Lessons From SXSW: Mastering A Marketing Strategy

We’ve gotten some really nice feedback at Hashable re: SXSW, with some folks asking to benchmark against our strategy.

We were extremely pleased with how things went – we picked up a substantial population of new users, measurably ticked up our growth rate, and I think by most accounts broke through the noise to be one of the top stories of the conference – which is getting trickier and trickier to accomplish.

I’ll say that we were totally puzzled when we first started thinking about SXSW last November as newbies trying to analyse the twin myths of Foursquare and Twitter ;). The famed ‘Foursquare court’ strategy in particular seemed impossibly simple. So if it’s of any help to other people considering a SXSW launch or event marketing in general – here are some high-level thoughts on what we did that worked, and what we would do differently.


1. Focused on Pre-SXSW Marketing

One of our guiding principles from the outset was that there’s too much noise to break thru at SXSW itself – so we should focus on creating awareness and conversion ahead of time. I think this was a critical and correct assumption.

2. Developed a Relevant Mobile Use Case

The big 4 apps this year imo were Foursquare, Instagram, Hashable, and GroupMe – social mobile apps with high utility in social settings.

You need to isolate a mobile app use case that is directly useful at the conference. We focused on the ‘Business Card Replacement‘ use case on Android & iPhone and put all of our development behind that. It seems hard to believe but from an internal product debate standpoint this wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

3. Evangelist Contest

The evangelist strategy – to send power users down all-expenses paid via a contest – was a great idea on many levels. Among other things it drew attention to us ahead of time as a company that was going for it at SXSW.

4. Influencer Outreach


We sat down with Robert Scoble and several other key influencers in January and early February.

Influencers talk about you, Tweet about you, blog about you, Quora about you, etc. They basically dictate the unofficial slate of contenders for SXSW. You need to go out of your way to get on their radar.

5. Single-Message Marketing Campaign

This I believe is the single most important thing we did. We crafted a specific marketing campaign around the ‘ditch your business cards‘ theme to educate people on a single use case and motivate them to download our app ahead of the conference.

I think in marketing it’s relatively easy to create brand awareness and extremely difficult to get people actually using your product. I was terrified that we would have everyone at SXSW talking about us, but nobody actually using us.

Our “Kick arse & Take Names” campaign strategy was kicked off in mid-February and designed to get people ‘demo’d and downloaded’ before Austin. It included these components:

  • Singular messaging around ‘ditch your business cards’ – this is all we talked about to the press and to our users. Nothing made me more excited or proud than seeing the business card messaging get picked up and carried through again and again on point. I believe had we not narrowed the messaging, our presence at SXSW would have been hopelessly equivocal.
  • Presenting as a social leader – we tried to have enough going on that people headed to SXSW from various parts of the country might look to us for cues on what to do down there.
  • A dedicated SXSW landing page describing how to use Hashable at SXSW (videos etc) and giving full details of our parties and other doings before and at SXSW.
  • A ‘roadshow’ wherein we visited a few key target communities in person to get people demo’d and downloaded.
  • NYXSW. We thought of NYXSW as our ‘minimum viable marketing plan’ – if we could at least get NYC activated, we’d be in good shape. And we thought other companies should be thinking the same thing and that this would benefit everyone. I think NYXSW helped put us top of mind among NYC’ers and also clarified the biz card use case among many who still thought of us as a Twitter intro service. I hope it helped other NY companies do the same.
  • Hiring Rachel Sklar to help us execute on the campaign and amplify the signal. Rachel is terrific. Our ideas got better, our reach got broader, media opportunities opened up, and she just made everything more fun.

6. ‘Rolling Thunder’ Noise & PR Strategy

From January forward we created a steady stream of product and marketing announcements. We built up velocity culminating in very high communications volume about 2 weeks before SXSW started.

The official press cycle began around Feb 21 and lasted about a month. We had 83 press hits during this timeframe with TechCrunch, Mashable, Forbes, CNN, AdAge, WSJ, Business Insider, AdWeek, and PCMag being some of the key formal media outlets in the SXSW mix. I’m proud to say that we did this without any external PR help.

On the user comms front, we retweeted any press hit like crazy and sent an aggressive stream of SXSW-related emails to our users in the few weeks before SXSW began.

Fred Wilson and Charlie O’Donnell also wrote awesome, pointed blog posts the week of SXSW – those helped a lot and we’re grateful to both of them.



By the time we got to the actual conference, our strategy was to have fun and just kind of be all over the place. This is what we did in Austin:

  • Flood the Zone with evangelists & our team – all in t-shirts & hashing it up
  • Stickers  – people love stickers
  • VIP party – it was small and hopefully civilized and awesome
  • “Major Rager” party with GroupMe – great brand partnership with a team and product we love; truly a rager
  • Panels – help lend gravity to your approach and access different audiences

  • Demo Events – we participated in every demo bake-off we got invited to (and also hosted a NYXSW one)
  • Sklar-events – Rachel is ubiquitous at SXSW and she pulled us into everything she did
  • Press during the event – We were so proud & psyched to be mentioned on so many ‘Top 5 Apps’ and ‘SXSW Winners’ lists – great feeling, thanks to awesome bloggers everywhere!


1. Create an HQ for users to come connect with us. GroupMe’s grilled cheese stand was a great strategy on this front – and it’s why the Foursquare Court is so brilliant.

2. Someone at home Tweeting all day. We left a lot of customer support questions unanswered – I hate to think of that.

3. More T-shirts. We wish we’d had a couple thousand t-shirts to give to people. Next time!

Hashable Team


The one last thing I want to mention – is that whatever success we had at SXSW, we had because of our awesome team (including so many of our passionate users who basically are a part of the team). I think the key ingredient to succeeding at SXSW is creative thinking – and it takes an awesome, engaged team to come up with off-the-wall strategies. In our case, ideas came from all corners, we had great camaraderie – and we let the effort and lack of sleep pull us together. I believe that sense of creativity and togetherness permeated the tone of what we were doing and created an accessible, upbeat vibe.

So hats off to the team – Jane Kim, who 100% ran point on all things sxsw and earned an honorary PhD in event production, Mike Yavo who came up with the evangelist contest and VIP party and a zillion other things, Sklar as already touted, our truly sick product & dev teams who hardly slept for two months and then represented hard in Austin, our amazing Hash-Evangelists who rocked the conference, and our interns who nailed the details. Hopefully we can tap into that same moj to capitalise on the growth and push into the next phase.

So that’s that! A few details and trade secrets kept admittedly on the downlow – but I hope still helpful. I would have killed for this post last November. See you next year Austin!

This post originally appeared at EarlyStager.