SXSW: Absurdity sells

by Annie Holman ([email protected]) 327 views 

Editor’s Note: Annie Holman, Associate Media Director for Little Rock-based CJRW, is spearheading a roundup of daily workshops being attended this week by her team at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.

“The cumulative effects of many tiny absurd acts can be huge,” said Richard Dedomenici, a British performance artist with a spiky mohawk and equally prickly demeanor. Best known for a series of absurd remakes called Redux (see this one first), Dedomenici is the only panelist so far featured without a job title. Just a name, and he delivered the kind of insights you don’t get from other marketers. In fact, he delivered the majority of them while insulting the other panelists, but there were no pushovers in this mostly UK-based panel consisting of Eleanor Barrett and Rosie Freeman, Co-Directors of The Brick Box, Henri Mazza, Vice President of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, and of course, just Richard Dedomenici.

Across many sessions so far, “experiential marketing” has been lauded as the next big thing. This session was about pushing those experiences to the absurd and surreal, creating real-life spaces and situations that lie at the junction of performance art, public installation and brand interaction. Henri Mazza provided a great example. He created a man-made beach, added water and inner tubes, and held the most amazing screening of Jaws in history while viewers floated like chum in the water. Did this boost ticket sales? Not at all. Was the price per customer justifiable in any way? Not even close. Did it make his company internationally famous? Absolutely. Starting to see the point? Let’s elaborate.

Absurdity is the last bastion of surprise, and surprise is a commodity that is more and more difficult to recreate over time. Human minds are tuned to novelty. It is in our nature to recognize when things are not quite the same. Absurdity is a device for taking advantage of this tendency, but absurdity for its own sake is a nonstarter. There should be always be purpose behind your apparent meaninglessness. Absurdity in physical installations, particularly open, public spaces, is a way to create experiences that could never exist naturally. The Brick Box recently played on the concept of juxtaposition by creating a combined pop-up Mosque, LGBTQ store and BBQ restaurant shaped like a pig, all next to each other.

Is this absurdity for its own sake? You be the judge. Can you imagine another venue that could attract practicing Muslims, LGBTQ identifiers, and BBQ lovers for those reasons to the same location?

Absurdity is a laboratory for unparalleled audience experimentation. It can also be the spearhead of a brand message if handled with care.

Dedomenici echoed the idea with a comment sounded by satirists through the ages, “If you can make someone laugh, they are much more willing to engage in the underlying message behind the work.”

Put another way, absurd content, even if it seems bizarre in relation to your brand (or just utterly bizarre) is a real way to make a meaningful connection with any audience. But only if it has a purpose.

Facebook and Google have created an advertising duopoly predicted to wipe out smaller ad tech companies and continue the decline of VC funding in ad tech. Brands spend millions every year collecting consumer data they should rightfully own and be able to use while Google and Facebook are profiting. This session explored why competition reform is needed for the overall ecosystem, what makes data consolidation bad for ad tech, and how brands can own their own data to elevate the consumer experience.

The key point to understand is that Facebook and Google own the vast majority of user data and receive 63% of the ad spend of the entire digital universe. They are also dominating internet growth and receive 77 cents on every dollar of new ad spend.

What is driving this growth? Mobile. Mobile is dominating digital, and Facebook and Google are dominating mobile. Although these digital behemoths did not start out as mobile companies, they pivoted when others wouldn’t or couldn’t. Today, eight of the top 10 mobile apps are Google or Facebook properties.

When looking at data ownership, it’s a bit of a best-and-worst scenario. If you’re a brand or marketer, you have to admit that Google and Facebook allow us to do things we never would have dreamed of 10 years ago. The two giants deliver massive scale and super-targeted signal feeds, creating a new era of marketing. But as a result, they’re expensive to work with, and the incentive that has been built in the industry to get things in front of your face to serve the impressions is, well, annoying. Facebook is attempting to address this by changing their algorithm to prioritize personal interaction. The jury is still out for most on seeing that change, though.

Regardless, selling against them is tough and they’re killing startups. But with these challenges come opportunities. Michael Nicholas of Assembly and MDC Media and Brian Wong of Kiip took a deeper look into what some of those are. First, there’s action-based targeting, something Facebook can do within its closed environment, but Google isn’t that great at so far. Startups who can help target audiences in Google inventory more like Facebook will add huge value to the current duopoly situation.

Targeting is still very content-oriented, reaching people within content relevant to an advertiser or product. The next area is the moment or activity-based targeting, meaning that your impression is served to a user around a time when they are performing a task related to your product. Because we live in such a fragmented media world, it’s all about timing more than ever before. Advertisers now know when people are doing certain things based on their data, so we don’t have to be everywhere.

How do we access data that lives on Facebook to use it on the outside? The other major theme at South-by this year is Artificial Intelligence. Nicholas and Wong suggest that start-ups who deliver the strong AI experience designs audiences actually want to talk to will enable that data portability in the duopoly. Chatbots are able to move that data off the platform using the Facebook Messenger API. Also, startups who lower the barrier of entry to data will add huge value to the current duopoly situation. As of right now, it’s still a high rollers’ game. Nicholas seems to think Amazon may be next to jump in and he imagines an inexpensive, on-demand Amazon Web Services data management platform. Time will tell. Soon.

CJRW Digital Content Writer Josh Walker contributed to this report.