Why marketers need to be at South by Southwest

This year's event will draw more than 30,000 attendees from more than 80 countries to Austin. Its sheer size presents an opportunity for savvy marketers to make their marks.

It’s true. South by Southwest Interactive has grown up.

It is no longer a small gathering of techies; it’s a diverse gathering of some of the greatest minds in digital, and that does include those that think about how to market and gain consumer adoption.

In a world where Fortune 500 companies can be disrupted by startups that are less than a year old, brand marketers need to be at SXSW to understand where innovation is coming from and to be immersed in ecosystems that drive change. 

SXSW connects the makers, creators, builders, and programmers to those who are commercializing and marketing products, services, and opportunities to improve the lives of people. When it began in 1994, SXSWi had 36 speakers. This year’s event will draw more than 30,000 attendees from more than 80 countries to Austin, Texas. Its sheer size presents an opportunity for the savvy marketers to make their marks. And this year, "convergence programming" will gain new momentum as people such as Charles Barkley will be as much a part of the conversation as the digital geeks.

SXSW is very much about discovery, trial, and imagination, along with a robust conversation about ideas that make their way into the lives of people at scale. Brands that understand this dynamic and become part of the community in an organic way will greatly benefit from their experience at SXSW. Last year, Oreo made a splash with its innovative Trending/Vending machine that dispensed personalized cookies. Interactive attendees waited in line for more than two hours to see the results and talk with others about the future of food and technology. This year, you’ll see panels like Mega Bites that promise even deeper exploration of food, technology, and how big data can innovate to benefit the food ecosystem. From conversations like these, the world can change.

While it may no longer be Spring Break for Geeks, the mash up of the geeks and the marketers at SXSW ultimately builds the kind of conversations that create global opportunity and accelerates global access to innovation. Much of the magic comes from "marketing through participation," as Brian Solis points out.

Other gatherings and conferences with different agendas and smaller crowds have emerged that fill needs for early adopters.  

To each his own. But there’s one thing of which I am certain: SXSW needs people who bring passion for finding ideas that can change lives and for commercializing innovation. It can do without those who pine for a digital nirvana as an end in itself or dismiss the marketing contribution to the process as "amateur hour."

Stephanie Agresta is global director of social media and digital at MSLGroup.

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