March 24, 2021

Intentional Technology – A Central Theme of SXSW 2021

couple on laptop

Each year, the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference puts Austin, Texas center stage as it gathers great creative thinkers and doers from around the world – and each year, Intouch is there (this year, of course, virtually). This post is part of our series on the major themes our team saw arising from the thousands of sessions and speakers talking about health, tech, creativity, and innovation at SXSW 2021.

When the pandemic has managed to burn out even the SXSW crowd on the idea of “technology for technology’s sake,” you know it’s real. But after a COVID-caused year of technology-mediated communication, nobody is that excited about another screen interaction – not even the tech fiends of SXSW, who are known for lining up for blocks each year to play with the latest and greatest (and, sometimes, the wackiest) new gizmos. We all just miss hugs.

That primal homesickness for fellow humans that’s being felt around the world, and what that’s helped us to discover about technology, was covered in quite a few SXSW presentations – all delivered, of course, virtually. This craving for intentional, authentic interaction is causing us to almost reject technology, because it’s the only option we have left to connect.

We Still Need Tech to Stay Connected
As Yuval Noah Harari said, “Just like AIDS didn’t kill sex, COVID won’t kill hugs.” In-person interactions can’t be replaced by technology – but the judicious use of tech can still help us get by. Livestreams can help us feel more connected than asynchronous recordings. Audio and video (as well as AR) can give more emotional context to interactions.

Livestreams like the Verzuz series have proven this out, as has the metaverse, the world of interactions that take place in virtual (often transmedia) spaces. The Intouch SXSW team itself shared one debrief in Gather, a customizable online space that looks a bit like a cross between Zoom and Legends of Zelda. New apps like Dipso aim to help us live in the moment – Dipso constrains your phone camera like a roll of film, taking your photos but not letting you see them till the next day.

Technology that forces us to “look up,” to see who we are with and what we are doing in a new way, is powerfully helpful. And technology that helps us tell a good story better is what matters – not technology that is the story itself.

What does this mean for pharma marketers’ use of technology?

Authenticity Is More Than Just a Buzzword
It’s a renewed call to be consultants, not salespeople. It’s a reminder that credibility and intention go hand in hand. It’s a gut check that “authentic” isn’t a buzzword but a way of being.

The documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair,” which premiered at SXSW, was an example of this – Variety called it “eye-opening and empathetic,” as well as “warmly self-aware and self-deprecating, with a mordant sense of humor.” It’s hard to tell difficult, complicated, varying stories – ones that, like life, don’t always follow the expected path. But they’re the ones that make the difference. All too often, brands and influencers hope they can show an audience what they think the audience wants to see, rather than real narratives, complete with real human emotions – and their work is lesser for it.

While people might come to online platforms because of their interest in a topic (any topic: e-sports, exercising, gardening, etc.), they stay because of the community and the authentic relationships they’ve created.

What does this mean for healthcare brands like yours?

  • We have to use our platforms to tell authentic stories intentionally. This is more than just having a presence: it’s doing the research, understanding the audience, and doing something to help people. And it’s not forced. We found examples at SXSW of healthcare brands attempting to break into newer tech platforms and missing the mark, and noticed two key errors to learn from:
    • First, they didn’t give themselves enough time to truly understand the platform or its users.
    • Second, they tried to maintain an outdated level of control on the situation.
  • We also found examples of intentional tech working well for healthcare, like the New York Times visual storytelling “This 3-D Simulation Shows Why Social Distancing Is So Important.” Technology can be put to work behind the scenes to make a complex story more intuitively graspable and rapidly digestible. In our space, MOA videos can help brands do similar things for HCPs and patients.
  • Often, brands that are succeeding on newer platforms like TikTok or Twitch are those who have taken the time to learn how the new realm functions, who take the risk to join in and be present, and who are in honest conversation with influencers, without trying to stage-manage a conversation falsely. One recommended path to success was for a brand to research and find influencers who already have a degree of success on the platform, and recruit their support, rather than inserting the brand entirely.
  • A discussion that particularly resonated with Intouch creative director Soyoon Bolton was the awareness of community evolution – the fact that online communities are growing and changing more rapidly during the pandemic, and the insight that this change is borne of the desire for authentic, intentional interaction. While people might come to online platforms because of their interest in a topic (any topic: e-sports, exercising, gardening, etc.), they stay because of the community and the authentic relationships they’ve created. Are we creating places where human connection can happen?  
  • It can also help to look backward. What mistakes were made when pharma created its first website? When the industry took its first steps into social media? What lessons can we learn from those moments so we can use new technology platforms more intentionally, more adeptly, and more authentically from now on?
  • Privacy remains a concern with technology, of course, and we saw much of that ongoing discussion play out, as thinkers considered the different approaches being taken in different countries, and the fine lines between policing and protecting. Good intentions aren’t enough, and as the pace of technology continues to speed up, the pace of regulation needs to match that. 

SXSW provided us many different lenses to see how intention can make a difference with the use of communication technology. As U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg noted, intentional vocabulary choices matter when you communicate. As Twitter’s client solutions team found out in a 2020 analysis, their platform offered HCPs a place to express emotion and to reach patients with information. And as TikTok news dueters pointed out, “authenticity is noticeable.” We have to reach people where they are. And where we all are, these days, is online. But we have to do it with intent.

Authors: Brendon Thomas, Intouch director of innovation & Soyoon Bolton, Intouch creative director.