Tacos & Tech: What Two PR Gals Learned at SXSW

By Silje Lier, MPH and Fliss Lang

March 25, 2022

March 25, 2022 – When people hear mentions of the infamous “South By” festival, they typically think of large concert venues, live music, and red-carpet events. While this is a huge part of South by Southwest (SXSW), the event also includes a large conference, with educational sessions and exhibitions on topics including health and wellness, social impact, technology, design, and culture. For a couple healthcare communication professionals like us, it’s an incredible opportunity to hear from some of the brightest minds in the biz on the future of marketing, healthcare tech and trends that will impact our work in purpose-driven health communications.

That’s why this year, we were excited to cash in on our deferred 2020 tickets and head to Austin (safely) for the live event. In many ways SXSW can be information overload, but here are just a few of the main things we took away with us:

Digital and technological trends are shaping the future of healthcare communications.

Advancing Artificial Intelligence & Virtual Reality

While AI technology comes with many potential warnings, it also has seemingly infinite applications to improve the way we approach healthcare. Take mental health, for example. Companies such as MyndVR are finding ways to leverage VR technology to help people with disease like dementia interact as their “former” selves and connect them with friends and family around the world in 3D, which can help reduce loneliness and slow cognitive decline. It can also be used as a training tool to help caregivers understand the challenges those in their care may be facing.

As AI advances at an extremely rapid pace, machines can now not only understand what we say, but what we mean, and they’re learning all the time. They can detect and replicate emotion in real time, and recognize who and how you are. With this comes many possibilities. Could we design avatars that index towards certain emotions, such as sympathy or warmth, and could we have a responsive conversation with patients to help address loneliness and isolation, or field medical questions? Furthermore, the ability to detect patterns in bodily functions imperceptible to humans could predict disease, and potentially a course correction.

Preparing for The Metaverse & Our Digital Identities    

The growing metaverse – or web 3.0, as futurist Amy Webb refers to it – is an inevitable component of our future. While we push the boundaries of the physical and digital worlds we currently know, as healthcare communicators we need to explore the implications of digital humans. How do we present ourselves and our brands in the metaverse? What does this look like for influencer engagement? And, with lack of policing and enforcement, what does this mean for people’s mental health? These are questions we’ve been asking ourselves since the conference.

Leveraging Data Science & Wearables

Remote care and wearable tech are also taking a larger and larger role in health – accelerated in part by the pandemic. Experts predict 50% of clinical trials will incorporate wearables and sensors by 2025. Could something we use in our daily lives inform the course of drug development? By bringing it closer into people’s homes, we could encourage more trial participation, collect more data in real time and in the real world, and ultimately replace inaccurate, non-human models with very accurate digital human replicas. If we can harness data models to predict patient health, it has the potential to reduce costs, improve outcomes and increase access.

Exploring the Impact of Synthetic Biology

Computers and biology (or hardware and wetware) are merging. The ability to redesign organisms and program DNA sequencers could mean altered, improved, and/or extended life. While many companies have explored stem cell research, others are now printing new DNA molecules or developing molecular microchips, disrupting the healthcare field. Synthetic biology is a healthcare technology megatrend that may transform the pharma, agriculture and nutrition, and other areas of society. 

Authenticity and trust have never been more important for brands.

Another common thread across the sessions we attended was that trust is becoming more fragile, and it’s critical we incorporate trust-building into everything we do – from the way we communicate as a brand to the influencers we engage. Transparency is vital, as is protection and security. As we share more and more of our data online and use more tools to track the data we collect, it is vital that consumers, patients, and everyone knows where and how their data is being used. As misinformation perpetuates, being transparent about sources, sponsorships, and partnerships becomes even more valuable. The digital world is moving at a rapid pace and regulations can’t keep up, so it’s up to individual brands to be responsible for their consumers. Building trust is imperative.

Most importantly, in our evolving digital landscape, it’s important to be human. In the words of Bhargava Rohit, Author of Non-Obvious Megatrends: “The people who understand people always win.” Let’s think about how we can design spaces and create strategies derived from empathy and take a stand on things that matter.

What does all of this mean for health communications?

  • Leverage trends, but at the right time. We don’t need to “ride a hashtag,” feed into attention wealth, or rush to assemble a digital presence in the Metaverse. In fact, according to a number of sports entertainment panelists, when it comes to leveraging key moments in internet culture, you don’t need to be the first. Find what works for your company or brand voice.
  • Be real and empathetic. While we learned a lot about macrotrends and are hopeful about the future of healthcare, there is a dark side to some technological advancements, and social media channels like Facebook still breed a threatening environment for marginalized communities. Always consider the experiences of your audiences when communicating across a variety of channels and devices.
  • Rethink the hybrid experience. As many of us return to office life or plan events like patient summits or virtual broadcasts, take the opportunity to re-invent live events and redefine what this space should look like for your audience – including how to engage people and create an emotional impact whether they’re in the room, watching a broadcast, or connecting on social media.

In our line of work, keeping an eye toward trends is an integral part of we do. Societal and tech trends impact how we reach our clients’ business objectives, and our strategic approach to communication. For that reason, and due to the intersectionality of many industries and topics covered at the conference, SXSW was an eye-opening experience.