A friend messaged me upon my arrival home and said, “ZERO tech news came out of SXSW. Is it just a hashtag and not a festival?” He’s right in that the past few years there have been no new huge breakouts like Twitter was or trends that weren’t already talked about at CES. The festival has become (in its 20th year) both really, really big (Interactive had more attendees than Music and Film combined), and more introspective. The panels have become more like “think pieces” about technology and what it means to us, our parents, children and society at large. In my role at the Ad Council, I attended a lot of the social good sessions, where the gaze was turned inward and we analyzed our non-profit selves. Here are a few key themes I took away.
Non-profits need to innovate and therefore be OK with failure
We had a guest speaker do a brown bag lunch the other week who had a slide called “Fail forward.” At start-ups and in the tech world at large, failing is just part of learning and iterating. Nobody likes to fail, but on the whole, people realize it’s a step on the way to getting it right. Hello…”Fail Whale”?
At non-profits, where executives answer to board members, donors and institutional funders, the tolerance for failure is, well, there really isn’t much. Except at Unicef, Greenpeace, and The Sierra Club, who were all on a panel called “Changing the Changemakers: Non-Profit Innovation.” Unicef shared that the innovation group even has “Fail Fridays,” where everyone shares their failures and what they learned. Another panelist said she softens the word failure to “insights” for her failure averse clients. Essentially these large, institutional organizations are starting to act more like tech companies or even venture capitalists – funding innovation knowing that 90 percent of what is tried will fail. The advice for the rest of us was to “fail small.” Try new things you can prototype and test in an hour or a day. Make sure the risk to outcome ratio is in order.
“Clicktavism” is not so bad when it actually leads to something tangible
I would liken clicktavism to hashtag activism and say both really shouldn’t be dirty words. If thousands of people click and sign a petition, and Participant Media prints them all and delivers to a congress person, that’s good, right? If thousands of people share a link or use a hashtag and a company or organization donates money for each share, that’s good too, right? Does it matter if the person who clicked or used the hashtag is an issue expert or never takes it to the streets? I did this twice at SXSW — I shared a hashtag which led to American Express giving $1 to United Way and shared a link from Lynda Lopez’s site triggering a $1 donation to organizations working on issues impacting women and children.
This was the basis for a discussion about the role of awareness and linking awareness to actions that mean something — whether that’s a policy outcome or some other measurable social impact. The .orgs on this panel were more activist in nature and talked about using social or clicktavism in ways that are disruptive — public shaming of polluters on Twitter or deluging a CEO’s inbox with 100K emails. Part of getting people online to do what you want them to do.
Battle for hearts and minds
One non-profit panelist claimed that his biggest competitor is FOX news. That he is locked in a battle to win over hearts and minds. So we’re not only trying to mimic tech companies but also put out powerful, provocative messaging around our causes. At another panel on the international use of memes, I was surprised (and not so surprised) to learn that non-profits and media companies aren’t the only ones to use social to broadcast our point of view. Internationally both dissidents and dictators are producing and sharing their own memes on social — to protest or oppress as in the case of the Azerbaijani government. There are actually meme scholars now!
Finally, a kind word to our sponsors
Or at least to Samsung, who sent a bike messenger to charge my dead phone battery, and Chevy, who gave me two of the most comfortable rides at the festival. If you want to be remembered at SXSW, meet the needs of the taco and tequila weary hordes.