Has South by Southwest Interactive jumped the shark?

Pros from Powerhouse Factories and Finsbury lay out arguments for and against x-ing SXSW Interactive off your pay-attention-to list.


Katie Price
Word of Mouth marketing producer, Powerhouse Factories
Has worked across experiential programs, influencer relations, and social media for CPG, music, entertainment, and tech

What began as a grassroots music festival where musicians discussed cultural issues has become an over-saturated, commercialized circus. A trifecta of film, music, and interactive, South by Southwest is a noisy, complicated beast where even the loudest brands can fall flat and the most eager participants can leave with nothing but a hangover.

It’s becoming harder than ever to network and learn from the best of the best. Limited – and expensive – accommodations, overcrowded streets, and unreliable transportation have deterred countless professionals from the festival. A boondoggle at its core, South by Southwest, which once introduced Twitter, has lapsed in breaking revolutionary ideas, and employers are increasingly hesitant to send their employees. All in all, festivalgoers are taking note in the lackluster and stressful experience and opting out of South by Southwest.

South by Southwest hasn’t become a waste just for individuals either. Year after year, little-known artists and brands have tried to make a play there only to get lost in the noise. Record labels that used to own the stages have been pushed out for corporate logos and media giants. If you could put a finger on the moment South by Southwest officially jumped the shark, it would be when Doritos erected a 62-foot interactive vending machine stage. The festival where Hanson and Fred Armisen were discovered seems a distant memory when you have artists like Iggy Azalea playing at the Samsung Galaxy party. There isn’t room for entertainers to "break" anymore.

With all of this corporate overcrowding, brands are trying just about anything to get heard. Take McDonald’s 2015 pop-up restaurant tent that had little engagement with attendees. Shutting down at 5 pm at a 24-hour festival was bad enough, but the whole experience seemed like a handful of out-of-touch business execs were desperately trying to cater to what their teenage kids claimed was "cool."

The brands that succeed understand the audience’s lifestyle, offer festivalgoers an authentic experience, and spend time on quality connections. A shining example of this is Neiman Marcus’s "Make Some Noise" house. By creating a truly one-of-a-kind immersive experience that connected to their holistic mission of championing women of substance and style, Neiman Marcus set itself apart from other brands.

Simply put: manage your expectations and evaluate your goals before investing in a brand activation or networking in Austin.


Peter Land
Partner at Finsbury
Former senior corporate communications leader at PepsiCo, AOL, and other companies

Is South by Southwest Interactive worth your time? As marketers, we should know the answer to the question because, at some point in our educational life or work life, we learned about the microeconomic theory of opportunity cost.

So, cling to your office and wade through the morass of email and content available to you on multiple devices. Draft a few more power points and hang out in the digital dungeon.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Or, take the plunge on human interaction and dive into South by Southwest for the first time – or maybe the fifth. Either way, you won’t be disappointed. What are the chances you might encounter an innovative content platform, engage with a new generation of technologists, grab a beer with a few influential reporters, forge a new client relationship, really get to know one of your colleagues – or competitors – hear from a serial entrepreneur?

Look at the company you’ll keep. After all, the CTO of entire the United States of America, Megan Smith, thinks South by Southwest is worth her time. AMC, one of the most successful brands in entertainment, is launching a new show with Seth Rogen at South by Southwest. The women from Broad City will be there. So will Maverick Carter, who is blazing new trails for LeBron James and others in the area of unfiltered content. Kevin Kelly from Wired talking about the influence of AI. Come on, people. Can you really afford not to go?

That being sad, the size and scope of South by Southwest has ballooned to a point whereby the concept of spending most your time to wander through the conference without a game plan is not advisable. Similar to CES, it’s important to be manically disciplined about creating a schedule in advance that carves out specific time for meeting people who do not live or work close to you and attending a reasonable number of sessions. But it’s also just as important to leave open slots on your daily schedule for chance encounters or whimsy.

After it’s over, bring South by Southwest back to your offices and share the experience with your colleagues, your bosses, and your clients. That’s a different kind of economic theory – spreading the wealth.

PRWeek’s View: Let the annual debate continue! South by Southwest has its critics – and many at that – but we’re not convinced it’s an empty trip for marketers just yet.

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