By Jen Batey, SVP, Integrated Strategy; Kirby Cobb, VP, Creative Director; Christopher Rizzo, SVP, Digital & Social Strategy; and Bryan Roman, EVP, Creative Technology.

South by Southwest (SXSW) 2024 is officially over, closing its doors after nine days of dynamic learnings, innovative storytelling, and cutting-edge ideas. The Austin, Texas conference covered a plethora of topics over 1,600+ sessions. Here are our key takeaways from this future-focused conference.

The Changing Healthcare Workforce
Recent LinkedIn data show that the skills that employees need for a given position in healthcare have shifted by around 25% since 2015. This shift in skills of value is largely due to technology, and with AI permeating every industry imaginable, the changing workforce has only just begun.  

The question, particularly in healthcare, is not about AI taking jobs, but about how it’s redefining value creation. Doctors on average spend two hours on paperwork for every hour they see a patient. By automating administrative tasks and synthesizing data, AI can free up time for clinicians to focus more on personalized care and complex problem-solving, ultimately allowing them to do what they do best: provide empathetic care.

AI has the potential to augment human capabilities and improve health outcomes when developed through collaborative, cross-sector efforts with a focus on the human experience. But in order for this to be achieved, a major mindset shift needs to occur. How can we broaden the definition of human productivity to reward empathy over completed tasks? What does it take to make the patient/doctor relationship feel less transactional? If executed correctly, AI has the potential to help answer these questions, ushering in a new era of efficiency and creativity. 

Unlocking the Potential of Micro-Influencers 
 Influencer marketing, particularly involving micro influencers, was a focal point at SXSW due to its growing effectiveness in reaching niche audiences and driving authentic engagement. As brands seek more genuine connections with consumers, micro influencers, with their smaller but highly engaged followings, are increasingly recognized as valuable partners in shaping brand perception and driving purchasing decisions. Discussions at SXSW revolved around strategies for leveraging these influencers effectively in marketing campaigns to maximize impact and ROI. 

Additionally, in crafting influencer strategies, it's crucial to tailor approaches to specific platforms and audiences, recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach may not effectively resonate with diverse demographic groups or align with the nuances of different social media platforms. 

The AI Conflict
Many sessions emphasized the power of AI to do everything from enhance personalized marketing efforts, to improve consumer engagement, to even close the health equity gap. The latter being an optimistic, yet bold statement. AI optimism surrounding not just the excitement of a new technology but the ways it can improve our productivity and work were ever-present throughout SXSW. Yet, so was fear.

Is AI taking our jobs? Some speakers said yes; others said no. Do we have the data needed for the technology to be unbiased? Not yet, but hopefully eventually. Is the workforce ready for such a massive shift? Probably not, but do we have a choice?

AI anxiety was a consistent theme, with speakers including Founder and CEO of The Future of Today Institute (FTI) Amy Webb and CEO and Publisher of MIT Technology Review Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau calling for more attention to be directed to issues including the inherent bias of LLMs, misinformation, sustainability, ethical supply chain, and potential regulation.

Ultimately, the success of AI is primarily dependent on the data entered into the technology. And right now, according to speakers like LinkedIn’s Vice President and Head of The Opportunity Project Aneesh Raman, we don’t have the unbiased data.  

 The controversy surrounding TikTok and its potential ban in the U.S. due to national security concerns related to its Chinese ownership was a topic of discussion. 

Last week, the House Energy & Commerce Committee voted unanimously (50-0) to ban the app. The bill will now progress to Congress, which could compel ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, to sell its ownership of the app. Legislators denounced the platform for disseminating misinformation, raising concerns about the Biden administration's position on TikTok, particularly its campaign-related usage. President Biden confirmed his intention to endorse the bill. 

It will be essential for brands to maintain or develop strategies to diversify content across various channels and identify alternative platforms where their target audiences are present. 

The Unexpected  
SXSW sessions covered a plethora of topics, some expected and some not. The conference is, of course, notorious for showcasing the latest and most exciting technology, with examples of AI and VR ever-present in sessions and at the creative expo. However, something we didn’t necessarily expect to see is a trend towards low tech, human activations. Many brands chose to stray away from robots and VR headsets, rather choosing to involve attendees in technology-absent physical activities such as painting and writing on sticky notes. In a post-COVID-19 world, we believe that people are yearning for connection in-person and offline. Brands took hint at that, and ended up drawing in crowds who were ready to converse sans-smartphones.  

On the healthcare end, we were surprised to see a lack of women’s health content, especially after the past year of increased controversy and regulation across the US on abortion, birth control, and most recently fertility treatments. To give a glimpse into this utter lack of women’s health sessions, we counted five of 75 sessions dedicated to the topic.  

SXSW 2024 transcended mere trend-chasing; it delved into the profound understanding and shaping of our evolution alongside innovation. As we plunge eagerly into this exciting future, let's embrace boldness, embrace the unfamiliar, and inspire fresh wonders.

About the Author:

Hannah Dietz brings over four years of experience in marketing and digital strategy to her role as a Marketing Strategist at Syneos Health Communications. During her time at Syneos Health, she has gained invaluable experience working across agency brands on everything from social media strategy and branding, to public relations and copywriting. Previously, Hannah worked at a digital marketing agency, where she specialized in paid advertising and SEO, and prior to that she worked in public relations.