Is SXSW Relevant Anymore?


Last week I attended SXSW for the first time.  I’ve been to Austin over a dozen times, but for one reason or another I’ve always had some conflict that prohibited me from attending SXSW.  From the moment I touched down at Austin-Bergstrom International, I wondered how the two decade-old multimedia portion of the festival would hold up. There have been so many advances since its inception—would it still be groundbreaking, interesting and worthwhile enough to justify the hassle and cost to attend?  Well, after 5 days of talks, talking and tacos, I decided to answer those questions through the lens of someone experiencing SXSW for the first time. I’m providing three truths and three life lessons that came through loud and clear. So, alright, alright, alright, let’s get to Austin.

Depending upon your role in the tech world, you’re bound to have a different experience than I did, but I think you’ll see some commonalities. From the outside looking in, there are developers, agency people, VC’s, brands, entrepreneurs, startups and hundreds of other people that fit in between. On the surface we all look so different, but conversation after conversation revealed that, from a business standpoint, I had countless mental twins; SXSW turned out to be the Festival of Copious Intellectual Doppelgängers.

This is what I experienced when I talked about our company, Annalect. Upon completing my spiel about what we do and the benefits we provide our amazing clients, I found, 9 times out of 10, I’d get a smile of recognition indicating the person understood exactly what we did and loved the direction. There also tended to be a lot of comparisons, similar to what you might do with a new band. “You guys feel a little bit like Jimi Hendrix, combined with Janis Joplin, and a touch of Toad the Wet Sprocket.” “YES! You totally get it. We’ve been called the Gin Blossoms so many times, but we are definitely more Toad than anything.”

Overall, I found three big truths about SXSW that are universal for any attendee:

1. We’re all special here.

It’s true. We all have some form of status with an airline or hotel, know someone that is “tech famous”, have spoken at an industry event or had a smart quote published from that panel we sat on. We run brands, provide smart services or create new technology. We’re all kind of a big deal. And that’s the problem.

All of this was evidenced by Gate 19, JetBlue flight 795 from JFK to Austin. Normally, when the flight crew announces the initial boarding, half of the passengers begin to rustle and move towards the counter. In this case, when the flight crew announced that passengers with children and people with disabilities could board, 95% of the passengers began to hover over the counter waiting to find a pocket of space so that they could rush the gate once their row number was announced. It reminded me of the hyenas I recently saw on an African safari.

The biggest deterrent to a good SXSW experience is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).  You can’t worry about what may be out there.  Just enjoy where you are at that moment. Don’t give in to the one-upmanship.  There is plenty of SXSW to go around for everyone.  You may not be invited to every party or you may not be a VIP everywhere, but it doesn’t matter.  Ironically, VIP is the most overused acronym at SXSW; even more than the acronym SXSW.  It’s odd because tech people usually say API, AIP ADW or DMP in nearly every other sentence, but VIP is the VIP at SXSW.  That being said, try to create your own experience. It’s not going to come to you.

SXSW Life Lesson #1 – Ferris Bueller – “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – This is conference 101, but so often overlooked. Make an effort to talk to random people. Try to generally listen to what they’re saying without waiting for a pause in the conversation so you can talk about what you do for a living or about this new, cool app that you’ve downloaded.  We’re all new kids on the first day of school here.  Now act like it.

2. We’re here for one of three reasons.

You either attend SXSW to sell, network or learn. You can easily do a mix of all three, but from a business standpoint, that’s it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the same could be said about Cannes for advertising, Sundance for Film and Strata for data. This is how I saw it play out:

  • Sell – Two of our sales guys attended.  Their goal was to generate leads and sell our tools and services, as SXSW is a sales tool for them.  This means that they booked countless meetings ahead of the event, meticulously planned out their schedule of what parties they would attend and once they finally got to Austin, they threw everything out the window and just went with it.  Well not everything, but SXSW is a living breathing animal so be careful with over-planning.

SXSW Life Lesson #2 – David Wooderson (Dazed and Confused) – “Party at the Moon Tower”
– To get the most out of the experience, I learned that you need to ebb and flow.  It’s like summer camp.  If you make new friends, feel free to scrap your original plans and try something new and different.  Those were some of the most fruitful moments and conversations I had the entire time.

  • Network/Partnerships – This is similar to sales, but you’re less of a seller and more of a buyer.  We had several partnerships people that attended and their goal was to look for new tech, search for enhancements to our existing offering and connect the dots for our sales team.  This is one of the toughest jobs, because they need to understand our offering extremely well, including all of its strengths and limitations, and then realize the opportunity for upside.  Only then could they listen to someone else’s pitch and begin to roadmap out a mutually beneficial partnership.

  • Learn – This is what I was there for.  As a marketer, I’m lucky because we sell marketing tools and services, so I’m already equipped with an arsenal of free tech and consulting.  But we can’t do and be experts in all things marketing, so I knew I needed some help.  In addition, no marketer has ever said, “I almost have too much money in my budget.  I can really buy anything I want.  Life is good.” Thus, the best way to make up the gap in the budget you have and the budget you want is to gain knowledge.  I had two areas that I was looking to dig into:  content and content.  So, yeah, just content.

We have partners that can help us with actual content development, effectiveness, best practices and optimization, but I needed a better handle on day-to-day applications and a sneak-peek into what’s next.  In the end, I realized a funny thing about content. The guiding principle has remained the same since its inception. Good content works and bad content doesn’t.  Consumers are becoming more wary of click bait, like they did with intrusive digital ads, and quality will soon prevail again.

I heard people talk about ways to get content into the hands of the right people, track it, measure it and optimize it. But I found that if your tone is off or you don’t provide value, it’s actually going to negatively impact your brand.  For me, this reaffirmation on a content strategy was completely worth the price of admission.

SXSW Life Lesson #3 – Marty Hart (True Detective) – “The solution my whole life was right under my nose … And I was watching everything else … my true failure was inattention.” –  You don’t have to have an “ah ha moment” to make it valuable.  Sometimes reaffirming an existing hypothesis on a key business direction is even more powerful.  There’s a lot of free-flowing hypotheses running around SXSW.  Your job is to kick the tires and see what makes the most sense for your business.

3. SXSW is only a platform.

You have a lot of marketing opportunities available at SXSW, even if you don’t have longstanding contacts. Although a friend at Annalect sits on the SXSW advisory board. See, I name dropped a “tech famous” person. I’m special.

Also, the workshops are good, especially the one we did. The sponsorships are effective at getting your name out there.  Thank you to Laura for letting us participate in the awesome event at Fogo De Chao.  But it all comes down to gathering the right people, enabling them to have the right conversations and being able to use those conversations to develop an idea into something special, long after the dust settles and everyone has left Austin.  It’s the critical mass of minds who make change that make this event a must-attend for anyone that “gets it”.  The only way I see SXSW coming to an end is by the dilution of minds.  We’ll see how Vegas goes this year.

So is SXSW still groundbreaking and worth attending? I think so, but that’s not the main issue.  The problem is, just like the marketing world as a whole, there’s a lot more noise out there.  It’s tougher to break through and find those signals through the noise. But if you want a testimonial, I can say wholeheartedly if you have any doubt about attending next year, just go ahead and book it.  And book early!  But when you do book, don’t plan too much.  Dip your toe in and be open to having some of those quintessential SXSW conversations.  If they don’t happen off the bat, it’s ok.  The fumes alone from the SXSW energy are still enough to get you motivated when you’re finally back home at your desk. And of course, you’re still going to love the tacos.

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