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?