Inside the decadent bazaar of exclusive events, private parties and by-invitation-only demonstrations, the message behind most discussions seems to be one of inclusion. This week, we’ve heard about the value of free experiences and public events and about the inevitable rise of all brands as integrated pillars of the community, here to do business but also here to help in meaningful ways, even when the roles they play are not the most marketable. The message to brands is coming from all sides. From the top, digital marketing turned a corner when Facebook decided that user happiness is more important than ad revenue. From the bottom, users simply circumvent platforms and content that annoy them.

What the creators, innovators and users of these platforms want brands to know is that it’s time to stop talking and do something. Then you can talk again. Promises will not be a huge part of content going forward. Results will be important. Real experiences will be important. The cynical but obvious question is whether this new requirement, this social component of brands—from global to local in their ranges of influence—is asking too much? This is not about penalizing brands who do wrong. This is about penalizing brands who fail to do documented public good. Do we hold politicians to these standards? A new relationship is emerging between brands and users; the roles are not yet fully clear, and there is tension.

Fortunately, new technologies and innovative creative strategies are already showing potential for getting a message to take root in a brand new environment. In our fourth and final day at SXSW Interactive, we made the most of it. We got to be Matt Damon in The Martian at a Lockheed Martin VR demo that was, well, not unbelievable but “almost believable,” which is better. We sat in virtual cafes and commented on the noise level of flying cars during a VR survey about the flying-car future. We also made it to a focused series of sessions about the future of content, understanding and marketing to Gen Z, and what brands can do to stay relevant going forward. Here’s the best of our fourth and final day at SXSW 2018.

The End of Content

Millennials spend more than 18 hours a day consuming content. Yes, we need more sleep. Yet the democratization of content is creating infinite amounts more every day. We have already reached max consumption. Have we reached peak content? What is happening? Why? Gifs? Giphy was built for what happens next. Giphy presented what they are working on and the future of entertainment.

Alex Chung, CEO of Giphy, studied philosophy, then engineering, then graphic design and then fashion at Parsons School of Design, and then went to film school for a year. Then he was on a snowboard team before snowboarders wore helmets, so that period is a blur. He’s also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He started his career as an engineer at Intel and then made his way over to MTV. Somehow the ridiculous intersection of all these life experiences makes total sense when realizing that Giphy is the outcome. If you’re familiar with Giphy, you already get it. 

In 2016, Giphy made its first appearance at SXSW, so Chung first looked back to lay the groundwork for the role gifs play today. But not before he clarified the difference between “gifs” and “jifs” even though no one cares (according to most of us). What are gifs and why are they important? Gifs are easy to define. They are short, silent, looping videos. What makes them important? Chung reflected on the printing press democratizing information. Before we had the ability to mass communicate, the printing press was the only way to get information out. Then the internet came along. The internet is really just a transcoding of everything you see in the world into text.

Technically speaking, Chung says text is a bad compression format. One page of text is a few kilobytes, and a gif is only a few megabytes. It might take someone five minutes to read a page of text or they could consume thousands of gifs in a few seconds. Gifs are a much better transport mechanism for information because they can convey messages and emotions in a few seconds in a more compressed, real, human format. Also, if you’re in the type of field where live chat is a big part of your work day (think Slack), gifs become a type of expression in themselves, used to pose and answer questions, show approval or disdain, or just to blow off steam.   

What makes gifs so popular? Like many questions that have been posed this week, the answer is mobile. The ability to take a shot from a movie and send it to a device in someone’s pocket could only be possible through mobile. Gifs are the next evolution of communication via text and emojis. We are living in a new world of entertainment, and because of all the new video platforms, people are creating content themselves and want to send videos. Flash was the only auto-playing format for a long time, but when mobile phones arose and Flash died—thanks to Apple—we needed a new format that auto-played. And that’s one of the technical reasons why gifs are so popular.

Some of you may be wondering what Giphy actually is. It is the first gif search engine (giphy.com) and is now five years old. It began as a weird idea that Chung and his partners are great at coming up with (“We have bread bowls for soup, why not crouton bowls for salads?” he asked the audience). Since Giphy is a search company, people often wonder why they would try to compete with Google. Chung’s response is that not all of the sites we use now were invented back when Google was invented in 1998. There was no entertainment on the internet at that time, and Google hasn’t changed much since then as far as displaying text results. Using Giphy search is now more visual and representative of the media that is out in the world.

Giphy now serves FIVE BILLION gifs to 300+ million users every day. They crunched the numbers 20 times to be sure, but that comes out to 10 percent of the volume of Google searches, and that accomplishment is staggering. What is clearly happening is the democratization of content. Content is easily available, and the growth of content is exponential. Millennials consume 18 hours of content each day, which would mean that consumption of content is now at 100%, right? Have we reached the end? Did Netflix just win?

Chung views the consumption of content in real estate terms. With only 24 hours in a day, we have fixed real estate. Prime real estate falls within the primetime daypart, 8-10 p.m. There’s a bit of a “housing crisis” when it comes to content now, because there just isn’t any more “space.” So your options, according to Chung, are to move to the suburbs, which he likens to Facebook, or to the country, which he considers more passive content like soap operas or daytime TV. Then there is the option of alternative housing where you have to be creative about where you put your content, layering it into the current space. Oh, and Reddit is that weird place downtown where you are afraid to go at night but everyone still goes, like the public access TV of the past.

The future of content, as we’ve discovered this week in many sessions, is going to be expensive. If you can pay, you can play. The rest of us need to think more micro. Yep, you guessed it. Six-second video. Content has to be small enough to fill in the gaps. The future of Giphy very much follows this idea. They are creating six-second videos for brands that are highly produced and entertaining. They’ve also got a video platform launching this fall to meet the need for passive content—GiphyTV—where you play the puppy channel all day. It’s also going to be ubiquitous and integrated into many apps, although it already is part of communications tools like Slack, Microsoft Outlook and iOS iMessages.

Getting back to his roots, Chung says the ideal future of Giphy is MTV 2.0 because it defined an entire generation, and he imagines what MTV would be like if it created another type of entertainment platform. After all, Giphy’s mission is to “Make Everything Animate,” because animating means bringing good things to life. Likewise, brands should embrace short-form content and distribute it in a very authentic way. Using formats like gifs, it can be seamless content that no one immediately knows is an ad because it’s just really good content. 

What’s Next For Advertising?

In 2008, Seth Godin famously said, “Content marketing is all the marketing that’s left.” With native advertising and branded entertainment projected for $20B growth by 2021, to what extent has his prophecy come true? Chief Creative Officer of CNN’s Courageous Brand Studio, Otto Bell, was joined by Brad Feinberg from MillerCoors and Marissa Freeman from Hewlett-Packard Enterprise to discuss what the future of advertising holds and the role of storytelling in that future.

To start things off in dramatic fashion, Bell told the story of a man who found himself on a burning oil rig in the middle of the ocean. He faced two choices: stay on the rig and die in the fire, or plunge 30 feet into the icy waters. I think most of us can agree that we would jump. And he did. Bell used this narrative as a metaphor to illustrate that the industry at this moment is on the burning platform. He challenged, “When will we plunge into the icy, scary unknown to save ourselves?”

It’s quite the picture. And as theatrical as the story was, he proposed that as an industry, advertising should be pushing towards stories, moments, new technologies and innovative avenues to deliver to customers what they actually want. If you’ve been following along here, this seems to be a hot button topic that we’re hearing from everyone. Literally, everyone. 

He might have a point, though, by arguing that the growth of subscription-based services like Netflix and Spotify that allow users to pay for opting out of ads, AdBlock technology and the ever-present concerns about ad fraud will continue to impact how we think about reaching consumers.

Bell shared three content lessons that he feels are vital to staying relevant. First, FIND YOUR STORY! He emphatically stressed, “Your logo is not your brand. Your story is.” Second, make an emotional connection. Again, at this point, it’s been made very clear that this is vital. Lastly, plan for spontaneity. Be empathetic to what your customers actually want to consume. Use your data to figure out what that is.

So where does that leave us? Companies like Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and MillerCoors are shifting efforts towards creating impactful digital experiences. Additionally, the importance of planning for distribution plays a key role in this shift. Freeman spoke to this, saying that you can create amazing content all day, but if you don’t have a solid plan for where it’s going to live, and how your consumers are going to see it, then what’s the point? On that same note, she pointed out that it can be just as detrimental to plan your data and plan for distribution only to create low-quality content. Both need to come together to optimize what you’re putting out there. 

Bell asked both panelists what they were most excited about from content marketing in 2018, and their answers shouldn’t be surprising. Free expressed thinking about new ways to use television as a storytelling medium, and a shift to more cinematic content that, instead of being a 30-second spot, would instead be 2.5 to 3 minutes. “You can really hold the ratings with that type of content, especially when you can present it on mobile.” So many buzzwords. Feinberg says that for MillerCoors, he’s most excited about working with content creators in different ways. He also pointed out a shift to an Attention Economy, in which we’ll be looking at metrics differently to determine new ways to measure success. Because, in this new space, the more time people spend with your brand, the more successful you are.

HOW BRANDS WHO SPEAK GEN Z SLAY

Right now, Gen Z is getting very near the point where Millennials were the first time you heard about them. And just as with Millennials, there is no universal consensus as to where Millennials end and Gen Z begins. Some say Gen Z was born after 1995, while others set the starting point at 2000. Depending on which date you choose, the oldest members of Gen Z have either just graduated high school or college. Don’t they grow up so fast? Already, this group represents $44 billion in buying power, and if you are a Gen Xer with a kid, you already know what a very difference audience they can be.

Learning to speak Gen Z is what this panel was all about, and at the mics were Dwight Caines from Thesis, Samantha Skey from SheKnows Media, Rebecca Coleman of Something Massive and Elizabeth Toney from Gen Z fashion trendsetters Maddie by Maddie Ziegler and Nowadays. First, let’s get to know our audience from a social media perspective. Gen Z are the best, most prolific, organic content producers on the planet. Also, they know it. They sniff out advertisements by nature. They are not fooled by your clever ad, and seconds later they’re telling their friends how cringy you are. This audience requires a very different approach. 

Let’s start with a success story set to the tune of influencer marketing. Maddie Ziegler is a Gen Z icon for everything from fashion to music videos. Here’s one that has 900 million views so far: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWZGAExj-es. You might be thinking, here’s a chance for some crazy successful influencer marketing. And you would be 100% correct. The creators behind the Maddie by Maddie Ziegler clothing brand know this well. Maddie creates her own content. It is not edited by the brand at all before posting, and that’s a key insight. The most successful Gen Z content is very raw, very real, not highly produced and delivered through influencers. 

Wherever you draw the line for Gen Z’s oldest members, Dwight Caines reminded everyone, this is still “not a customer who can easily transact.” They are mostly still reliant on their parents’ purchasing power. For that reason alone, products and brands that sell well to Gen Z are relevant in a way that their parents can be convinced to see the value, but that’s the lowest and first bar. The second is for the ballgame. They have to embrace it, together, because that’s their thing. Caines, who is responsible for getting Gen Z to go to the movie theater, affirmed this with a hint of depression, “The minute a movie opens, social media takes over and decides how successful it will be,” though that could be said for any generation.

The prime motivators for Gen Z, according to data presented by the panel, particularly Dwight Caines, are these. First, FOMO, or “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.” They are moved by altruism and hedonism. They want content that is relatable and aspirational, and they are hyper-discerning when it comes to digital content, jumping quickly and losing loyalty just as fast, or, as Skey put it, “Gen Z has access to so much feedback that if something is not hitting, they’re going to move along very quickly.” More than 97% of Gen Z has a smartphone. They’re addicted to validation, and they’re everyone’s new coming-soon market. 

The Takeaway from SXSW Day 4

Able now to get perspective on the whole event, our fourth and final day at SXSW reinforced the same themes we’ve heard every day. The goal for every brand is either to be more involved or to seem involved in a more convincing way. Where to draw the line is a question that does not yet have an answer, and that’s sort of the point. The audience will decide what is enough and when. Advertising is an ongoing process of artificial selection based on consumers. What they want is irrelevant. Knowing what they want and delivering it is the job of brands, and it’s the difficulty level for content creation that can only increase. The new formats, insights and strategies discussed this week will dominate digital media in the coming year. What happens next? Hopefully, we’ll be back in Austin to find out. From SXSW 2018, thanks for joining us. CJRW out!