Creative conference showdown: SXSW vs. the rest

Having been fortunate enough to participate in both TEDActive and Aspen Ideas Festival recently, I couldn't walk into SXSW Interactive with a completely blank slate.

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Having been fortunate enough to participate in both TEDActive and Aspen Ideas Festival recently, I couldn't walk into SXSW Interactive with a completely blank slate. At the outset, I was dying to know how it would compare to the other “confabs” that bring together the masses. Should I approach it the same? Am I becoming “conference jaded?”

The answer is definitely no. SXSWi offers an incredible amount of programming. And by incredible, I mean truly overwhelming. At any given time, there are dozens of sessions available to attend. Over the years, different elements have emerged – there's the programmer's SXSW, the start-up's SXSW, the marketer's SXSW…not to mention all the non-official events, meet-ups, showdowns, throwdowns, and parties happening concurrently. You need to pick very selectively – not to mention open-mindedly, since often sessions are full based on a first-come, first-serve basis.

TED and Aspen are very different from this. TED is all about the shared experience – everyone seeing the same speakers, allowing for a mutual discussion among participants, and a campus-like experience that feels insulated. Aspen is a little more “choose-your-own” adventure, but with very specific “tracks” to follow and only a handful of choices for each session. It is a smaller event, so you see more familiar faces. Events are all meticulously handpicked and crafted by organizers, leaving little room for guerilla on-site activity.

So which format lends itself to the most meaningful experience? That depends what you're looking for. TEDActive was about the people there – powerful fodder (TED talks) breeds amazing in-the-moment ideation, discussion, and connections. Aspen Ideas Festival was about thought leadership – powerful organizations and leaders taking a step back and analyzing the big picture in a candid way normally hidden from the public eye. As far as SXSW, for me it was more about what brands were doing on-site to garner attention – less about the content of the sessions.

Overall, what I saw from brands was cool, but expected – “digital” lounges, branded pedicabs, and plenty of on-site displays where people read about the product and still ask, “Wait. What is it?”

Surprisingly, the most impactful moment came when a colleague and I were walking down the street and bemoaning her dead phone battery. As if by magic, an enthusiastic street teamer appeared and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but it appears you have a Galaxy. Can I give you a brand new phone battery?” It was as if the heavens had parted.

Sometimes the simplest, and most need-based consumer engagements are the most memorable.

Sarah Unger is a creative catalyst in Ketchum's New York office.

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