First published in LBB

INFLUENCER: Look for what’s old as well as what’s new.

The danger of an event like SXSW is to be blinded by the new. To walk round the trade show and think that the prototype robot will revolutionise the way we change music, or to think that blockchain will be changing everything we know. Tomorrow, of course, change will happen and some of the advances discussed are currently changing the way we do things (even if we don’t realise as much yet). But it is easy in the melee of people, robots and ideas to forget what hasn’t changed. What isn’t new.

And at this year’s SXSW conference in Austin one topic across sessions throughout the week was a reminder of just this – of things that haven’t changed or indeed of older tools and techniques that are in resurgence.

“Old fashioned delivery systems can be better than new ones,” explained CNN’s Brian Stelter in a discussion about how to reach people with news and to combat the rise of Fake News on social media. For him, email newsletters have proved to be more successful than social media posts at reaching an audience with news and content, and more successful at getting engagement with that content. This is unsurprising in the current climate on Facebook, with both questions over the veracity of some news content on the platform, but also with changes to the newsfeed limiting the organic reach of the content they post there.

But for Stelter and others discussing the best way of reaching people, the benefit of what he refers to as ‘old fashioned’ approaches go further. Whilst there had been a shift from all kinds of content creators – news publishers, advertisers and others – towards social channels, we are now seeing a more nuanced use of their digital ecosystem. Social channels are useful for some purposes but only as part of the mix. They might be great for paid advertising with awareness objectives, for example, or for breaking news from publishers, but they may be less good for conversion or for ongoing communications with a consumer (of your goods or your new content). Layer onto this that these channels disintermediate the brand or publisher from the person they are reaching and that they might decide that their priorities lie elsewhere and pivot away from supporting brands or publishers in the way they have become accustomed.

The opportunity offered by new platforms and ways of connecting brands and publishers to their audience does not and should not replace previous ways, in fact it should start a more nuanced conversation about how new and old work together. And that old is sometimes still more effective than new.

This topic went beyond discussions of social channels and was also present in sessions throughout the week on the content we are putting in these channels as much as the channels themselves. ‘Branded content’ sessions littered the SXSW schedule this year, but perhaps the most useful insight into this area came from Rupert Maconick of Saville Productions who said of branded content: “Don’t call it content. Call it entertainment. Then it has to be entertaining.”

In a world of optimising content for clicks, for getting the brand into the first few seconds of the ad and of writing and re-writing that headline, it’s easy to forget what we know about story-telling and about entertaining people. Something advertising has always done the best. As Maconick said, much of what he sees from branded content are things people only watch because they are forced to (as pre-roll ads or other formats that interrupt us online). What we should be doing is using well-honed, traditional craft skills to create things people choose to watch. Want some branded content for your Internet security brand, for example? How about you create a short documentary that adds real value to this area and that people that you are targeting will want to watch.

As with the discussion about how publishers and brands work with platforms this is not new. It is not introducing things that we do not already know. In fact, it is reinforcing the value of the skills and expertise that industries from advertising to news publishing have long honed. But they underline the danger that the new opportunities from digital and technology offer. To get carried away with the new, and to think that because things are new they will replace the old. When cinema was developed, for example, the theatre didn’t go out of business, rather it reshaped the role theatre played in the media mix. The same is true of new channels and the new opportunities from digital – they don’t replace the old but should lead to a more nuanced understanding of how to use the old and the new with a net positive benefit.

A conference like SXSW is a great opportunity to be exposed to the new, but if you look beneath the headline blockchain and cryptocurrency sessions you discover a rich seam of people who are navigating this path of using old skills and techniques with new technologies and approaches. And it is in these sessions that you often see the best and most useful examples of how we can improve what we are all doing for clients and brands.

Matt Rhodes

About Matt Rhodes

Head of Digital Strategy for work. Marathon runner and charity trustee for fun.

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