Exploring the Tech Trends of SXSW 2024: A Journey into the Future


“Today is the worst our technology will ever be.” – Amy Webb

South by Southwest (SXSW) has emerged as a modern-day world’s fair — complete with global attendees, activations and programmning tracks that serve as “pavilions” dedicated to countries, ideas, emerging technologies, and a community of people who are excited to see and share “what’s next.”

To that end, this year’s key themes and takeaways include trends that impact creative people and our industry — namely A.I., Creators, Generation Alpha, and experiential + IRL brand activations.

Buckle up that Texas-sized belt buckle. Put down the barbecue, and let’s dig in!

A.I. Makes Humans More Human

From panel discussions to hallway conversations, A.I. was the focal point of nearly every interaction at SXSW 2024. While previous years had seen the rise of other hot topics like blogging, influencers, the metaverse and NFTs, it was clear that A.I. had taken center stage as the driving force behind the future of technology this year.

The buzz around A.I. was palpable, with experts and enthusiasts alike discussing its wide-ranging implications for creative, entertainment, healthcare, finance, coding, and more. Panel discussions delved into the myriad ways A.I. will shape the future of work, from automation and augmentation to the ethics of algorithmic decision-making. 

Speakers like Ray Kurzweil argued that A.I. is a worthy replacement for humans in many ways, “Computers can be creative.” While ChatGPT’s head of product Peter Veng sees it differently, “AI fundamentally makes humans more human.”

Deng also suggested the challenge of discerning if something is made by A.I. will matter more in the short-term than long-term – nodding to the mainstream acceptance of spellcheck, simple formulas, and A.I.-enabled creative tools rampant in our daily life today. 

Ironically, Deng seemed impervious about the implications of compensating those whose source material is used to train large language models that power A.I. tools like ChatGPT – which created a chorus of groans from the audience. 

Ultimately, the palpable sense throughout SXSW is the need to increase A.I. literacy. From prompt engineering to the future of creativity, spotting deepfakes to avoiding scams, it’s clear that stakeholders in education, corporations, and government are behind where they need to be in helping the public know and adapt to these emerging trends.

Creating Marketing Programs With Creators

But A.I. wasn’t the only trend making waves at SXSW 2024. The creator economy also took center stage, representing over $250 billion in revenue and poised to double in the next five years. Brands have shifted their approach to integrated marketing, moving away from one-off influencer partnerships to building entire campaigns around creators.

“An idea is only good if I can package it and it reaches a lot of people. I start with what’s the title and what’s the thumbnail.” – Mark Rober

Billionaire David Booth found himself speaking to a room of only 30 attendees only to be followed in the same space by YouTube star Mark Rober who packed the room and offered insights into his process for creating content that engages 40 million subscribers – namely, to remember that you’re not just competing for the click, but to keep the viewer engaged for the entire video. 

“Anytime someone is watching YouTube I have 20 videos in the sidebar competing as they watch, so I have to use tricks to keep your attention.” – Mark Rober

When it comes to partnering with creators, brands are prioritizing relevance, creative collaboration, and holistic activation strategies. It’s no longer enough to simply pay influencers to post about a product. Brands must empower creators to have a say in the campaign and leverage their unique audience and content to activate across the entire marketing mix. This shift represents a fundamental change in the way brands approach marketing, moving from transactional relationships to long-term partnerships built on trust and mutual respect.

Preparing Your Marketing Plans For Generation Alpha

Speaking of unique audiences, multiple speakers covered the rising relevance of the next group of consumers with purchasing power – Generation Alpha. 

Generation Alpha, the demographic cohort succeeding Generation Z, is composed of those born from 2010 to the early 2020s (these years are just as contested as previous generations). 

As the first generation to be fully born into the 21st century (also called “the iPad Generation), they are the most technologically integrated generation ever, growing up in a world of advanced digital technology, social media, and artificial intelligence. 

In her session “Introducing Gen Alpha: A Brand’s New Key Audience,” Morning Consult’s Joanna Piacenza highlighted the impact of this group’s Millennial parents when it comes to how they see the world, engage in social media, and impact purchase decisions.

Key takeaways included: 

  • 3/4s of Generation Alphas own a phone and 1 in 5 has a VR headset. 
  • Alphas spend most of their time – 7 or more hours – on desktop computers and smartphones.
  • 10% of Gen alphas have met most of their friends online.
  • YouTube is their favorite social platform.
  • Gen Alpha has a rosier view of influencers compared to Gen Zers. 
  • Alphas will be more fiscally conservative and will budget because they’ve learned from their parents. 
  • Gen Alpha will be more opinionated about your brand because their parents have involved them in decisions, unlike previous generations.

Although the metaverse has bad branding, Generation Z and Alpha increasingly spend their social time in virtual worlds, so it’s critical modern marketers pay attention to the confluence of technology and user behavior toward the future of social. 

Activating Virtually and IRL

The SXSW XR Experience once again created a showcase of more than 20 AR and MX experiences – helping push the boundaries of immersive storytelling and art for crowds lined up each day. 

Of particular note was the Lowe’s Innovation Labs team, who built a customizable kitchen builder demo for the Apple Vision Pro in time for public demonstrations. And it’s shoppable. 

“We’ve talked about face computers for a long time, but what’s different now? Apple. They know a lot about consumer tech and the tech behind it. The price will drop and when it does, we expect this device will be transformational.” – Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, the Publisher and CEO of MIT Technology Review 

And let’s not forget about the resurgence of experiential marketing in an era of virtual experiences. Following the lockdowns and cancellations of recent years, brands are once again investing in IRL activations to drive awareness and engagement. From selfie booths to interactive installations, SXSW 2024 was a playground for brands to experiment with physical experiences.

Experiential marketing has always been a hallmark of SXSW, providing brands with an opportunity to engage with audiences in a meaningful and memorable way. In a world where digital fatigue is increasingly common, physical experiences offer a welcome respite and a chance for brands to create lasting connections with consumers. Whether it’s through immersive installations, live performances, or hands-on demos, brands are finding innovative ways to cut through the noise and capture the attention of their target audience.


Source: @generative_sx

Despite the hype about A.I. among the SXSW community, there is a significant gap in positive consumer sentiment. In the past five years, consumer trust in AI has fallen globally from 61% to 53%, according to the 2024 edition of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, while trust in AI in the U.S. declined from 50% to 35%. Both tech companies and marketers have a lot of work to do to earn trust, create utility, and ensure these new technologies advance culture, not harm it. 

A few suggestions, whether you were at SXSW 2024 or are following along from home: 

Don’t be at the mercy of the future; help shape it. That’s what the SXSW community is all about. 

See you in the future!
-Greg Swan, Chief Creative & Strategy Officer

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Background on The Social Lights
The Social Lights® is a social-first agency headquartered in Minneapolis that partners with clients to grow their business through strategy development, creative production, media buying, and social media management. Current clients include General Mills, Ecolab, Cargill, Caribou Coffee, Kwik Trip, Polaris and Massage Envy. The Social Lights was founded in 2011 and is a WBENC-Certified Women Business Enterprise. Learn more at The Social Lights.

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