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Skip SXSW and Rent North By Northwest: What Classic Film Teaches Us About Social Media

03/11/2013 01:55 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2013
  • April Rudin Wealth Marketing Strategies, The Rudin Group

For most Americans, South by Southwest (SXSW) has become a meaningless destination from a marketing standpoint.

What began as a music festival designed to boost Austin's reputation as a hotbed for the indie music movement has broadened in scope to include art, film, access to private financiers, and even social media enthusiasts. Masses are attracted not just to the next big idea, but to the parties, private events and a vibe of hipness they hope will rub off.

But the focus has become a bit unclear. What do increasing numbers of attendees hope to take away from the experience? Is it just to say they went, trumping a badge of coolness not unlike Woodstock?

In my view, SXSW has become little more than a cultish gathering of the masses with few true influencers in the marketing arena. In my subset of the industry -- digital and social media -- there is an even smaller group: the same people I see at conference after conference interacting primarily among themselves. Do I need to once again trek to Austin to learn lessons about social media? I suggest watching the classic Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest in my own home offers more valuable lessons about a successful social media/digital campaign.

When I arrived at SXSW's landing page, I knew staying home was the right choice. First, the list of sponsors didn't seem to reflect the youthful, hipster target audience, as it consisted mainly of makers of mass-marketed consumer products: Miller Beer, Monster Energy Drink, Doritos, Pepsi -- even FreeCreditScore.Com! These are the brands that typically don't create trends but follow them. What is in the "gift bag" here? A beer, chips, and a coupon for a free service?

Where there are young hipsters, there is certain to be social media communication 24/7 including "tweeps" who are tweeting a mile a minute to enhance their own personal brand by associating themselves with the SXSW brand.

I am guessing that it was the tech-savvy population who first attended SXSW that influenced the addition of social media sessions, to what began as a music and film festival. Social/digital media and strategy should be classically aligned with business and marketing. Marketing has evolved from a wide spray to a sharpshooter mentality. Everything we do and the way we communicate will be using mobile devices and will soon be the underpinnings of all conferences as a means of engagement and community building. Instead of making an "Alfred Hitchcock-esque" cameo appearance at a film and music festival, social media needs to stay true to the classic marketing tenets of business. It doesn't belong with beer and chips

So what marketing/digital media strategy lessons can we learn from classics like Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant? Alfred Hitchcock used specific elements in constructing films using a recipe for success that relates to a regular marketing strategy -- a series of strategic steps for every film that branded his movies as classic suspense thrillers. Cary Grant added the classic style, with his iconic gray suit that has become a timeless reflection of men's style, even to this day. By watching "North by Northwest" social media and digital strategists can learn that creating brand recognition and reputation is a combination of a well-thought out plan and a stylized way of communicating it. Learn to mimic Hitchcock's deliberate, drawn out messages and his ability to combine them with his distinctive film elements including: the icy blonde, his trademark cameo appearances, the "MacGuffin" (an "object" everyone is the film is chasing which has nothing to do with the plot), a fugitive, and suspenseful plots with twist endings shot from a voyeuristic point of view. He created his own style, which differentiated his films and brand from other directors. Hitch had a formula and so should you.

Use "old-fashioned" proven tactics of marketing but stylize them for the digital highway. Consumers are bombarded by so many competing messages today that professional marketers need to rely on proven techniques while taking advantage of all of the new distribution platforms. When you take away the platform, what remains are the messages. Creating compelling clear messaging has never been more important, I would argue.

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity in a variety of scenic locations. Similarly, social media branding and messaging should remain consistent regardless of location or platform, and should keep messages consistent to avoid a "mistaken" brand identity.

Very soon, I predict social/digital media strategy will become rooted into corporate marketing culture and not be on the outside looking in. It will find its proper footing as the allocation of traditional marketing dollars pivots toward digital. For me, it can't happen quickly enough, especially in the financial services industry, although I would say with a smile, that some of my Wall St clientele do their best to maintain the mystery of Alfred Hitchcock while imitating the smooth style of Cary Grant.