South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual meeting of professionals and passionate fans of social media, music and film, began March 12 and concluded this past weekend in Austin, Texas. In my first year at SXSW and attending on behalf of Nikon, I enjoyed a week full of learning, collaboration and inspiration. The hype is true. It’s an excellent opportunity to build strong relationships and create unique brand engagements for your client.
For those unfamiliar with SXSW, the first five days are dedicated to all things “Interactive,” including panels, parties and power-bloggers roaming the halls of the Austin Convention Center discussing what’s next. The Music and Film portion of the Festival follows and the city swells to more than 30,000 filling the streets of downtown Austin.
This year, attendees for the Interactive portion doubled with not only bloggers and social media “experts,” but corporate representatives and hundreds of PR, advertising and digital agency representatives, including a team from @mwwgroup. As Jenna Wortham of the New York Times wrote, “the high concentration of tech savants supplies a rare opportunity for companies to woo the eyes and clicks of early adopters and influential Twitter users and bloggers capable of elevating their sites and services out of obscurity.”
Of course, not all content enlightened attendees. There was a great deal of noise and panels with intriguing titles that didn’t deliver anything more than what is already covered within Mashable. As AdRants put it, “Some of the content was good. Some of the content was truly terrible.”
Here are a few takeaways from what we learned throughout the 10-day Festival…
#1. Geeks like to karaoke and party. A lot.
Interactive included five days of cookouts, kickball and Foursquare matches along with lunchtime happy hours, cocktail hours and after-after-after parties. This might seem like all fun and games, but in practice, it was a Festival of networking and idea generation for brands as large as Microsoft and as small as FoodSpotting, and a great celebration of the important role of technology and entrepreneurism of the past year.
#2. “Just watch American Idol.”
The legendary Smokey Robinson gave the keynote address to the SXSW Music attendees. He spoke of his award-winning history in the music business and how some of his greatest hits were created by accident. When asked what advice he would give to rising stars, he paused for a moment and said, “You are not the first to be in showbiz, you will not be the last. Just watch the crowds at an American Idol audition.” Knowing always where you’ve come from, what you stand for and appreciating the breaks you’ve been given along the way is key to success, according to Smokey. It’s advice all businesses and practitioners should follow.
#3. Business in the Bathroom Line.
An incredible thing about SXSW was that everyone was someone worth getting to know. Everyone had similar interests, passions, and desires to collaborate just waiting for a connection to be made. Everyone had an idea worth pursuing or a friend-of-a-friend you “just need to meet!” Even standing in the 50-person bathroom queue at Stubb’s BBQ, you might meet the lead singer of a cool band, the CMO of a brilliant startup, or even a filmmaker debuting at SXSW in need of PR representation. And, just like that, a relationship or a deal can be made.
#4. The Necessity of Official Sponsorships
The usual suspects sponsored the SXSW Festival, including Pepsi Refresh, AOL, Chevy, Miller Lite and more. Their presence was big, splashy, and ever-present among a sea of Convention Center visitors. We realized, though, that impact can be made without a step-and-repeat banner and pricey sponsorhips. Nikon (MWW client) partnered with the largest photo and video uploading service for Twitter, called yfrog. Knowing there was no official aggregator for images and video at SXSW, this service pulled in content using the Twitter hashtags #SXSW and #SXSWpics to form an online gallery. In addition to public content gathered, Nikon also sponsored several top bloggers, including Chris Brogan, Pop17 and Jeff Pulver, to hit the streets of Austin with their Nikon cameras to capture the scene. The Nikon Gallery had hundreds of professional photos and thousands of public images. The openness of social media, and collaborators like yfrog, allowed Nikon to have a unique brand presence without official SXSW sponsorship, although the right official sponsorships can work too.
#5 The Next Big Thing
Our minds are spinning with thoughts of what could be next for Interactive. Of course, the talk of the town was FourSquare, Gowalla and more location-based social media networking. The “celebrities” included Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk), iJustine (@iJustine), Guy Kawasaki (@guykawasaki) and many more who will continue to drive the thought leadership in this space. We also heard great buzz for Food Spotting, Twitter’s @Anywhere platform, and countless analytics tools and opinions about ROI. It remains to be seen what the next “big thing” will be, because the SXSW community is full of early adopters and it takes time to create mainstream adoption, but we’re confident one of the 15,000 brains at SXSW will be responsible.
Austin featured a great cast of characters, living up to its motto “Keep Austin Weird.” And, we can’t wait to return for the weirdness, creativity and rockin’ music at #SXSW2011.