Is SXSWi Actually More Relevant Than Ever Now?

If you’re headed to South by Southwest Interactive this weekend, as I am, there’s a very good chance that you’re complaining about it. It’s too big and corporate. It’s full of -- shocker! -- marketers instead of geeks now. It’s been impossible to get housing downtown unless you’re willing to sell a kidney on Craigslist. The Driskill Hotel won’t be fun for late-night drinks anymore because some sports marketers have taken over the whole place. You know the drill.

I’ve been going to SXSWi for years, and I agree that some of those complaints are legit. I don’t like waiting in line for breakfast tacos, and I don’t like booking insanely overpriced hotel rooms that are a 10-minute drive from the Convention Center, either. Still, I’ll confess: I like the fact that the chaos makes us think about attention. There are some lessons for us all to learn about confronting the inconveniences of representing a brand in a chaotic space. (And why not learn these things when there are open bars everywhere?)

A handful of my team are going to SXSWi this year, some of whom have never been before. The newcomers, especially, are asking what exactly we’re doing here. What the metrics of success should be. How do we stand out?

Aren’t these the same questions we’re all asking ourselves in the digital ad world? So I’ll ask you this: What kind of lessons can we take home from SXSWi, in its overblown current state, that we can apply to what we do every day?

For one, we’re putting a ton of weight on the wrong metrics. Raise your hand if you’ve been part of a 5,000-person party where everyone was too drunk to remember the name of the company that was sponsoring the open bar. Did that party constitute success for the sponsor? Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t.

Likewise, what constitutes real “engagement” at SXSWi? A lot of the events that go on are pretty darn similar to one another and don’t have a whole lot to do with the brand that’s hosting them. You used to be able to get away with quick fixes, like “Let’s launch our new product!” But things are tougher now. People have gotten more creative, and strategies have gotten more competitive. What might have constituted engagement a few years ago no longer passes the sniff test now that companies have co-opted each other’s strategies and audiences can’t keep things straight.

And then there’s the whole hipster humblebrag of “I was there before it was cool.” And that’s fine, and usually makes for a great story. But if you can’t win now where the masses are, what was the point of being early to the party? Scale is the name of the game.

My team has decided that our approach to SXSWi is going to be all about reaching the right people at the right time -- providing the right vibe, the right experience, and yes, the right signature cocktails, depending on what time of the day it is. And frankly, if you’re in the business of advertising, that’s what you’re doing every minute that you’re on the job.

That’s why I don’t entirely buy it when people who work for technology companies say they’re sick of SXSWi. The benefit of the event, whether you’re a digital artist or a brand marketer, has always been to solve big problems and tackle new ideas in the petri-dish-like environment that’s created when Austin is briefly overrun by people who are totally obsessed with new technology.

For example, in 2008, when there was a massive audience revolt over Twitter during Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote interview, it was the first time that many people in the industry had been exposed to the intricacies of understanding how mass sentiment can be warped through social media. That issue has since manifested itself in many ways much more significant than a bunch of people like me getting mad that the founder of Facebook wasn’t unlocking the secrets of the universe for them onstage.

This year -- and, well, for the past few years, too -- one of those big problems at SXSWi is attention: how to get some in a venue where your company is just one of so many others. Sure, some of you may be staying home from Austin because you’re convinced you’ll never find a way for your brand to find value in it. But a lot of us talk about SXSWi as a real-life, on-the-streets microcosm of the Internet we all deal with, and those same complaints about SXSWi pan out into some very real issues that the industry faces. Me? I’d rather accept the challenge and face them head-on.

Especially since there are margaritas. And if you’re in Austin this weekend, come have one on me, and we’ll talk about the attention problem.

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3 comments about "Is SXSWi Actually More Relevant Than Ever Now?".
  1. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network , March 6, 2014 at 2:59 p.m.
    Is the relevance of SXSW changed by the fact that, like the movie North by Northwest, there is no actual compass direction named "South by Southwest"? (It's actually South Southwest) ... Sorry. Just feeling geeky this morning.
  2. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network , March 6, 2014 at 3:02 p.m.
    ... unless you're travelling there from the north via Southwest Airlines?
  3. Joe Marchese from true[X] , March 6, 2014 at 8:58 p.m.
    @Chuck - Ha, I see what you did there. I am not taking Southwest airlines, but South by United just doesn't have a ring to it.