The Frost Bank Tower (aka "The Owl") lights up the Austin skyline

As we noted last year, SXSW is huge. At any given moment there are dozens of panels, meet-ups, keynotes, showcases, “core conversations” and branded events going on throughout Austin.

That means that no two experiences at SXSW are alike, and that it’s nearly impossible to distill five days of sessions and spectacles into a handful of tidy trends.

But as Robert Scoble noted during a conversation about – what else? – the future of events, SXSW is a good indicator of where things are headed over the next year in the digital space. Here are my top five takeaways.

We have the tools we need

It may have something to do with the chilly rain that dampened the first two days of the conference, but SXSW 2012 had a more sober feel than last year’s edition. (Figuratively speaking – there was no shortage of free booze flowing as per usual.)

At SXSW 2011 the Arab Spring was still fresh, the iPad 2 was flying off shelves for the first time, and nearly every session brought up those viral Old Spice ads that were supposed to change the face of online marketing. But this year I can’t think of a single news event, technology or viral campaign that set Austin abuzz.

The closest thing was Kony 2012, a 30-minute film about the former Ugandan warlord, that reportedly drew as much as 100 million views this month, but is already facing a backlash for oversimplifying a complex world issue.

Ogilvy Notes presents visual summaries of SXSW keynotes

That no so-called “game changer” emerged this year is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, as digital research superstar Danah Boyd mentioned in her talk on “The Power of Fear,” the Arab Spring turned out not to be a quick social media fix of that region’s problems.

Meanwhile, 2011 buzzwords like gamification, localization and paywalls (remember how everyone was up in arms about The New York Times?) were nowhere in sight on this year’s schedule.

So perhaps the lesson here is that we have the tools we need. Or, as The Onion’s Baratunde Thurston put it in his inspiring keynote, it’s time to “marry the creativity of the tools with the story.”

When it comes to media, it’s all about the brand

Google erected its own "village" on Rainey St. near the Austin Convention Center

I focused on web journalism trends in my SXSW 2012 weekend review, so I won’t dwell on it here. But one of the overriding (and encouraging) lessons from Austin this year is that we’ve officially entered the age of the media outlet as brand.

Yes, media outlets have always been brands. Print magazines like The New Yorker and TV shows like Dr. Who have understood this for years. But for the past decade most online publications have operated as commodities, focusing on “clickable” content that will attract “eyeballs” for their advertisers.

I don’t think I heard anyone use the word “eyeballs” or even the word “traffic” at SXSW 2012. Ann Friedman, Executive Editor of Good, whose motto is “for people who give a damn,” explained how Good is all about catering to a specific “affinity group” through web content, videos, and events.

France's knitted booth on the trade show floor.

Good’s “mission-driven” brand is an “easy sell” to advertisers, Friedman said, because running ads on the site “is about having a point of view, not just buying inventory in space.”

Similarly, The Office star turned web entrepreneur Rainn Wilson invoked the “B word” in a funny keynote about Soul Pancake, a website that seeks to “de-lamify” spirituality by fostering conversations around religion, philosophy and creativity.

With regular spots on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and a TV pilot in the works, Wilson proudly proclaimed that “Soul Pancake is becoming a brand.” And so is Rainn Wilson, it seems.

Design is everywhere

Last year in Austin there were lots of discussions about content and lots of discussions about design. But at SXSW 2012, content and design were treated as two sides of the same coin, as they should be.

The Boston Globe’s Miranda Mulligan and NPR’s David Wright

One of my favourite SXSW sessions, “Journalism’s Got 99 Problems: Design is #1” (the title is a nod to rapper Jay-Z, who performed in Austin the night before), saw NPR’s David Wright and the Boston Globe’s Miranda Mulligan hold court in a room full of designers, publishers and advertisers.

Wright complained that “too many journalists think designers are people who colour in for a living,” arguing that design thinking needs to be brought into strategy sessions from the get-go.

In a panel called “It’s Not News It’s Business,” former Washington Post digital director Justin Ferrell suggested he’d like to see more designers, developers and programmers in executive positions at newspapers and magazines (they’re already calling the shots in Silicon Valley).

What’s clear is that the next generation of media websites is going to be heavily inspired by social news startups like Flipboard and Instapaper, which everyone seems to agree are at the vanguard of editorial design.

Latin America is hot

It was nice to see more non-English speaking markets get attention at SXSW this year and one of the hottest topics was the emerging Latin American consumer.

Austin-based Dell put up a plexiglass wall in the convention center that attendees could sign

In a fascinating talk on Brazilian youth, researcher Carla Albertuni characterized Brazil’s young influencers as “bridge youths” who use a combination of online and offline social networking to reform (but not necessarily “disrupt”) the country’s traditional class system.

In another session, “Have Latin American Media Become Social?” Mexican editor Valdir Ugalde explained how media brands in different Latin American countries are embracing the web.

In Colombia, according to Ugalde, user-generated content is hot. Argentinian newspaper Perfil publishes an online magazine called “140” all about trending topics on Twitter.

Chilean outlets rely on Faebook for generating traffic, while Mexican broadcasters use Twitter hashtags to generate online conversations on air.

Events are platforms

If you follow Sparksheet on Twitter, you’ve probably already heard bits and pieces of the lessons above. That’s because, along with a huge chunk of the estimated 24,500 SXSW 2012 attendees, we tweeted live throughout our five days in Austin.

Robert Scoble, Brian Duggan and Loic Le Meur fielding questions during the session "Events are Now Platforms"

Twenty four thousand is an incredible number. But when you factor in everyone who followed the conversation online, it’s clear that SXSW is much more than a face-to-face event. It’s a platform for quality content, delivered in real time. At least that was the lesson of a “core conversation” with Loic Le Meur, founder of Europe’s biggest tech conference, Le Web.

Le Meur said that his small organization spends roughly half a million dollars a year on video and live streaming and that the Paris-based conference (Le Web will be branching out to London this year) is “just a studio” where the content is created.

In other words, without a sales and marketing team, Le Meur relies on this year’s content to promote next year’s event.

Of course, what the online audience doesn’t get are the face-to-face conversations, unexpected connections and real world relationships that only a live event can deliver. And that’s why you can count on finding us back in Austin next March.