Science at South by Southwest

By Sondra Hadden

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A few of us at C&EN Media Group attended the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas this past March. The event is often first thought of as a major music and film festival, so you could be wondering what the association for us science marketers would be. But SXSW Interactive has become something of its own: Brands, marketers, and other eclectics gather “before” the craziness to give presentations and share ideas on the latest technologies and “digital creativity”, as the hosts describe it. As cliched as it sounds, everyone is there. Facebook hosts a brunch, PayPal and Marketo have ‘lounges’, complete with wifi, free espresso, and spin-off sessions. Mashable has a meme house. And Grumpy Cat is there. So, where’s the science?

Science front and center

Not only were we thrilled to hear leading executives and companies talk about the future of digital and marketing, we were even more excited to see science front and center at such a massive event. 3M took over some prime real estate to showcase their products in an interactive way. What they called their Life Lab, their goal was for attendees to ‘learn how science improves our lives every day’, specifically with a wide range of products from 3M. Even the structure itself was made out of 3M materials, and they found other ways for attendees to experience their brand. For example, the photo booth featured their reflective film, and you could get hands-on with other products, too. At another station, an event organizer asked us if we’d like to see the amount of bacteria living on our phones. (As science-related as it was, no thanks.)

And then there was GE, who created a “BBQ Research Center”. They had a ‘Super Smoker’ built by an engineer, and a chemist – or more accurately titled, a “Pit Chemist” – Lynn DeRose, churning out free barbecue for attendees. They brought scientists to discuss the chemistry of smoke, and they analyzed foodies’ brain waves as they tasted the state’s staple foods. How cool is that?

Importantly, we didn’t just geek out over this because they were doing something fun. It’s that they found a way to promote their brand and their own culture, at the same time tying it all into the essence of the event they were at.

On Content Marketing

We also heard them talking about the ideas behind such initiatives when Linda Boff, their global executive director of brand marketing, discussed the power of content marketing, and how it’s different than traditional advertising. The name of the session was cleverly titled “Content Marketing vs. Don Draper: The End of Ads?” To which all panelists answered that no, it’s not the end of ads, but there is a line you have to watch. The focus should be less about the advertisement of the product, and more about serving your audience base, because at the end of the day, people will only delight in sharing great content. They don’t really care what we marketers and advertisers call it internally – ad? content marketing? Whatever!

Other tips from GE: 1) Create the right content and then obsess on how you get it out there, and 2) think outside the box when it comes to creating content. As an example, she said “retail can even be content”, proving it with the example of their moon boot, created in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the moon landing. While geared to the consumer, she contested that the shoes also had a B2B component, as the materials for the original boot were made with the same technology used today in their core industries. (If you’re looking for them, they sold out within minutes. Sorry.)

There’s a lesson here for every business in the chemical space – your products are complex and often have very interesting stories to tell, so find ways to tell them.

And back to science

In the panel, “How Is Big Pharma Interacting with Tech Startups?” agencies and companies told us that the industry is embracing change, but there are layers that will never go away. Entrepreneurs need to speak to multiple people within a pharma company: the lawyers, marketing, sales, and so on, and to do so with a different method for each. Pharma is not necessarily afraid of spending money to try something new – they have the “innovation dollars”, but they advised the tech-focused crowd that startups will simply incur higher costs in working with an industry like the pharmaceutical business. For example, a startup may have to take on costs of testing with patient segments. That element doesn’t exist in the same way with other partners.

In short, you could spend your entire SXSW conference at the health and science-focused sessions. There was a showcase on the ‘biotech boom’ of Austin, featuring five new companies on the rise. Mark Cuban of ‘Shark Tank’ was a judge at the Impact Pediatric Health Pitch Day. NASA had a major presence on the exhibit floor, and we know there were many other cool things we just didn’t have the time to see. Perhaps next year!

View our photo album of SXSW for more.


Keywords: , , , , , , ,