I used to live in Austin. I loved the artistic vibe. The food is amazing. But when South by Southwest (SXSW) rolled around and the masses descended, I would actually leave the city or avoid downtown.
Then, after moving to California and starting an agency, I wanted to go to SXSW. So for the past few years, I’ve paid a bunch of money to visit my old stomping grounds and attend the Interactive track. (The irony is not lost on me.)
Is SXSW Worth It?
There were a lot of questions about SXSW’s validity this year. Has it jumped the shark, or is it still worth your time?
For me, the answer is “yes, it’s worth it,” whether you’re a brand or an attendee. It’s all about programming, experiences, and connections.
For brands: OK, so maybe my answer for brands is actually “for some, yes.” In my opinion, unless you do events really well, you might as well not bother. If you don’t plan to do anything extraordinary or can’t put in the effort to make it a success, you may want to sit out that year. But if you do something cool and you’re in a good location, there is no doubt that you will get decent foot traffic and find your audience. (Of course, you’ll also need the right tactics before, during, and after the event to make it a success.)
This year, it also seemed like more brands were partnering to throw parties and create experiences, which is a really good strategy when you have a complementary story and objective.
For attendees: You need to seek out the experiences—immersive, artistic, musical, and networking. I firmly believe that art transcends and that humans are yearning for real connections, so that’s really what I’m looking for, both on a personal level and as the CEO and executive creative director of The Craftsman Agency.
There are always panels where the “experts” talk about things that you already know about—sometimes more than they do. So venture out a bit more when deciding which panels to attend. We attended a couple of great panels by Booz Allen Hamilton. In one panel, we heard the Navy talk about hackathons. (Yes, the Navy—not what I expected, but really cool!) In another panel, we got to hear from Samsung’s chief medical officer about how immersive experiences are curing blindness and helping paraplegics walk again and gain control of other bodily functions. It was educational, but also so inspiring.
Unfortunately, we missed holding the baby goats from Vice Media, the Westworld activation (this is my only regret from this year’s SXSW), Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and many others. But we did get to the TechCrunch, Zendesk, and Splash party, which definitely did not disappoint, offering a great live DJ lineup with artists such as DJ Autograph. We got dolled up for Bravo’s Imposters photo opportunity with Priv, a mobile makeup and hair studio. And we checked out Dropbox’s installation, where muralists created beautiful pictures to support its new branding. Incredible and memorable!
Another benefit to getting out there? You meet true connectors. We were fortunate to meet Fred Hwang of Th3rd Brain, who is managing the new talent Thutmose. There is no doubt in my mind that people will soon know Thutmose’s name just like they know who he opened for: Ludacris. Yes, that’s right. LUDACRIS! Vevo put on a concert for 200 of its closest friends in an intimate setting and it was ah-mazing!
Really, SXSW is about experiences. And I got that from SXSW Interactive this year. Everything is what you make of it. Whether you go as a brand or an attendee, be a connector, an explorer, an adventurer. If you’re not willing to put it out there, just stay home. (Then maybe next year, if there’s another Westworld activation, I’ll be able to get in.)