What happens when we send six event marketing professionals with diverse roles and personal interests to take in as much of SXSW as possible in a mere 72 hours?
Plenty of opinions, great insights into the experience overall, lots of ideas to apply to our work, and hundreds of thousands of steps logged! Blisters aside, here are some highlights from our team on the ground, coming to you straight from Austin, TX.
The three shows of SXSW (music, film, and interactive) attract all walks of life: business people, musicians, digital nerds, filmmakers, gamers, artists, marketers, and more, hailing from industries that range from the obvious music, film, and interactive to legal, healthcare, education, insurance, and fashion. It’s truly intersectional innovation come to life!
Our team found the most fascinating audience to be the hangers-on — the crowd that shows up in Austin without badges and doesn’t participate in any of the official activities. They’re spring breakers, students, entrepreneurs, and even families looking for a unique vacation. They are there for the unofficial experiences, parties, bands, meetings, or just to say they were there. This is a completely untapped audience that is impossible to track, and there is a huge opportunity to convert these hangers-on into official attendees in the future.
For the lucky few who have plunked down the cash for a badge, SXSW delivers on killer content. Big star power is present throughout. From President Obama kicking off interactive and Michelle Obama opening music (with the help of a few friends) to Don Cheadle, JJ Abrams, DJ Questlove, Anthony Bourdain, and Ira Glass, these household names give the event a higher level of cachet while allowing attendees more intimate access to their favorite stars as well as experts in their particular field.
According to our Austin-local team member, the show definitely feels authentic to the town, from décor and food choices to tone and vibe and even the swag that was handed out (lots of canvas bags in an environmentally friendly city like Austin!). And while the Austin Convention Center is the home base for most sessions, the trade show floor, and some brand experiences, SXSW is a literal town takeover. While most of us already know this, it’s hard to truly understand this until you are on the ground in Austin.
Spreading out all across downtown in various hotels, bars, restaurants, and swing spaces, SXSW can be overwhelming to a newbie (and create serious FOMO), but it also makes you feel like you’re truly getting to know Austin while you’re networking, learning, and being inspired.
The cool thing about brand experiences at SXSW is that they can literally happen anywhere. Outside of the convention center, a focus on hospitality, live music, a few demos, and virtual reality seemed to be the through lines for most brands. IBM’s Cognitive Studio used RFID bracelets to personalize the experience, including a VR component. Samsung’s studio had cool things for everyone to take part in, but it saved the best for Galaxy owners via Samsung Pay (and a VR experience). McDonald’s’ massive space included fresh fries and burgers, a sundae bar, and a paint-your-Happy Meal box using — you guessed it — virtual reality!
But not all brands were pushing VR. American Greetings took an analog approach to its space, with a stitch artist, calligraphers, and copywriters on hand to create one-of-a-kind cards, notebooks, and even love notes. Kodak used sight, smell, and sound to recreatethe experience of a memory in an immersive environment. HBO had a fun activation supporting “Game of Thrones” using augmented reality and holograms with nice mementos for attendees.
There was plenty of excitement on the trade show floor as well. NASA’s booth focused on the Orion spacecraft with activities like photo ops, autograph signings with real astronauts, and even a takeaway arts and crafts project. The Save the American Inventor booth was a big draw thanks to its friend INO-V8, the friendly, larger-than-life robot who chatted up attendees as they passed the booth. Sabre’s Lego builder booth let attendees watch a pro create a Sabre plane over the course of the event. Red Hat’s booth during SX Create was one big coloring book, letting attendees color side by side to make the walls into a giant, collaborative art installation. More than one booth featured create-on-demand swag with silkscreens and 3D printers, and Capital One’s makerspace helped attendees transform all their free T-shirts into unique and useful tote bags.
We saw it at CES. We saw it again at MWC. By the time we got to SXSW, virtual reality had become expected. The number of robots at SXSW, however, was a little surprising at first. Considering the current advances and research in robotics and artificial intelligence, it’s not really a shock that you’d find a session where an android wowed attendees by having a self-directed conversation with its maker. And there were more robots out of sessions than in them — Robot Ranch featured a variety of prototypes, Watson was fixing tacos and mixing drinks in IBM’s Cognitive Studio, ad agency RPA’s cute companion GIMI-5 wandered Austin handing out high fives to unsuspecting attendees for every mention it received on social media, and even R2-D2 himself made an appearance on the show floor.
Okay, so we already mentioned that there is major FOMO that happens at SXSW, even for those who attend. It’s inevitable, thanks to the sheer amount of interesting content on the schedule, often in conflicting time slots. Coordinating with colleagues like we did can help, because then you’ll get the best learning points from a session without having to be there yourself.
The SXSW GO app is a must for being able to navigate the festival successfully. It provides the schedule (along with handy reminders and suggestions), detailed venue maps of the convention center and key installation areas across the city, social interaction via proximity with others near you in the exhibit rooms or sessions, and even access to Lyft for ridesharing.
Overall, the feeling that comes across from all three shows is provocative, inspiring, funky, and well-attended. It’s a cool mix of art, food, community, innovation, and more. TED meets E3 meets Dreamforce meets the Food Channel meets Sierra Club … and everything a modern conference should be. Tweet us with your top takeaways from SXSW!