The first day at SXSW was a bit of a blur. The actual conference got kicked off at 2pm, but the place was buzzing and getting packed by 9am when Eric Hanson and I went by the Austin Convention to pick up my badge and some VIP badges for an event.
After picking up my SXSW Badge and getting some breakfast tacos, Eric H and I headed back to Barton Creek Resort where about 6 of the Martin Agency crew were staying to pick everybody up for Day 1 of SXSW. We left the resort around noon so we could have lunch before going over to the conference center. We had an amazing TexMex lunch at Polvos thanks to a tip from Rad’s wife and a good review on Yelp. The food was awesome, but we were all a little sleepy after gorging which was a bad plan before going to conference panels.
Our plan was to try and split up as much as possible so we could divide-and-conquer and cover as much SXSW ground as we could to bring back the most knowledge to Martin. I went to “Do Ad Agencies Need to Start Thinking Like Software Companies” as my first panel, and it did not disappoint.
First Panel – “Do Ad Agencies Need to Start Thinking Like Software Companies?”
Panelists – Rick Webb, Matt Gallagan, Rob Rasmussen, Ben Malbon and Allison Mooney (Moderator)
The panel got off to a rocky start ironically because of technical issues trying to get the presentation to load up properly. After about 5 minutes tinkering with it, the panel decided to just motor on without much visual/ slide support. Not surprisingly, Rick Webb (Barbarian) was the jokester and most vocal in the group with several really great comments/ contributions, but all-in-all the entire panel was good and I thoroughly enjoyed the session. The topic focused on some of the challenges that agencies today face in trying to produce work that the old-agency-system does not necessarily support very well. The panel discussion went on several tangents but all within the zone of the topic at hand which was really about “how to run an ‘agile agency’.
My big takeaways from this panel were as follows:
Your agency needs to have a group or at least a person who is passionate about and empowered to be the Emerging Tech/ Innovation/ Startup expert. This person needs to know what is bleeding edge and make connections with these startups. This person needs to be positioned within the agency so they know a little bit about what every brand/ account within the agency is doing – that way they can identify relevant opportunities where he/she can connect up a brand with a new emerging thing to try new innovative things. This person needs to be empowered and able to execute on these opportunities, and not just a research expert with no status within the agency.
To truly be agile, you can’t plan on having massive strategy efforts to make everything “perfect” before beginning the initiative. You need to have enough strategy to pick a direction, but then you need to be able to Create >> Test >> Optimize >> Create and so on and optimize strategy along the way. Constant prototyping through the entire initiative is how you run an agile agency.
“Platforms Enable Campaigns” but the funding right now in advertising is all backwards. Right now all the funding goes to the campaign (Media) with no real money left over for the platform. There needs to be a better balance for this going forward.
Software companies still need ad agencies. As great as agile software companies are, they are not able to truly be successful without the creative contributions of people that ad agencies typically employ. Ad agencies do a much better job at capturing and distilling culture and making that part of the brand at its’ core.
It is important to have some “untethered creatives” that are part of your agency system. The panel agreed that some of the best agencies they have ever worked at had several creatives that were not dedicated to any one brand/account at the agency, but rather they roamed about and were able to pitch in on various brands as needed. The crazier the better for this group as sometimes the best inspiration an agency can have for a client comes from an outside and way-out-there perspective.
The team structure for each brand at your agency needs to be flexible enough to pick different leads for each one. Sometimes the UX Strategist should be the lead, sometimes it is appropriate for the traditional art director/ copywriter team to lead, sometimes the developers should be the lead. Assess the situation for each client and create a team based on the need, not based on how old advertising worked.
For my second group I went to “User Research in Gaming”. I was not sure that this would be appropriate since I worried it might be too in the weeds of gaming, but it was awesome. The panel ended up being 95% about user research and testing based on behavior and 5% about hardcore gaming stuff. My review is below.
Second Panel – User Research in Gaming
Panelists – Bill Fulton, Rich Riden, Ray Kowalewski and Marina Kobayashi (Moderator)
This was my favorite session/ panel of the day. I am not a big gamer, nor do we develop a lot of games for clients but the focus of this panel discussion was about the user research that goes into the games that most major game developers create. The type of user analysis that these guys do is completely applicable to the work we do at ad agencies, and in many cases it is a smarter way to approach the audience research than how agencies do it. The guys on this panel were all extremely smart/analytical thinkers and in many cases had Masters or Doctorate level degrees in areas of Psychology/ Neuroscience/ Human Interaction. At times, the panel would go way down into the weeds and specifics of gaming but on the whole they kept it about the research methods and I was able to apply it to what we are doing for brands at the agency.
My key takeaways from this panel were as follows:
User’s don’t read instructions so you have to know them to make things simple/ fun/ intuitive. Remember how big the instruction booklet was for games 10 years ago? Now most games come with a small little insert of basic instructions at best. That is because the games are much more intuitive, and because user research showed that the instruction booklets were worthless. People don’t read them, they just get in and start trying to figure it out. If you have to read the instructions to play, people will not play. Totally applicable to advertising. If you have to try too hard to explain your point and engage a consumer, then it is too complex and you need to rework.
You can’t build a game and then plan on doing all the testing at the end. You have to build a little and test, shift/ tweak/ fix and build some more and test again. It is a constant iterative process and that is the ONLY way to build a great game.
Demographics suck. The only real user information that is worth relying on is behavior. They have observed people who are 7 and 70 who play a game and the way they play it and the behaviors that they exhibit will many times be exactly the same.
Focus groups suck. The only real way to learn what is good and bad is to observe humans interacting with your game/ product/ message. In a focus group, 9 times out of 10 the group gets swayed by the loudest and most aggressive person in the group. The data is flawed.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in user research is to not use an experienced researcher to establish the test. Someone who does not know how to properly setup surveys and moderate usability groups can do more harm than anything to the data you can get from the effort. If the researcher does not know how to properly set things up, the results you get back are skewed due to user confusion.
Biometrics and Biodata and integrating that into the game experience is the newest next big thing that is emerging in gaming and will be big next. Integrating the user into the game by incorporating their own biostats is a new thing that most game developers are playing with and figuring out what users react to.
The Overall Takeaways from Day 1 at SXSW
- Pick at least two panels/ events per time block. If your first choice sucks, get up and move on to your second choice.
- Don’t start drinking too early. That 5pm time block will be rough if you start drinking at noon.
- Try and break away from your group and go off on your own. Sit next to strangers, you will meet more people and learn more.
- Skip out on at least 1 time block per day. There is more stuff going on in and around the conference center that you can learn from as much as you could in a session/ panel.
- Bring your power cords for your laptop and various gadgets.
- Beluga app is so awesome and simple. Perfect for keeping up with your group throughout the day.
That is a wrap on Day 1. Will post the Day 2 recap tomorrow.