As a first-time South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) attendee, I thought it would be helpful to provide a newbie’s perspective on the mad-cap annual conference in Austin. I attended 3 of the 5 days, which gave me a fairly good perspective. Essentially, I distilled my visit into four distinct experiences: networking, sessions, technology and marketing. Based on value received, I’ve tiered the experiences in order, from highest to lowest.
Since I’m a networking junkie, I figured I’d start with what I know. Networking generated the greatest overall value for me at SXSW. What benefitted me the most, and I recommend this to any attendee, is to leverage any local relationships you have, in terms of getting a sense of what events and sessions matter, and it can help in terms of transportation. Secondarily, be sure to plan in advance to meet up with folks you know from your network or city, as it’s much easier, fun and effective to travel in packs.
I attended a variety of parties and venues, some better than others. I’m a big fan of Driskill Hotel, a classic venue and popular hangout. We hit up a Bing party Friday night, complete with hosted bar and food, swag and a decent vibe. We moved on to other local venues lacking sponsors, but packed with people. Saturday, I visited Google Village an impressive compilation of bars, all of which offered free drinks, snacks, bicycle blenders and swag, as well as demonstrations and presentations.
Sunday morning I attended a brunch and panel Google hosted, including a variety of agency, VC and entrepreneurs that captured the essence of why people attend SXSW, including what’s hot (social discovery) and what’s not (Bing Lounge). On Saturday, I attended a Klout house party, complete with food, beverage and a social-powered jukebox: Roqbot. Saturday evening Microsoft & Frog co-sponsored the official SXSW party, which was DIY-themed (build your own LED lights, mini-robots & play life-sized pong). Unfortunately, it was a bit too crowded, so I moved on.
Sunday evening, I attended the SOBCon mixer at Dogwood, which was one of the best parties: great people and a good vibe. In fact, it was so good, I missed the Urban Airship & Mashable parties, which was unfortunate, but a smart investment in terms of meeting great folks. Most nights end at The W, and this was no exception.
While I had roughly 2.5 days to attend sessions (and paid $650 for the honor) I only attended 4 (not including the Google Village panel off-campus. The first session I saw, which I was greatly looking forward to attend, was Rainn Wilson of The Office and SoulPancake. It was slightly disappointing, as he was unfamiliar with PowerPoint, rambled a bit, but saved the day by smashing guitars with a lucky audience member.
My next session was Ebay to VC, where the theme was social discovery, (Highlight, Circle, Glancee) and what makes a good investment. The speaker, Jeff Jordan, was solid, but the host was not. The third session I attended was intriguing, but not actionable: Privacy & Neuro marketing. The presenters and audience discussed the conflict between privacy and marketing insights: what is a fair exchange of value between people and marketers (convenience vs. security)? The last but most inspirational session I attended was Internet legend Jaron Lanier, discussing how social media has improved or worsened our lives. He challenged us as consumers and content creators to get paid for the value we create on networks like Facebook (we are the product).
My biggest takeaway from SXSW 2012 was definitely that corporations have taken notice of the marketing potential of the weeklong event. That’s potentially bad news for SXSW purists, who’ve likened 2012 to the jumping of the shark by Fonzie. True or not, it was apparent many companies bet big on making a splash at SXSW Interactive in 2012. One of the best sources of news for SXSW was Mashable Buzz, which managed to turn out solid recaps and timely updates. They even made the news themselves during the event, with a rumored $200M buyout.
The big winners at SXSW in terms of buzz, had to be the Homeless wi-fi and Nike, who made news with its venue, parties, Nike+ and Fuelband API during the event. In terms of SWAG, FILTER Talent brought it’s a game with LED light sabers handed out at various parties. Additional kudos go out to the companies that sponsored value-added (albeit somewhat risky) giveaways like ponchos, umbrellas and scarves in a city that ended up being colder and wetter than anticipated by many visitors. By Monday, the sun returned, and with it, sunglasses and sunscreen SWAG.
One of the smartest (yet under-reported) viral marketing campaigns was Catch a Chevy, which is exactly what it sounds like: get free rides care of 45 Chevys. The cars were skinned and branded, but it was dumb luck if you managed to hitch a ride anywhere outside of the convention center grounds, as there was no hashtag or other easy way to contact the drivers. Regardless, it did generate buzz and goodwill from weather-weary walkers. As a foodie, I appreciated the free food carts provided by brands like SquareSpace and The Today Show.
Last but not least, shout out to Google for their significant and strategic presence, in the form of Google Village. It was a great place to get beverages, snacks, swag, phone recharge and even a product demo or two. As far was what didn’t work, beyond distributed venue locations, lines, crowds and general mayhem, I thought the #FAIL sign went to free t-shirts in general (too many of them). I also noticed a trend of brands (like Klout & Google) expecting you to write a personalized message on the t-shirts.
Technology and Company Launches
More a marketer than technologist, I didn’t pay as much attention to the product and company launches at SXSW as others. That said, a few apps did bubble to the surface during my time at SXSW. The first was one of many social discovery apps: Highlight. The social discovery category generated a good deal of buzz, with Highlight leading the pack. Additionally, I was pleased to see one of Formic Media’s clients, Tixie, debut with its digital/mobile concert ticket giveaway platform. I also checked out Guy Kawasaki’s latest venture, AllThis, which is essentially a marketplace for exchanging time with others who have desired expertise. Lastly, I was impressed with, Roqbot, which debuted last year, yet I was impressed with the socially-powered jukebox platform at the Klout party.
Overall, SXSW Interactive 2012 was informative, entertaining and inspiring, but mostly via serendipitous moments, vs. the planned and engineered events. Now that I have a better feel for the event and the city, I will have a game plan in place for next year. If you plan to attend SXSW 2013, I suggest formulating your own plan (and making reservations) as soon as possible.