SxSW 2020 Replacement Series: Kerry Flynn, CNN Business Media Reporter

Our first two installments of the “SxSW 2020 Replacement Series” featured James Gregson, Head of LEGO Social Studio, and Tiffany Curry, who leads the Strategy and Brand Partnerships team in the midwest for DoubleVerify. As we continue to grow and learn from a network of perspectives on what would have been…. what could have been this year at SxSW, we are excited to share the profoundly contemporary and artfully insightful observations of Kerry Flynn, Media Reporter for CNN Business. Flynn spoke with us on a range of topics, including how content consumption and creation are evolving, the impact these changes will have on the influencer model, the importance of community, as well as significance of social media during times of uncertainty. Here is what Flynn would have brought to the table (or moderator’s chair) this year.

It’s Not the Destination; It’s the Trip…

Flynn is no stranger to SxSW. In fact, this would have marked her fifth year attending the event. But even as a true veteran of SxSW, Flynn was prepared to arrive in Austin full of excitement and curiosity. A weeklong road trip arriving in Austin just in time to kick off the event would have allowed the anticipation to crescendo as she visited new cities and locations across the Gulf coast. Montgomery, New Orleans and Galveston were on the New Englander’s itinerary, but when news broke that SxSW was cancelled, things (literally) took a turn. A revised route led her not to Austin, but from Atlanta, via Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville to South Bend, Indiana in more of a NxNW direction.

As for missing out on the potential for learning, networking and presenting in Austin, Flynn definitely felt a tinge of disappointment. After all, HBO was planning a “Westworld”-related activation and celebration of some kind. For anyone who follows Flynn on Twitter, you know how much she loves her pop culture. Instead, she spent Sunday night watching the new episode and discussing its contents with  online community of fellow Westworld fanatics.

“What I Was Most Excited To See and Experience At SxSW This Year…”

Flynn’s excitement, however, did not only stem from her own personal travel experiences or another year of memories that SxSW would create.

“The thing I may have been most interested in this year was the state of media, overall.” Flynn told us.

She was also especially looking forward to moderating two panels at this year’s conference, one of which she said had been in the works for “quite awhile.” Before COVID-19 shifted and dominated our collective attention, discussions surrounding the election were a prevalent focus. Her first panel was co-organized by the team at Tribe, whose app played an important role in the election, specifically with Bloomberg’s campaign. She was looking forward to facilitating a conversation around the importance of authentic and original content creation made by, well, ordinary people.

“The general premise is that you sign up for an app called Tribe, and a brand (a.k.a “Bloomberg”) will pay you to create content for them,” she said. “It could be anyone: you, me, my mom. Anyone in the world can sign up and potentially get paid to create content.”

The Future of Creative and Content

And on a day when she was clearly consumed by the future of Tom Brady and her beloved New England Patriots, Flynn also alluded to how the panel would dive into the future of branded content.

“We would have talked about the ways that consumption and creation have changed and disrupted marketing, the Brooklyn resident teased. “We see content being created in a less conventional way as we watch ordinary people, rather than big agencies, hold the power to create purposeful content that is creative, interesting and straight-up awesome.”

This type of content is likely to be consumed in a more authentic and relatable that builds community, relevance and engagement more organically, in ways that allow content to be consumed on a more personal and intimate level. And as we potentially shift towards new ways of working AND creating, the original “influencer model” is also transforming.

“It is less about buying someone’s following. Our topics were going to talk about how this new model is less about buying followers and more about creating something that resonated. Perhaps a brand’s Instagram post would actually be created by someone who really is a fan of that brand.”

So how can brands tap into a model where consumers create their own form of content for brands? Their smartphones, obviously. Using smartphones as a tool that helps capture and develop content helps the creator achieve unique levels of authenticity, intimacy, creativity…, and the list goes on. Apple, a pioneer in so many aspects of technological innovation with a big interest in people using smartphones, has leveraged this strategy with their “Shot on iPhone” campaign. Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez are just two examples of musicians who are shooting their music videos with an iPhone to achieve this new form of content creation and consumption.

Putting the Notion of “Community” Back at the Center of Brands’ Focus

When brands first began developing content for different platforms and formats, the objective was to build a sense of community around shared affinity for the brand. So is community still… a thing? Do brands see community as a priority? Flynn’s other speaking session would have been more of  “fireside chat” with Reddit COO Jen Wong.

Of course, if you’re anything like us, you jump onto Reddit to read the views and perspectives on topics and debates that genuinely interest you. In Flynn’s case, this is one of her preferred platforms for conversing with others about culturally-rooted passion points (Tom Brady and “Westworld,” obviously). But for many years, Reddit was deemed unsafe for brands, and struggled to put together a compelling offer for advertisers. Flynn discussed the significance of community in business and brand-building again, as well as how marketers could leverage platforms like Reddit to facilitate collaboration, conversation…. and conversion!

At the heart of every business is community. Reddit is where people go to talk about their favorite things. And if an advertiser participates in that conversation in a smart way, people can be converted.”

In a nutshell, having conversations within communities about certain topics creates conversion. Say that 5x fast.

The Role of Social Media in A Time of Social Distancing

While brands may be thinking about media platforms as marketing vehicles, most people think of these channels as a way to connect with one another. They may just be our first line of defense against widespread panic and fear (so long as we have the ability to filter out misleading information). Social platforms, form Facebook to Twitter have the potential to unite, inform and, in some cases, vent. Facebook Groups have been a lifeline for doctors and medical professional to communicate with their communities digitally, while others have seen their FaceTime usage with friends and family dramatically increase during quarantine.

But more than just the usual suspects, Flynn sees other platforms adding real benefit nowadays. One such platform is NextDoor, a local community platform that only allows you to sign up with a validated home address. Once logged in, NextDoorer users can connect with neighbors about locally relevant topics, such as the toilet paper status of a local retail store, as well as support small businesses. Flynn is keeping a close eye on the potential opportunity for advertisers to wade in and get involved.

“Until now, it’s been mostly small and local businesses. But I can see that expanding because advertisers want to be where the eyeballs are.”

What’s Next?

It’s not too early to start thinking about SxSW 2021… or maybe it is. In the meantime, she will think about what could have been

“What amazed me last year was that it felt like it was the Amazon show,” Flynn confessed. “Amazon had so much going on for every part of their business. There was multiple parties for one of their new shows, ‘Good Omens,’ but they also had an AWS event, an Audible activation, a Whole Foods event… it just felt like Amazon was everywhere. So I was curious if there was going to be as much of that this year, meaning one dominant player. I didn’t identify one as I was planning my schedule. It seemed like many big players had a lot planned. But… we’ll never know.”

Inspired by the idea of turning the SxSW cancellation into an opportunity to learn more about what could have been, Flynn is (also) reaching out to industry leaders and brands to learn more about what they would have shared, presented or were looking to amplify. Because that’s what great reporters do.

In the meantime, we will also continue reaching out to would-be speakers we were so disappointed to miss out on, all so that we can provide you with a unique perspective on what would have been this year at SxSW.