SXSW Interactive is over, Film is still going, and Music has just begun, which means Austin is still teeming with thousands of visitors. It’s a hotbed of ideas, firing up attendees who seek to create, explore, and innovate — our team came home filled with inspiration. It’s hard to even scratch the surface of everything there is to experience, but these ten takeaways are tips you can apply to your programs to help plan a SXSW-worthy brand experience of your own.
1. Take things over
Native Austinites might not agree, but one of the best things about SXSW is that it’s not limited just to the convention center. Sessions, brand experiences, parties, and more take over the downtown area, and people have the chance to experience a little bit of everything, from authentic Texas barbecue to crawling down Austin’s famous 6th Street.
Creating an event that keeps people coming back year after year is about more than just finding an open spot on a hotel roster at the right time. Giving attendees the chance to experience a lively city like Austin is more enriching than keeping them confined to a conference hotel or just a few spots outside the event.
2. Be a tease
Hype can be a great thing — it primes your audience and turns their excitement into a powerful promotion tool. But at an event like SXSW, there’s a lot of hype happening all at once. That’s why some of the coolest and most unforgettable things had little to no advertising or explanation, instead relying on just enough intrigue to whet attendee appetites, stick out in their minds, and make them seek out more information.
Take Hulu’s living promo for the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. The streets were filled with groups of silent women in nun-like uniforms who gave out ominous messages when approached. It was recognizable for anyone who might have seen the trailer for the show. But for those not in the know, it was creepy enough to be memorable…and memorable enough to be effective.
3. Let content reign
One thing that SXSW does not lack is content. Content is everywhere, from the general session stage at 9 AM to the Stubbs BBQ stage at 3 AM. Media, politics, technology, healthcare, movies, design, music, fashion, food — it’s all celebrated and explored. Not every event will have the opportunity to present that kind of breadth and depth of content, but you will always have the chance to make your content count.
SXSW content is successful because much of it is different, even irreverent at times. The titles are fun and eye-catching, the formats are always different, and the speakers are engaging and interesting. Take, for example, one session with Dean Baquet and Jim Rutenberg from the New York Times. They played off each other like a seasoned comedy routine, but at the same time offered an exclusive look at the inner workings of a news organization.
4. Embrace the chaos
SXSW can be overwhelming even to the seasoned veteran, but the chaos is also part of its charm. The incredibly varied and flexible schedule gives attendees control of what they want to experience each day, allowing them a high degree of personalization. They can move from a fun, entertainment-focused virtual reality experience to a mini-concert out on the street to a keynote with a man who climbed Mount Everest, all within the context of the same event.
And what’s more, the most popular brand experiences tend to throw themselves right into the fray. They don’t fight the natural flow of the event and stay true to the overall casual, come-and-go feel of SXSW, even offering different programming at night to draw people back. And experiences like Sony’s WOW Factory used the chaos to drum up excitement for their new tech in a vibrant space that encouraged attendees to explore.
5. Connect with purpose
Increasingly, some of the focus at SXSW has turned to the greater good — inspiring people to come together to create real social change. Thanks to the constant coverage, it’s a great place to launch or hype initiatives, like last year’s music keynote that promoted Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” program or, more recently, Joe Biden’s big announcement about his foundation’s cancer initiative. This year there was even a Social Impact track, complete with a social hub that offered workspace, programming, networking and more to attendees who focus on social innovation.
As people become more and more intent on aligning with causes they believe in, they’re going to be looking for opportunities to learn about initiatives and discover new ways they can get involved. Events will play an important role in bringing the two together, and SXSW has its collective finger on the pulse of that purpose.
6. Follow the trends
Like it or not, what’s hot is what ends up being popular, especially at events like SXSW. Things like artificial intelligence, VR, and next-generation tech might seem like they’re super saturated in the event space and beyond, but the installations and brand experiences that utilized trendy tech were some of the hottest tickets in Austin.
That’s not to say that you should try to shoehorn in a trend where it doesn’t belong for your brand — that results in a half-hearted application that doesn’t feel genuine. For example, we were really impressed with how AI was presented at SXSW. It wasn’t presented just as a technology of the future, but instead you got a real sense of how companies are using it with projects, even in its earliest stages. Getting that early glimpse of what future innovations can look like is incredibly inspiring.
7. Get super social
For SXSW, social media is beyond just an event hashtag or app feature — it’s the beating heart that drives information sharing, networking, invitations, and more. Thanks to social, people know what lines look like, what sessions are hot, what parties are not to be missed, and where they can make a connection to get in front of a visionary, creative, or brand on their radar.
For a lot of the exclusive offsite installations, getting in is all about your network, and most attendees were using tools like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and others to stay in touch and in the know, while they announced their presence on Twitter and Instagram. And when brands themselves tapped into this ongoing network and used social (and personal connections) to drive attendance to experiences, interactions felt more natural and inviting. Ultimately, social media is an enabler to actually be social with people, which is something that SXSW exudes — an openness to talk to each other and explore with one another. That vibe is pervasive, which is a beautiful thing.
8. Take more risks
You’ll find a lot of adventure at an event like SXSW. This year you could go on a maker scavenger hunt, rub elbows with Ryan Gosling at a big movie premiere, or grab food at a pop-up version of Breaking Bad’s Los Pollos Hermanos. There are a lot of once-in-a-lifetime (or at least once-a-year) opportunities throughout the ten days the event takes over Austin, and there’s not a lot of room for also-ran ideas.
That’s why it’s important to work outside the box when it comes to strategy. For example, the Capital One House at Antone’s might have been similar on its face to a lot of the other brand installations, but its focus on clean design and fun activations showed that it doesn’t think like just any bank. And nightly concerts, before the music festival even began, were a draw for people not just to come by, but stick around.
9. Encourage interactivity
There’s a lot of sitting and listening at SXSW, whether it’s general sessions or jam sessions. So when people have the option to get hands-on, they’re excited. Interactive installations had lines around the block, no matter if it was a virtual reality experience or just a pop-up beer tasting.
It seems like a no-brainer in the age of brand experience, but don’t be afraid to let participants get their hands (or brains) dirty. SXSW has a yearly hackathon, interactive sessions that let people strategize together to solve problems, workshops for creatives of all kinds, and even a whole subset of the festival dedicated to the maker movement.
10. Be authentic
It can sometimes feel like trying to sit at the cool kids’ table, but events like SXSW have a certain flair that sets them apart from the crowd. It’s not surprising, considering its roots in the music scene and the deep involvement of the creative community, that SXSW stays true to the spirit of the city and does its part in “keeping Austin weird.”
Figuring out what makes your event special helps you draw like-minded attendees into your orbit. Embrace the uniqueness and find the “cool” in whatever you do, and portray that in everything from your signage to your website copy to your social media promotions. Finding your event’s niche is the first step toward creating a similar feeling among your attendee base.