I’ve finally had time to put pen to paper for the main things that struck me while at SXSW Interactive this year. I don’t often have a chance to use the word ‘smorgasbord’, but for my experience at SXSW it is the most appropriate metaphor…

Day 1 theme: Data

Data was at the core of talks by the likes of Microsoft, Samsung, Google, Facebook, Forbes, Netflix and AdBlockPlus.

To give an example of the scale, Under Armour have over 157m active users of their embedded wearable technology, from which they are collating and processing data to provide intelligent feedback for health, fitness and nutrition. This wearable tech market is expected to grow from $14bn to $34bn by 2020.

Connected devices (the “Internet of Things”) are also adding to this expansion of data touchpoints. 20% of vacuum cleaners in the US are ‘connected’ and therefore ‘smart’. It is expected that there will be 100bn connected devices globally by 2020; that’s roughly 13 per person on the planet.

However, this will get really exciting when the insightful application of this data - delivering better experiences and innovative actions - becomes more widespread.

Day 2 theme: Putting the audience first

Media, tech and creative companies all seemed to be crying out to put the audience first. Across many of the panels and discussions, it was agreed that key challenges could be solved by understanding audiences better to create better user experiences (across web, mobile, shopping, advertising, product design etc.).

For example, ad blocking was a hot topic and there was a firm consensus that the demand for blocking ads online had only arisen because consumers had been neglected; with poor performing creative, targeted badly.

Also, several conversion rate optimisation speakers touched upon the power of A/B testing to uncover the best ways to communicate (and of course convert) consumers. Truly personalised experiences aren’t likely to become mainstream any time soon, but there were clear examples of the benefits of segmenting audiences into clusters and subsequently treating them to a ‘better’ experience.

If we don't put the audience first, then consumers are going to start to get frustrated with their online experience...

Day 3 theme: VR, VR and more VR

There were examples of virtual reality dotted around all over Austin during the festival. Showcases, demos, PR, games and plenty of gimmicks. The quality of much of this VR was underwhelming. Even NASA didn’t wow people with their opportunity to walk on Mars; it is basically a way to surround yourself with reddish brown pixels…

However, during a popular talk on “the future trends of tech” Kevin Kelly from Wired.com stressed that the reason we are seeing a VR proliferation at low quality is because the cost of production has come down so much. Soon, after the novelty has worn off, we’ll see the cream of VR rise to the top.

If you invest the time hunting, there is definitely quality to be found. Dan can testify to that after his enjoyable ride on a VR roller coaster.

Dan on Gillette VR rollercoaster

Day 4 theme: Audience understanding

Across several of the days and sessions at SxSW the power of artifical intelligence, machine learning and robots were evangelised. Growing volumes of data are being processed by increasingly powerful machines and algorithms.

Organisations like IBM and McLaren are making the analysis of this data the core of their business. Their main objective is to allow humans to make smarter decisions, faster.

Also, Biz Stone used SxSW to launch his new venture - a reboot of askjelly.com. By matching searchers with the most appropriate responders, you will essentially enter into a live chat with a human, rather than a piece of content, to get the best possible answer.

Day 5 theme: Productivity and smart decisions

Two talks squeezed in at the end of SxSW.

The Slack founder, Stewart Butterfield, talked about his mission to kill email and increase productivity in business. Is there anybody who wouldn’t like to kill email?!

McLaren also talked about how their ‘predictive' decision-making technology is helping industries as diverse as oil, health, consulting and more make smarter decisions, faster. He made it sound feeble that it’s still the case, when we fly into a hectic airport, we have to circle several times before landing (as we inevitably did on our return to the UK). With all the data available we should be able to slow the plane down, manipulate the arrival time and avoid any ‘airport laps’. #whyisthisnotathingalready?

Much of this is still in development (and even the conceptual) phase, but it's still fascinating to think of the potential.

There was so much to see and do at SxSW, it was easy to drown in a pool of information and sales messages. I’m confident we uncovered some nuggets and themes that will drive our digital thinking for the next 12 months at least - until next year!