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They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that is true for South By Southwest (SXSW) in 2014. Celebrating its 20th year, the SXSW Interactive Conference continues to keep getting better and better. In recent years, SXSW has expanded above and beyond its bread and butter of music, film and interactive into new topic areas including sports, security, education and gaming. Technology has become the common thread in all of the sessions, as it has gone from being an afterthought to the forefront of society, no matter what industry you are in. At SXSW you are sure to leave more informed, connected and likely a little more exhausted (but more motivated) than you were before you started. Find out why from our first-hand experience as well as quotes from many other attendees on why they loved this year’s event.
South By South What?
For those new to SXSW – Interactive or otherwise – it’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. For those who have been before, you know it’s not your typical conference. Unlike a usual expo where you are confined to a single exhibit hall or hotel for a couple of days with the occasional coffee break and/or social event, SXSW Interactive is five jam-packed days and encompasses the entire Downtown Austin footprint. Every day is consumed with infinite options to learn and explore. So many options that most would say that “overwhelming” is an understatement (even according to SXSW’s first timers guide). SXSW is in a nutshell is a conference on steroids.
SXSW Interactive has Something for (Almost) Everyone
Whether you are a techie looking to get your learn on and soak up speaker sessions, a socialite looking to network and build your Rolodex, or a person just looking to have fun and drink free beer in the sun, you will find the right fit at SXSW. It’s where schmoozefest meets Silicon Valley meets university for adults. But, if you don’t like long lines, big crowds or being flexible, you might want to stay at home and save your time and money – SXSW might not be for you. But for most, it’s worth every penny and every second spent to get to be a part of the high energy, celebrity stalking and sightseeing all while learning from some of the best in the business.
“SXSW is an awesome experience for inspiration, education and a chance to work on the business versus in the business,” says Allie Danziger of Integrate Public Relations based in Houston, TX. “It’s an opportunity for personal development, networking, fascinating conversations with industry leaders.”
Brands Creating Unique Experiences Win
For advertisers looking to get in on the action, SXSW provides a number of unique sponsorship opportunities or you can create your own. This year there were CBS’s “Under the Dome” branded pedicabs, a two-dimensional Bates Hotel to promote A&E’s TV show, a Marlboro smokers lounge tent, digital street signs, a BitCoin ATM, and yes, even 3D printed Oreos, coined “the new Fast Food”. Heck, you can even use a semi-demolished parking garage to drop your banner on it like Dropbox did (pictured above). Other popular branding activations included, the Mashable house which featured a life-sized Miley Cyrus wrecking ball for photo opps and, after a highly anticipated debut at 2013’s SXSW, Grumpy Cat was back again – on a boat this year.
“SXSW is a unique environment because big brands and small startups are side-by-side making their brand statements. I saw a lot of out-of-the-box thinking by brands looking to create an experience to embody their brand, as opposed to just selling product,” explained Jim Gustke, VP of Marketing at Ooma.
Keep in mind, experience can come with a price tag. “Having a booth and handing out flyers – once a mainstay – is no longer the best way to engage with attendees” Dave Peck, Head of Social Media at PayPal points out. “Our PayPal Social Media Lounge played host to thousands of attendees, offering them a chance to relax, get some work done, and, of course, grab some great swag.”
Smaller Budget Ideas
But what if you have a limited budget or want to try some DIY marketing? Don’t worry, this just means you may need to think a bit more outside the box to have a memorable and useful presence without spending a lot or having any official affiliation with the festival.
“We attended SXSW and made the most of it by hosting an unofficial panel discussion at a bar in downtown Austin,” says Andrew Staples, PR Manager for Golden Frog, a global software company that provides Internet privacy solutions. “The feedback we received was that it was better than most of the ‘official panels’. Because it was unofficial and offsite, we were able to serve alcohol, promote our brand, and make it a more entertaining experience.”
Should Your Brand Promote at SXSW? Maybe Not
Whether or not branded experiences and promoting your business at SXSW offers ROI depends on your business goals, objectives, strategy and creativity. There is no question that it is a crowded place to make your business stand out from the pack. So, it is important to remember that it’s also okay to sit back and be an observer versus a participant.
Headed Southwest? Make a Plan
With high demand and low hotel inventory comes steep and ever-increasing conference ticket prices, inflated accommodation costs and long lines. The good news is, the city and airlines have taken heed. Nearly a dozen new hotel chains have popped up downtown in the past few years and the airport has increased flights to and from Austin. Book your conference ticket, flights and hotel room early to get lower pricing and be prepared to wait outside parties or sessions. If there is one that you just cannot miss, be sure to get there super early. Every event draws a crowd, even ones in the bigger venues and things you might expect to be less popular.
Getting from Event to Event
While most events are within walking distance of one another, plan your agenda carefully. Also be sure to plan enough time to get between the various venues, especially during peak hours or during rainy weather when transportation is more heavily used. There are SXSW buses to shuttle badge holders to some of the more distant locations, like the Long Center (where this year they had remote badge pick up, a nice alternative to avoid the crowds, but you must still get your bag at the conference center). And, generally speaking, walking is faster and cheaper than just about any other option. Plus, you never know what random things you might discover along the way.
New in 2014 was a new way of getting around town: B Cycle, Austin’s recently introduced bicycle sharing program. Popular in many other major cities, this eco-friendly and economy way of zipping around finally made its way to Austin and just in time!
Popular destinations during the 2014 interactive festival included Rainy Street which featured houses, Wanderlust where many popular and over-sold panels were held and ACL Moody Theater which hosted the interactive opening party. This first night event featured the Local Natives and Austin’s first ever iTunes music festival. Tom’s Shoes also opened its first brick and mortar coffee shop on South Congress, in the heart of all the action just in time for the festivities. Wherever you may be headed, be sure you have the physical address in hand because your cab driver and Google Maps probably doesn’t know where the secret parties are or the “Chevy Tweet House” is located!
Top Notch Speakers & Notable Attendees
2014 highlighted speakers included Michael Dell, Mark Cuban, Edward Snowden (via teleconference), Seth Meyers, Kevin Bacon, Chelsea Clinton and so many more. SXSports made its debut this year and brought with it a number of high-profile writers and leaders in the athletics arena including Bill Simmons and Nate Silver of ESPN as well as sports executives and writers from Yahoo! Sports and Sports Illustrated. Even Congress had a major presence with a record-number of elected officials in town for the occasion. And that’s not even including the film and music stars in town for their respective festivals. There really is nowhere else on earth that this diverse of a group of celebrities and citizens alike can all be in one place at one time together.
SXSW Interactive 2014 Trends And Hot Topics
SXSW never fails to bring in the highest caliber speakers. From big name keynotes to hundreds of up-and-coming panelists and speakers. You will get a chance to learn from some of the best and even meet them at book signings or brush shoulders with them crossing the street.
Interactive Trends: Major Shifts Are Ahead
When it comes to the interactive trends in 2014, these trends made the biggest impact on the attendees:
- 3D printing
- Wearable technology
“While the usual crowd of startup entrepreneurs, VCs and marketers convened on panels, hosted parties and ate tacos together, the buzz was less about specific product launches or breakout companies and more about exploring big issues like privacy and the impending wearable tech revolution,” stated Tom O’Reilly Director, Huge Content. “Serious thinkers, innovators and marketers were sharing exciting ideas beyond the swirl of branded food trucks and tweet-for-free-stuff gimmicks which suggest some major shifts coming in our digital world.” (Read Tom’s full report).
“There was a focus on quality of content online, giving back with a socially-driven mission, and data privacy and security,” summarized Emily Reeves, Director of Digital Strategy & Planning at Stoneward. “It was an interesting mix of conversations that overlapped and tied together in many ways.”
As everyone has already left the festival and go back to their daily grind with new energy and perspective, it will be interesting to see how the role that these topics play in technology and the digital space in the upcoming months and years ahead.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
Missing Out” (aka FOMO) couldn’t be more of a condition during SXSW – and not just for folks who don’t make it to Austin to participate in the festival. Even those who are lucky enough to have platinum badges and/or VIP status can experience the anxiety of missing out. Why? Well, it’s partially due to more going on at any one time than any one person could possibly take part in and partially there are so many undisclosed events that even the most A-list guests aren’t aware of.
So how do you do it all and conquer the lines? (Or at least attempt to?)
- Bring a friend to divide and conquer
- Use your network, especially twitter, to scope out the scenes ahead of time
- Get to the events you do not want to miss early, even if you don’t anticipate a big crowd, because there most likely will be one. And, the last thing you want is to spend your time missing out and being “#SXSoldOut”.
Is SXSW getting too big for its own good? Perhaps. An estimated 30,000 participants from 74 countries came out to this year’s interactive festival alone. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Austin because it all equates to job creation, a booming economy and a lot of attention to this central Texas town. But, as an attendee, it makes it feel over sold and over popular versus its less-mainstream, hipster start.
Final words of advice for the SXSW veteran or rookie alike? Have fun, hydrate and when in Austin, as they say “keep it weird”.