported that view: in a surprise keynote, Tesla founder Elon Musk said AI “scares the hell out of me,” called for its regulation and said people who don’t see its danger are fools.
Meanwhile, several speakers argued there is no need to fear a dystopian future. Robots aren’t taking over, but they are helping bring on the future, they said.
“The whole thing here is connecting and empowering humanity to do things better,” said Jeff Chow, VP product-consumer experience of TripAdvisor. Machine learning can help sort through recommendations, but won’t necessarily choose for the user, he said.
“I’m not going to trust Rosie the Robot to tell me what the best barbecue place in Austin is,” he said. “It’s really more about what are the things and techniques that help us help ourselves.”
Web developers have evolved from focusing on features and adding them to products to fitting those features into a focus on the user journey, said Hector Ouilet, head of design for Google search.
“It’s not about giving you an answer, but helping you with steps on the way and the outcomes in real life,” said Laura Granska, UX research director at Google.
Ethical questions remain about trusting machines to make decisions for humans, particularly in areas such as healthcare, said Finale Doshi-Velez, assistant professor of computer science at Harvard University. “I don’t think we are replacing doctors anytime soon,” she said, but added that artificial intelligence can improve coffee-fueled emergency decisions made at 2 a.m. “There ‘s a lot of good we can do that’s not AI taking over from the doctors.”
Some dystopian points are valid, but users and creators are already having discussions to inform how the technology is developed, said Chris Jones, VP of technology of iRobot: “There are these activities happening that allow us to check,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going into things blind.”
Technology is already being regulated, said Doshi-Velez: “We only have to hold our AI to the same regulations we hold our other technology.”
The distrust in applied AI is part of an overall sense of cynicism that has affected the public in their attitudes towards the establishment, even before the 2016 election made it evident, said speakers. There is a crisis of trust among the public, stoked by fake news and sexual harassment scandals, that has led half of the public to swear off traditional news channels and institutions.
This environment leaves brands to step into the breach and inform a public that is more apt to believe what it hears from an employer than from the government or the media. That was the verdict from a panel featuring newsman Dan Rather, Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, the publisher of the annual Trust Barometer study that reached the disconcerting conclusions.
The rise of digital media has been fed by advertising moving from traditional outlets to the web, particularly social media. This has decimated newspapers and other mainstream media, said Heather Brunner, CEO of WP Engine.
If social-style crowdsourcing is the new revenue model for media, she asked, will the public be willing to pay for authenticated news? That may be necessary to restore trust, Brunner said. It’s time for a flight to quality.
“If Google and Facebook and YouTube are going to be trusted platforms, they will have to invest in the quality of content there,” said Brunner. “That’s going to have to be funded and invested in.”
Brands have to shift their point of view from selling to educating, said Edelman: “There is a tax on truth if you’re silent,” he told the audience. “It is up to us—and that means you—to carry the ball.”
Some organizations have already begun taking action. GSD&M founder Roy Spence took to the stage—with an assist from actor Matthew McConaughey—to launch The Promiseland Project, a campaign to recruit organizations to bring purpose to bear in bridging the culture divide.
“Purpose inspires the country and business,” said Spence. “But you have to stand up and start.”
More companies need to do what Dick’s Sporting Goods did when it took a hard line on gun sales following the Parkland school shooting, said Jessica Clifton, head of digital at Edelman.
“That’s what we expect from business, and that’s what we’re not seeing, that’s why there’s a decline in trust,” she said.
The public responds to those stands, said trend expert Carla Buzasi. She noted Patagonia raised sales sixfold overnight by taking on the president on the shrinking of federal parklands, but warned it was a natural stand for an outdoor retailer: “When they did this it didn’t feel like a stunt.”
Authenticity and transparency will be key, said Rather: “You can’t be one thing to your employees and another thing to your clients and your consumers,” he said. “Authenticity is absolutely essential. You can’t be who you aren’t. It’s suicide.”
Busazi has identified a new cohort of consumers she called “Localvists” who distrust institutions and want to buy local where they can make an impact, as a way to make change in their communities. These consumers feel institutions like banks have failed to make changes since the shocks of the 2008 recession.
“They feel let down,” said Buzasi, managing director of consulting firm WGSN. But she added that these consumers have a point of view that there is a possibility to make change.
Companies need different rules of engagement to reach these consumers, said Buzasi. With them, context wins over content and mere storytelling doesn’t work, she said: “They see it for what it is.” Conversely, those consumers are prepared to pay more if the brand stands for something.
“They’re looking for brands that stand for something,” she said. “You need to take a hard line on issues.”