South by Southwest Interactive has morphed from a techie meet-up to a vast marketers’ playground, but brands shouldn’t bank on making a big splash there.
SXSW started as a music festival in 1987 and added a film and tech event seven years later. Known then as the SXSW Film & Multimedia Conference, its first year featured eight panels, 36 speakers, and 300 attendees, according to Kelly Krause, head of press and publicity for SXSW Interactive. In the early years, sessions covered topics such as making CD-ROMs.
At that time, SXSW Interactive drew mostly "people who were creating, building, and programming," recalls Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group. "We used to call it ‘spring break for geeks.’"
Two decades after its launch, SXSW Interactive hosted 32,798 registrants, and the organization expects to see a slight increase in numbers in 2015, says Krause. This year’s conference will offer more than 1,000 sessions and over 2,500 speakers, exploring issues from the Internet of Things to how food is changing the world.
"It used to be hardcore nerds," says Joe McCaffrey, head of social at Huge. "Now it’s more mainstream."
As the event has grown in size and scope, it has attracted more brands and marketers.
"We’ve seen more marketers and branding people come in the last three to five years," says SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest. "They want to meet these industry innovators, trendsetters, and people pushing the digital envelope."
Solis compares the atmosphere to Las Vegas – "all you see are brands," he says.
For some longtime attendees, that’s a turnoff. Ana Andjelic, group strategy director for creative shop Spring Studios, will skip SXSW for the first time since 2009. Far from disappointed, she says she’s "relieved."
"I didn’t have fun in the past two to three years, and by fun, I mean I didn’t hear anything interesting or meet people who I cannot meet in New York. It’s become amateur hour," Andjelic says. "[SXSW] used to represent this convergence of startups, people doing interesting things, recognizing new user behaviors, and coming up with new digital solutions for users’ problems. I don’t know if there is any festival or event like that anymore."
Believing SXSW’s best days are behind it, Andjelic adds that she would rather go to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which has "bigger clout."
In previous years, a number of startups took off after debuting at SXSW, most notably Twitter in 2007 and Foursquare in 2009. Yet there hasn’t been a big breakout platform at the festival in the past five years – and attendees should not expect to discover the next killer app there this year, say SXSW veterans.
"It’s super-saturated. Everyone’s pitching something. If I had a new company or new idea, I don’t know that I would try to get into that mix," says McCaffrey. "A few years ago, [social networking app] Highlight was all the rage [at SXSW]. Whatever happened to that? It was a flash in the pan, and who wants to be a flash in the pan when you’re trying to run a business?"
Chad Latz, president of the global digital innovation group at Cohn & Wolfe, says his expectations of the event have shifted from discovering emerging technologies to digesting content in the past few years.
"There began to be a much greater premium put on content and idea exchange," Latz explains. "I go as much for opportunities to challenge my own thinking and exchange ideas as anything else."
For brands trying to get attention at the festival, Latz and others advise marketers to focus on creating positive experiences.
"Because it is so busy, create a space where people can gather and just have conversations and quality networking," says David Armano, global strategy director for Edelman Digital. "Anything you can provide to help people do that will help them feel good about your brand."
And don’t just go to Austin to sell, says Solis, who advises people to get into the spirit of SXSW.
"Marketing through participation is a lesson that a lot of brands have yet to figure out. SXSW is a physical manifestation of how some approach social media – be loud, crazy, and creative, get buzz going, and measure that conversation over the span of a few days," Solis continues. "Instead, it should be about being present all year and making your conversation a little more meaningful and special. How does SXSW and our brand stay together year-round? What’s the spirit of the festival, and how do we be part of that?"
Despite its evolution, Forrest contends that SXSW "has always been about discovering up-and-coming talent."
"That in some ways becomes a little more difficult as the event becomes more expensive, so it may be harder for young people to come," he says.
With that in mind, SXSW Interactive has begun partnering with universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get top students to attend at a reduced rate.
"The goal is to get young innovators to the event," he explains.
"We have become big. That said, it is a big, big tent. For every corporation that’s here, there are dozens of nonprofits or tons of college students," Forrest adds. "The whole point of the event has been to bring various sectors and creative people together, and hopefully they find ways to learn from each other or work together."
For those who are planning to continue to attend SXSW, the chances for networking and serendipitous meetings are still the main draw.
"There’s a little bit of magic in what can pop up," says McCaffrey. "It’s the unknown and the opportunity, the people you can bump into."