SXSW 2023—AI set to replace NFTs and other key trends to watch

SXSW 2023—AI set to replace NFTs and other key trends to watch

SXSW is putting away the NFTs and picking up AI.

The annual tech, media and music festival will kick off Friday in Austin, Texas, and participants appear ready to pivot to new crazes—including ChatGPT and AI—replacing last year’s conversations, which were dominated by NFTs and the metaverse. 

The festival always has a pulse on the best startups, tech companies, media giants and brands, which all make appearances there through art installations, parties and pop-up SXSW houses. This year, TikTok is hosting an invite-only house, as the embattled app also defends itself in public. (This week, U.S. senators introduced a bill that would give President Joe Biden the power to ban TikTok over concerns of it being owned by China’s Bytedance Ltd.)

Brands are at SXSW, too, including Patagonia, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Porsche. And the major streaming companies including Paramount+, Peacock, Apple TV+ and Roku will have activations.

SXSW is only just getting back on its feet after a two-year hiatus during the COVID pandemic—this will be its second live festival since returning to somewhat normal. Agencies are expected to send their usual contingents, but the economic climate could make travel and expenses harder to justify. 

The event is still known for covering bleeding-edge topics and it has sparked big moments in tech. Twitter took off there in 2007; Foursquare in 2009; 2015 was a year that livestreaming took over social media; and last year, Austin was inundated with NFT creators such as Doodles and Fluf World.

Below, what to expect at this year’s gathering.

AI is set to replace NFTs as SXSW’s hottest acronym. 

“I think this will be the year of ChatGPT, generative AI,” said Laura Mignott, global chief experiential officer, VMLY&R Commerce, adding that it would be interesting to see AI being used to moderate panels and other applications. “I think the possibilities are endless and it will be cool to see how [and] why they get utilized,” she continued.

Since last year’s SXSW, AI has taken off in the ad world, and ChatGPT, the chatbot developed by OpenAI, has entered the lexicon. Microsoft, Google, Meta, Snap and other internet companies are competing to launch products and services with AI. And advertising creatives are interested in how AI will transform the landscape.

The topics of SXSW’s panels were set last year, before the wave of AI talk swept through the community, but that doesn’t mean people won’t be talking about it.

“There are many panels on AI and ChatGPT and, considering ChatGPT’s rise since the panel picker closed, I imagine the conversation will be even more robust than the lineup suggests,” said Megan Trinidad, VP, executive creative director, product and experience at R/GA. 

“It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that generative AI is changing industries as we speak,” explained Katie Klumper, CEO and Founder of CMO consultancy Black Glass. “The immediate impact on the attendee experience of the events will certainly be a flood of thought leadership on the topic.”

Last year, conversations—and all-night parties—celebrating NFTs dominated SXSW, but this year, that doesn’t appear to be the case. 

“There are a lot less NFT panels,” Trinidad said. “Looking at the lineup, it seems the conversation is evolving away from NFTs, or any specific end product, and focusing more on what new technologies can enable.”

“There’s a huge drop off in the number of NFT conversations, but there are still talks about Web3 and what’s next,” Mignott said.

Perhaps that’s because, for the most part, CMOs didn’t make NFTs a priority, according to Klumper. “NFTs, while a hot topic last year, never really hit the CMO strategic priority list,” she said. 

“While it was fun in concept and made it into a few campaigns, the mass adoption and scale of the technology did not pull through to the C-Suite,” Klumper continued. “And with everything going on in culture and in the economy, NFTs are unlikely to rise to the top of CMOs’ priorities this year.”

On Tuesday, a bipartisan bill was introduced that—if passed into law—would allow President Biden to ban or force a sale of TikTok. But TikTok continues to plow ahead with its charm offensive to win brands and creators, and SXSW is another stop on that tour.

TikTok is attending SXSW by hosting an event space at Inn Cahoots. It plans to produce closed-door programming for TikTok partners only (the events aren’t open to the public), such as a TikTok Shop LIVE activation as a test for partners, a TikTok spokesperson told Ad Age.

Although these events aren’t part of the official SXSW programming, some execs are particularly excited for them. “I’m really curious to see how they are going to show up,” Mignott said.

It’s unclear whether TikTok will address the proposed legislation at SXSW. 

“I have no doubt someone will ask the question during one of the many panels featuring TikTok employees,” Trinidad said. 

Jason Schulweis, president and CEO of JBS Growth, said he doesn’t anticipate marketers at SXSW dwelling on TikTok’s legal situation. 

“There’s nothing that is definitive, one way or the other … it’s an amazing platform, marketers still love it,” he said, adding that the TikTok employees present at SXSW will likely have some things they are allowed to say about the current situation and some they can’t comment on. 

Twitter, the social media platform that some SXSW veterans consider a festival mainstay, is nowhere to be found on the schedule this year. It’s somewhat surprising being that, as Schulweis noted, SXSW helped launch the social network in the first place. 

But it’s been 15 years since Twitter became popular through a strong showing at SXSW. Now, Twitter is in a bit of turmoil under its new owner Elon Musk.

But from both a cash flow perspective and a reputational one, experts said that it’s probably for the best if Twitter sits this one out. 

“Considering Elon Musk’s ambition to get Twitter cash positive in the next quarter, it seems unlikely that planning a big presence at SXSW was a top of Twitter’s priorities in the last few months,” Trinidad said.

“I doubt [Twitter] will be there, and honestly, it’s sad,” Mignott said. “Based on the most recent flareup with firing a disabled employee … it’s a good thing for them to stay away.”

Mignott was referring to Musk’s most recent public Twitter squabble. This week, Musk got into a back-and-forth on Twitter with employee Haraldur “Halli” Thorleifsson, during which Musk alluded to Thorleifsson’s muscular dystrophy prognosis. Musk later apologized for the tweet. 

Musk’s ownership tenure has been bumpy, and he has managed to alienate some hardcore users of the service, but he also has a committed following on Twitter. 

Some SXSW attendees will clearly continue to use Twitter for networking and discovering events in Austin, but some say they probably won’t be enthusiastic about it. “It’s almost a sad thing, that usage of the platform can’t correlate with the brand's equity because of everything going on that people find so distasteful,” said Lola Bakare, CMO advisor and inclusive marketing strategist at be/co. 

Some of the disappointment likely stems from the fact that Twitter was once a major draw at SXSW, and it used to have a high-profile presence at other industry events such as CES and Cannes. 

“They just have such a big opportunity to own these conference moments because we’re so used to using Twitter as the tool through which we document and communicate about our experiences,” Bakare continued. But, as she pointed out, “you reap what you sow.”

Amazon is hosting a night called “Prime, TX” at Austin’s iconic Hotel San Jose with craft cocktails and prizes, while Paramount+ will serve “Star Trek”-themed drinks at the Clive Bar on Rainey Street for its “The Lodge” event. Apple TV+ is even rolling out a Tetris popup arcade, which is a promotion for its upcoming film about the video game classic.

Outside of the streamers, Patagonia, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Porsche are set to host events, including cocktail hours, too.  Contributing: Garett Sloane

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