Today is the last day of my first trek to SXSW in Austin. I’ve lost my voice (as the only sensation more prevalent than the ambient noise is the smell of smoked meats). I’ve also lost control of my email, Facebook inbox, Twitter feed and text messages.
But I’ve gained a new appreciation for the role of cutting-edge technology, social media, and brand advertising — the fire, the air, and the water of SXSW — to change industry, government, and entertainment. How we combine all three elements will be the critical challenge in digital marketing going forward.
Like many other first timers, I no longer thought I could de-prioritise this event. Others seemed to feel the same, as this was the first year that the interactive portion of the festival — according to a SXSW staffer I spoke to — was larger than the music conference.
(Speaking of which … if the music industry is indeed “the bank that’s already been robbed,” as Randy Newman so perfectly put it at the Oscars last month, my friends in the interactive industry that showed up at SXSW this week hold the key to the vault of technology, creativity, and innovation that will power the rapid creation and viral distribution of powerful ideas to refuel the music industry.
The following are my initial thoughts on the event as it is still fresh in my mind.
The Days of Breaking Products at SXSW are Over
As all attendees – and many observers – know, the diversity of events is overwhelming. There is an event, a panel, a keynote, a presentation and dozens of parties for everyone.
As for the product wars we all know and love, let me just say that this year marks the end of launching products (at least successfully) at SXSW. With launches being the only thing more prevalent than parties at SXSW, two things will happen with your product if you debut at SXSW:
- No one cares. There is too much noise. 99.9999% of the companies fit into this category.
- Everyone cares and you crash. SXSW is so big now that if people do notice and decide to check out your product en masse, you will crash as you can’t handle the traffic.
So either you crash and burn because no one notices, or you crash and burn because you actually crash and burn. It’s crucial to begin growing an active user base a few months before SXSW so you can improve the product and scale the infrastructure.
The products that will win at SXSW are the ones that are about to take off and that already have a passionate user base going into the event. SXSW is the kindling to light the fire and not the fire starter itself. That’s why everyone’s talking about companies like GroupMe and Hashable.
Events, Panels and Happy-hours…are Fun! (And Worth Your Time)
I kicked off my trip at the Buddy Media, WPP party on Saturday night. It was great to see Babs Rangaiah, Vice President, Head of Global Media Innovation at Unilever, speaking to innovators like Tami Holzman from Avventa, and Jory Des Jardins, media strategist and co-founder of BlogHer. Without SXSW, connections like this would never have been possible.
I also spoke with Steve Schlafman, who just left the New England Patriots’ organisation to try his hand as an entrepreneur, telling attendees about his amazing trek to the event. Steve drove to SXSW in a bus with 7 other New York City “Buspreneurs.” They were in a heated competition with 30+ teams of these “Buspreneurs” from six cities to see who could launch the best startup by the time they arrived. Little did we know on Saturday night that Steve’s concept, TripMedi, would win the top prize at SXSW a few days later. (TripMedi is a compelling idea that takes all of the information available about medical tourism – provider experience, quality of facility, prices, ease of travel — and puts it in a simple format that anyone can understand.)
On Sunday, I attended the New York Tech Meet Up, a day-long event where about 20 New York tech companies presented their wares. Impressively, Rachel Sterne, Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s choice as New York’s first chief digital officer, made it to SXSW and the event to cheer everyone on.
I started Sunday evening with my new friends at IVP, which just raised its latest fund, a $750 million whopper. Jules Maltz, also a SXSW first timer, and Somesh Dash from IVP were quick to point out that they had to clear out Ashton and Demi from the same private room in the Driskill Hotel to make room for the IVP soiree. Move over Hollywood, here comes tech, baby!
The highlight of the event was my first SXSW panel, which was by far the most engaging and electric panel I’ve ever sat on. The panel was anchored by two of the leading practitioners of social media — Ekaterina Walter of Intel and Laura Thomas of Dell — and moderated by Bryan Person of LiveWorld. The panel was interactive with the audience, and all panelists were monitoring twitter as questions were coming in. By the end of the panel, Ekaterina and my Twitter handles were trending locally on Twitter, which is a true honour given it was at SXSW, where there is so much content being produced.
Crowdsourcing is Alive and Well
On Sunday night, I witnessed first hand one of the more amazing examples of what happens when we really embrace the people-centered Internet and not just the anonymous search-based internet we’ve seen over the past 10 years. Social sommelier Gary Vaynerchuk, with help from a few friends’ tweets, showed how you could turn an empty club in little under an hour into a raging dance party. Without invites, or even a reserved space, Gary tweeted out that he was throwing a popup party. He lined up the space, tweeted out the location and bam, 1,500+ SXSWers showed up! Gary has done this before at SXSW and other events, but it is truly amazing to see it happen in real-time.
Twitter Gets Serious About Advertising
Before I put SXSW 2011 to bed, I want to point out that for the first time ever I really believe Twitter will be a serious advertising business. This is the first big event that the Twitter advertising team has had a big presence. I ran into Kevin Weil, Product Lead for Revenue at Twitter. Elizabeth Weil, also from Twitter, and Shane Steele from Twitter’s marketing team. That group was not around at these kinds of events in the past. You always had Twitter as a product or platform, but now you have the ad people out and about as well. Their focus on building their advertising business is palpable.
Lastly, Have Some Sensibility Regarding Current Events
It’s important to recognise the one-two punch of the Japan tragedy and turmoil in the Middle East so close to the events and parties of SXSW. The happenings forced attendees to look beyond their immediate business needs. While people fought for their freedoms and others fought to find their loved ones around the globe, the next sale or hire just didn’t seem as important. I encourage you to donate to the Red Cross.
See you next year, SXSW!