Collaboration, Austin-style

It was a whirlwind weekend at SXSW Interactive, but nothing struck me more than the change that's been building over time at this former exclusive domain of the geeks and digerati.

It was a whirlwind weekend at SXSW Interactive, but nothing struck me more than the change that's been building over time at this former exclusive domain of the geeks and digerati.

This March, the group that's descended upon Austin also included the largest brands, agencies, and more business leadership than ever before. Marketing people are here. Communicators are here. Advertisers are here. IT is here. And, there's a business drive here like never before. The global footprint is growing, too, with activations coming from organizations like the BBC and panel discussions about doing business in China.

So, why are the serious business people coming? What makes SXSWi so special and different? After this, my sixth year working with leaders in digital and social to maximize this unique experience, I was finally able to put my finger on the special sauce that flows only here. SXSWi is the place to go and get things done.

The chemical reaction that occurs here is in the collaboration. This collaboration happens in the hallways, the lounges, at the events, and through the hashtags. The opportunity to meet and collaborate is physical. It's cultural. It's organic. And, it's a constant. Spark. Spark. Spark.

From the PayPal Exchange to the Samsung Blogger Lounge, people sit at tables, on the edges of sofas, and lean on the bar, talking, connecting, and, most importantly, building opportunity together. It's an exciting interface between brands and the creative world of technology. It's next-generation collaboration in action.

It's so much of a growing phenomenon that I've been encouraging executives attending not to overbook themselves and make sure they leave blocks of time to fill in with serendipitous meetings. I've told them to head for the lobby of the Four Seasons or one of the many other nooks, crannies, and spaces around Austin.

Here are my favorite strategies for collaboration at SXSWi:

Go to one of the branded collaboration spaces: This is the sixth year that I've been involved personally in the Blogger Lounge since founding it in 2008, and the third year it has been sponsored by Samsung. With Brian Solis of TechSet hosting the event, it brings social influencers, celebrities, YouTube content creators, brands, and agencies together to connect around what's trending. This year, Samsung and TechSet opened the doors to a grander and more engaging home base and a destination for those seeking a smart guide to what's relevant. And nothing is more relevant than bringing relevant ideas and people together that ignite the passions of business.

Collaborate on line (a physical line): Meet on line for a book signing or to experience exhilarating brand activations. Lots of conversation occurs among the crowds waiting for the most exciting attractions. At the Oreo Grab and Go, attendees were given the opportunity to pose with virtual Oreos. Each day, Oreo randomly surprised those at SXSW who sent a photo of themselves in and around Austin with the chance to go somewhere unforgettable.  This drew a diverse crowd, and Oreo is continuing to spark lots of great conversations and true business ideas. How can we run like Oreo runs? Discuss.

Collaborate at an official SXSWi session: Sessions tend to draw those with like-minded interests. That often accelerates the collaborative opportunity with the person in the next row. This year, great additions to SXSW are the hashtags assigned to each session. So while live tweeting at a session, I saw that the woman next to me was also on Twitter. Turns out we had been conversing online. This jump from one reality to the next led to a personal connection and probably some future business.

Be inspired at a private event: Hosted dinners or other sponsored events designed to bring specific minds together often lead to greater things. Several of the big agencies had sponsored dinners, including MSLGroup, which focused on next-generation social influence. Leading women executives joined BlogHer and genConnect to discuss Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. With a backdrop of great food and good cheer and a powerful dose of creative stimulation for the mind, can breakthrough inventions be far behind?

Of course, once the buzz from Austin dims, follow up to all this collaborating is critical. Sure, not every digital dalliance or Oreo dunk fest over the next “Tweet heard around the world” will be acted on. But some will. And, I suspect, more may be acted on than at more typical global conferences.

That's because at other global conferences, the emphasis is often reflecting back and listening to the “words from the stage.” These words often draw tremendous insight from what's already happened, and sometimes predict the future. But, at SXSWi, the action is about making the future.  The conversations here are inspiring and, most important, egalitarian. There are no barriers. There's rarely any hesitation. In an environment where silos have broken down, the potential for true convergence and workable business collaboration is through the roof. You can smell it in the caffeine-juiced air from the coffee beans over at Houndstooth Coffee on Congress Avenue.

Stephanie Agresta is global director of social media and digital at MSLGroup. In 2008, she launched “Bloggers Lounge,” a networking hub for digital media influencers at the South by Southwest conference. Agresta also partnered with author and analyst Brian Solis to start the social media event brand “The TechSet

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