So I’m fresh off my first time at South by Southwest—my virgin experience, as Foursquare termed it as I checked into the Austin-Bergstrom airport when I landed last Friday night. The South by Southwest Interactive Festival (or SXSW) is an annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival held in Austin every March. This was its 25th year.
It’s curious that I’d never been to SXSW before, right? But for various reasons in the past few years running—when it seemed everyone I knew was heading to Austin every spring—I just couldn’t make it.
(And as my mother might say, that’s a sign I probably never really wanted to go to begin with, otherwise I would have figured out a way to make it happen. She might’ve been correct there: SXSW has always seems a little too big and too overwhelming and too hipster and too Spring-Break-for-Geeks insider-y to appeal to me. But I digress.)
And to be clear, I contemplated not going this year … because my work and travel schedule has been tight, and the jaunt to Austin (a long flight! On a weekend! For just two days! Even if I am speaking!) started to feel insane.
(Do you know how much you pay for a flight from Boston to Austin booked less than 24 hours in advance? I hope you don’t. But I’m sorry to say—I do. And PS: It’s a lot.)
You know that saying about how you can be your own worst enemy? For all my bellyaching about being too busy, about traveling too much, about being too introverted or not cool enough to really get into the SXSW scene… well, what a load of crap that was.
Because the truth is that SXSW is pretty amazing, and if I hadn’t been encouraged by a few people from whom I sought counsel (I’m looking at you, Vahe and Mack and Matt), well … I wouldn’t have even known what I would have missed. Are you following? Bottom line: Not showing up, I understand now, would have been a huge loss.
For me, the real magic of SXSW isn’t in any one thing, and it’s not even anything that’s easy to point to.
How SXSW Is Different
Some conferences—like the ones we have here at MarketingProfs—offer great learning and inspiring keynotes. Some offer great networking; AdTech does that. Some offer an opportunity to rub shoulders with celebrities or even weblebrities—like TED or the more accessible TEDx events. Some are great trade shows and throw off-the-hook parties, like BlogWorld. And others you go to every year to reconnect with friends—you probably have your own favorites here.
SXSW, meanwhile, offers all of that rolled into one: There are a huge number of sessions with varying degrees of learning opportunities. There are tons of parties. There are lots of technology companies and startups: SXSW has a rep as a fertile spawning ground for hot new technologies. (Twitter and Foursquare both shot to prominence after debuting at the show in 2007 and 2009, Jesse Stanchak points out.)
There are weblebrities on hand: You can’t turn around without tripping over a book author. There were real celebrities, too: My daughter squealed like a little girl (perhaps because she is one!) when I gave her a copy of the book based on the new film Red Riding Hood—a gothic retelling of the classic—signed by the film’s director, Catherine Hardwicke.
And everyone else is here, too. This year, there were something close to 20,000 registrants. As my friend and co-author C.C. Chapman says, there are places you go throughout the year to connect with certain groups of industry friends. But only at SXSW are all those people all in the same place, all at the same time. There’s a kind of like-minded shorthand with everyone you meet, making connections seamless.
Then there’s Austin itself. The city is as much a part of the experience as anything. Like Manhattan is a character in Sex in the City, Austin’s small scale and quirky, laid-back vibe is an important piece of SXSW. The pedicabs, cupcake and burrito food trucks, and solar-powered carousel framed the story as much as the 881,400-square-foot convention center.
Some who remember SXSW when it was smaller and more intimate say the event has jumped the shark. The corporate marketers and suits have arrived, and the Spring Break analogy no longer applies. The haters say that SXSW has lost its appeal.
I can’t really speak to SXSW in previous years—and possibly I’m one of those icky marketers the alums moan about (!)—but I imagine that an event that grew by 30 percent this year alone feels a whole lot different than it used to. Then again, I don’t know of a swift-moving industry that didn’t pine for some part of its former incarnation. I remember being at AdTech in 1999 when the suits arrived. They brought money and legitimacy. But still it felt like they crashed our party.
Some Perfect Moments. And Others … Umm… Not So Much
Was SXSW perfect? No way. It’s overwhelming. And exhausting. (I slept for exactly 90 minutes the whole weekend.)
And parts of it were downright annoying. Registration in the convention center comes to mind: You fill out your information on an index card (with a tiny pencil like you’d use on a miniature golf course—really, guys?) and then—with hundreds of others—stand behind a yellow line and wait for your name to be shouted into the cavernous belly of the convention center. It’s loud and really hard to hear, and the whole thing has the panicked feel of a place with limited resources but huge need. Like a Soviet bread line. Or TGI Fridays at happy hour.
But there were perfect moments. A interesting session called Brave New World: Debating Brands’ Role as Publishers—expertly moderated by NPR’s On Point talk-show host, Tom Ashbrook—offered both heat and light. But what was really special about it was the way that it got me and Eloqua’s Joe Chernov—who was standing nearby—talking: How can we help brands understand more specifically how to navigate this new world, where everyone is a “publisher”? What can we cull from a world we both know well—the world of journalism—that makes sense to them?
Also perfect: The way Leigh Durst, principal of Live Path and a MarketingProfs contributor, used SXSW as a launchpad for an impromptu but inspired campaign to collect aid for the relief effort in Japan. Leigh, along with BlogWorld conference director Deb Ng and CauseVox founder Rob Wu, created SXSW4Japan.org (on Twitter: #SWSWCares) in partnership with The American Red Cross, and launched a website at SXSW to collects donations. (As of Sunday night, the group had raised close to $100K.)
And that’s the thing: That’s the kind of stuff that makes SXSW unlike any other event in the digital space. So what does that add up to? For me, that adds up to two things: Inspiration and opportunity.
Like Slamming a Red Bull
I left SXSW feeling alive with inspiration and more ripe with opportunity than I have in a while. Brimming with ideas and contacts, and feeling lit by the energy of the people I met there and their love for what they do. It’s kind of like the conference equivalent of a Red Bull.
Saturday night—my only full night at SXSW—I bumped into my friend Rich Nadworny at a party coordinated by KickApps. One of the things he was hoping to get out of SXSW, he said, was a little inspiration, because he’d been feeling a bit in a rut.
I said I felt that way, too, because there’s a very fine line between a groove and a rut. And with my schedule lately (see that bit about too much work and travel, above), I have felt like I was slipping from the former into the latter.
I was quoting the songwriter Christine Lavin (“There’s a very fine line between a groove and a rut; a fine line between eccentrics and people who are just plain nuts.”) which seems appropriate for Austin, when I think of it now.
Because of the city itself, and because of the conference—both of them full of eccentricities, nearly verging on full-blown nuttiness … but not quite. Which, it turns out, is a great formula for guiding you out of a rut and into a groove.
So who went to SXSW? Who left inspired? And who came away from it not-so-much … ?