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Forget apps. This year, SXSW was all about experience.

March 24, 2016 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

Unlike past years in which an app dominated conversations at Austin’s annual South by Southwest Interactive festival, it’s safe to say that the talk of the town at this year’s South-By was the “experience.”

First, there’s the experience of virtual reality, which proved to be a buzz term in multiple realms: marketing, storytelling and more. Then, there’s the experience taking place as consumers transition more from the broadcast-like social media networks of Facebook and Twitter to more narrowcast-apps such as Line, WhatsApp and Kik — places where conversations, hyperlinks and other media disappear into “dark social” and are less traceable.

NYT, brands get into VR
Both of these experiences have huge implications for marketers and digital media makers, so it’s no surprise they attracted so much attention at SXSW. The festival even had an entire virtual reality track for the first time, with the New York Times being a huge player in it. Times president and CEO Mark Thompson and media columnist Jim Rutenberg spoke on a panel discussing the risks — and now, rewards — of plunging into VR journalism.

The Times also hosted a huge bash on Friday night that, as Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo put it, was “appropriately futuristic, with a gaggle of tipsy attendees checking out NYT VR on Google Cardboard viewers.” But the Times’ foray into VR isn’t just for fun; Pompeo figures its efforts creating VR experiences for brands has brought in $8 million.

Sam Dolnick, an associate digital editor and one of the journalists who helped launched the Times’ VR efforts, said that nearly every desk is pitching stories on VR. It’s forcing journalists like him to zero in on what kind of story works best on the platform, and why.

Beyond media orgs, brand marketers are also testing VR ventures. Brewing company Anheuser-Busch, for example, transformed a part of a garage into a “4-D Immersive Reality Budweiser Brewery Tour.” During it, participants with VR headsets were transported into the company’s headquarters in St. Louis, where they went on a journey sparking all of their senses so they could see, hear, smell and finally taste how Budweiser beer is made.

McDonalds also had a breakout VR experience created by VR company Groove Jones, in which attendees were transported inside a giant Happy Meal box and given two plastic tools to paint inside the box. “The experience was in 3D, so you could walk around your artwork and construct your dream image,” CNBC’s Michelle Castillo wrote. In the end, people were able to take home a GIF of their VR experience.

If it sounds like VR got to the point where it was overhyped, that’s true, as others have already cautioned. But the premise for brands to jump into this field is that they can bring audiences closer with immersive engagement. It can also offer them a way to market to consumers in a digital world where attention is at a premium, said Shiv Singh, SVP, global head of digital & marketing transformation at Visa, in a Q&A with the Holmes Report.

Visa, for example, had a “biometrics bar” where people could “pay” for drinks with retina scans or fingerprints, so they could understand how payments are evolving.

Analytics issue on mobile messaging
Yet if VR was the Cinderella of the conference, then mobile messaging was its ugly stepsister. “This trend stands to create a significant shift in how marketers talk to consumers and will make it even more difficult to collect user data,” Shae Carroll, social media director at Saatchi & Saatchi NY, told The Drum.

Marketers and publishers, then, are faced with the huge task of capturing the imagination of the younger populations on these platforms, and figuring out a way to measure it. The typical analytics provided by social media networks don’t work on messaging platforms. With some 40% of U.S. teens and young adults using a mobile messaging app like Kik, according to AdWeek — and more than half of all online sharing happening via “dark social,” according to a recent study by Radium One — marketing firms can’t ignore it.

The issue will always be that marketers very much want to play where people gravitate, even if those places like VR and messaging don’t deliver the data that’s needed today. The hope is they will tomorrow, when they also become mature enough to properly monetize.

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