SXSW: Productive gathering or just a big party?

I’ll be heading down to Austin, Texas later this week to attend and be a panelist at my first South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. I am substituting for a sister agency’s social media VP, and after having my panel idea about word of mouth marketing not make the cut it’s ironic that the opportunity to sit on this one happened via word of mouth. But I digress. I’ve never attended but have closely followed SXSW over the past several years, and as an outsider I’ve developed several preconceived notions of what happens in Austin. Here are three things I’ll be looking for.

Attendees. The first thing I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of talkers attending. Talkers meaning people who can create volume online, typically those who spend their time tweeting, blogging, writing, etc. That’s not a bad thing, however my hope is that there are people who’ve actually built up an impressive client roster and catalog of work to pull from. No one needs more buzzword bingo theories or Top 10 lists. Finally, it’ll be interesting to see the ratio of unemployed/consultants/”experts” to startups to established brands. My guess is that it’s going to be somewhere in the 80:15:5 ratio.

The second notion I have is that this is one of the premiere places to launch new technology. Twitter and a boatload of other companies, including Foursquare, have launched and made a name for themselves by using SXSW as their platform/moment in time — and there’s a rumor swirling of some big Google news being announced this year.

Parties. Yes, we’ve all seen the tweets and blog posts about how many parties there are — Unofficial, official, all ages, over 21, platform-specific, PR-sponsored, startup funded and cupcake parties in all different shapes and sizes. I’m going to try and attend a few but not overdo it. See: 80:15:5 ratio above.

One thing I’m unaware of is the actual amount of billable work that’s been generated via SXSW. Brands and agencies partnering, RFPs, projects, etc. I will say that I received a horrible, misguided invitation by a competing firm who’s a sponsor at SXSW, but I digress. I’ll be reporting back on the entire conference and you know I’ll tell it like it is.

My question is for those who’ve been or want to go:

If you had to rate them in this order, is SXSW 1) a place full of “experts” and very few brand manager-types , 2) a place to launch new technology or 3) a huge social media-fueled party?

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  1. You're not truly allowed to be cynical until after you've been there David.I'm going for 3 reasons again this year:1) I will solidify more business this week in Austin than I would if I traveled the entire rest of the year 2x a week all over the country and the cost comparatively is fractional when it comes to travel, time spent outside the office, and time spent trying to work out calendars with the people I am meeting with.Why waste my time trying to fly all over the place when 90% of the people I want to work with this year will be in the same 5 miles for the next week?2) Most of the people I enjoy socializing with in this field will be there and are going to the same places I am. I will have some amazing conversations this week that will lead to some great lines of thought for me. Let me reword that: I will have conversations that will be the spark for some incredibly profitable ideas.3) I'm speaking on Sunday. (This is one hour of my time… a small price to pay for the upside.)I was speaking with a friend of mine earlier this week who brought up the reason that he wasn't missing it this year despite a lot of pressing account activity is that he closed over $100k in business *in* Austin last year, and it lead to considerably more afterward.There are 30,000 people who will be in Austin over the next 2 weeks that don't live there. 29,000 are probably wasting their time waiting for the next party/open bar. Of the remaining 1,000? Well, most of them won't be yammering on about how much work they're getting done because we're all just supposed to be having fun, right?See you there somewhere my friend. Check your cynicism at the door or you'll walk away with no reason to come back. I'll say it again. It is what you make it.

  2. You're not truly allowed to be cynical until after you've been there David.I'm going for 3 reasons again this year:1) I will solidify more business this week in Austin than I would if I traveled the entire rest of the year 2x a week all over the country and the cost comparatively is fractional when it comes to travel, time spent outside the office, and time spent trying to work out calendars with the people I am meeting with.Why waste my time trying to fly all over the place when 90% of the people I want to work with this year will be in the same 5 miles for the next week?2) Most of the people I enjoy socializing with in this field will be there and are going to the same places I am. I will have some amazing conversations this week that will lead to some great lines of thought for me. Let me reword that: I will have conversations that will be the spark for some incredibly profitable ideas.3) I'm speaking on Sunday. (This is one hour of my time… a small price to pay for the upside.)I was speaking with a friend of mine earlier this week who brought up the reason that he wasn't missing it this year despite a lot of pressing account activity is that he closed over $100k in business *in* Austin last year, and it lead to considerably more afterward.There are 30,000 people who will be in Austin over the next 2 weeks that don't live there. 29,000 are probably wasting their time waiting for the next party/open bar. Of the remaining 1,000? Well, most of them won't be yammering on about how much work they're getting done because we're all just supposed to be having fun, right?See you there somewhere my friend. Check your cynicism at the door or you'll walk away with no reason to come back. I'll say it again. It is what you make it.

  3. So, out of curiosity? If you put so little value on it? Why is it the 3rd year for you?As for "guy from Walmart" – given the quotes – it was one of 2 guys down there. Given that he was in a suit? Clear which one. (If you happen to be on the inside of that equation.) There's also no way in hell he got into a limo no matter which one it was.Yes, they were there with the Walmart ElevenMoms. Yes, they were there to learn. Most of them learned that surging around Austin in a huge group of moms and hangers on essentially gets you ignored by the very people you are there to learn from.SXSW is Geek Spring Break. It's also a reason for Austinites to blow town for 2 weeks and rent out their digs. It's also a huge opportunity if you know what the hell you are doing… because your other option is to fly all over the frakking country wasting at least a full day to schedule a one hour meetings with individual clients/partners/etc instead of saving yourself the jet lag accomplishing what can be done all in one place, in one week instead of taking months. It is what you make of it.Something I'm sure David will learn this week…

  4. Jay Cuthrell says:

    This is my 3rd year in a row at SxSW and my 2nd year speaking so I'd lay it out as 0) a place full of “experts” and very few brand manager-types 1) a huge social media-fueled party2) a place to launch new technology3) a very wide dispersed distribution of you-have-no-idea-what-it-might-beIt seems to get bigger each time so I'd say the percentages don't shift as much as they swell.Here's your anecdote for the day… last year I was heading down the escalator and this guy in a suit behind me strikes up a conversation… no badge but a gaggle of young biz types behind him (momma duck formation). It's a long ride down so we get around to who he is with and why he is there. This guys is with Wal-mart so I ask what's up. He indicates they are there to "learn". I ask if they plan to get into social media spaces. He deadpans with "we don't play in any game we can't win" as they step into their limo and head back to Bentonville. I'm guessing they skipped the parties. Maybe it was related to Walmart Mom's. Maybe it wasn't. My point is that there are a lot of things flying well under the radar and below the din of booze chugging new media types. Or, maybe I'm just an outsider [1] and see what I choose to see.[1] I do telecom stuff

  5. i think if the tech isn't there, the rest falls apart. sort of like the super bowl w/o any football.

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