Why SXSW Can Still Create A Transformative Experience

Historically, the South by Southwest Interactive Festival is a technology-meets-marketing festival known for its ability to introduce emerging technology to the masses. Both established companies and start-ups use it as a launch pad to unveil new products, ideas and services to a tech-savvy audience, hoping to gain recognition from the investor community.

Take, for example, Foursquare, which successfully launched at the festival in 2009. As entrepreneurs and technologists of all stripes continue to descend on Austin in larger numbers year after year, in the anticipation that anything could happen, this year's SXSW has been greeted with some skepticism. Some are reevaluating SXSW's value, as they cannot immediately pinpoint one breakthrough idea or technology that emerged from this year's 21st annual conference.

As a participant, however, it became quite clear to me this year that SXSW Interactive was more than just a bunch of industry executives geeking out over the next big tech-driven startup. It has slowly evolved from a technology-focused conference to a powerful cultural and experience-driven 'think session.' In many ways, it is the participants that change most of all through the SXSW experience.

The 2014 roster featured people diverse for both their backgrounds, as well as their topics, including Anne Wojcicki, CEO and co-founder of 23andMe, Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author and science communicator.  There seemed to be an even larger brand presence than ever, with marketers trying to capture attendees' attention via a slew of different tactics. Inspiration was everywhere, and it was up to attendees to capture that lighting in proverbial bottles, so that we may do something amazing with it.
A self-admitted Type A personality, like many of my SXSW counterparts, I spent weeks agonizing over the list of presentations and panels, meticulously plotting out sessions based on location, timing, accessibility, and, of course, interest. My schedule was plotted out by the minute. I left for SXSW confident that, not only had I arranged the ultimate SXSW experience, but with the realistic expectation that there was a slim chance I'd actually stick to this plan. The cold, rainy weather only exasperated the realities I had so feared.

However, there's a sense of magic when you finally, perhaps (in my case, very) begrudgingly, give up the planning and give into the serendipity of SXSW Interactive. Had my face been down in my (always dying) phone, I likely would have missed the various colleagues (both new and old), partners and familiar faces that strolled on by. I would have lost out on invaluable conversations, introductions and discussions resulting from the various food truck breaks and impromptu stop overs. And I would have never gained the resulting relationships, connectivity and ideas that naturally form when you let go of managing your SXSW experience and ultimately fully embrace it.
It is this defining characteristic that keeps people coming back year after year. For me, this transformational experience provides an opportunity to carve out a few days from the normal routine to really immerse myself in a new place with new people, while diving deep into new ideas, perspectives and topics that aren't necessarily on my radar on an everyday basis.  It's all a bit exhilarating, even sometimes challenging. But it always results in this feeling of being recharged, both mentally and creatively, and ready to try something different.

This year, in particular, left me with a deeper understanding that change can often be the key driver of innovation. Just as the retail industry was faced with the pressures of our digitally connected world, retailers have now recognized an opportunity to transform the consumer experience by adopting iBeacon. Thus, has emerged a new crop of companies, like ShopSavvy, Allrecipies and InMarket, which are altering real-time engagement and allowing brick-and-mortar stores to move beyond GPS-targeting.

Another topic that really stood out was this new era of "open source" marketing. Companies across all industries are plugging into existing technology to build their own brand experiences. We've seen this with companies like Spotify opening up its API to marketers to introduce unique and relevant new consumer offerings.  (Who doesn't want to be able to plug in their birthday and find out what their parents were listening to when they were conceived?)

This year more than ever, SXSW Interactive proved that the future belongs to those who can think differently; those who are willing to take the risks, see what sticks and iterate as they fail forward. Innovation doesn't solely rest in the hands of people with the ability to code or build technology-based tools. It rests in those who are willing and able to find inspiration in the every day. In a world where being jaded comes easily, it is crucial to focus our energy on the opportunities that surround us.

Leaving Austin, I not only felt full of ideas (as well as BBQ), but equipped with a renewed sense of inspiration to take on the challenges I encounter with fresh eyes and new perspectives, truly bringing to life those sparks of ideas heard and learned.



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