This was my first SXSWi. Predictably, I did my best to prepare. I read a few “what to expect” posts. I talked to friends about how to prepare for the content (and the walking), and I spent a LOT of time building my session schedule.

Now that I’m home, I can say that there is absolutely no way to prepare oneself for SXSW. My feet are killing me, the sessions I attended and liked the most were not on the original schedule, and networking happened in largely unexpected places.

I’m going to make this easy to read for my easily-distracted friends: Bucketed. Bulleted. Boom.

CONTENT:
Does SXSW content suck?

While I’ve never been part of a more thorough vetting process (we were unfortunately one of the many rejected for panels), the content was still VERY hit or miss. After the first day, I actually said, “SXSW sucks.” Yup, it’s true. There were a number of planned sessions that I just plain walked out of. And if you were there looking for a new take on the social marketing space, you may have been disappointed. It was a lot of the same people talking about the same stuff you’ve probably read everywhere.

The good content was on the fringe – the content that explored the future of technology, like Augmented Reality and Touch User Interface. Some of this stuff was even borderline scary (glasses that let you see who somebody is based on their facebook profiles… yeah).  I also think the Future15 sessions were thrilling – 15 minutes per speaker, 5 speakers, single topic. It’s the Ignite model and it made for concise, fast-paced, varied POV’s. Loved it. And sessions that focused on conversation around challenging issues such as Brand Journalism were also thought provoking.

Expect more than a few Band Papers to come as a result of the content I soaked in from fringe sessions.

Lesson: Spread out and try sessions that aren’t narrowly fixed in your discipline.

NETWORKING: 
Can I interrupt your Tweeting to say hello? 

I attended sessions by myself. Approaching strangers is never easy. But approaching a stranger when every single one is buried in a device is next to impossible. I started calling it Device Blindness. I’d arrive to sessions early, hoping to find a few that weren’t in the “Twitter Zone.” Occasionally, I’d meet a few gems and it made the sessions tremendously more interesting.

The best networking happened when you were leaving sessions and waiting in the line for the escalator; waiting at a food stand; and DEFINITELY in the Exhibit Hall. When swag’s around, people put their phones down (priorities!). I also had very interesting conversations with people I just met on the street. People I plan to follow up with.

Lesson: Put the phone down! Meet people.

THEMES: 
Gaming, Doing Good, LBS 

Gaming Mechanics: There is a strong impact of Gaming Mechanics in the future of marketing. Seth Priebatsch from SCVNGR had an outstanding keynote where he talked about the potential impact if applied to the education system. And the theme went on from there – gaming mechanics bubbled up in a number of sessions around reward, loyalty and experience. Expect this to become more prevalent in digital marketing in the very near future.

Doing Good: Naturally, this theme surfaced in the keynote with Blake Mycoskie from Toms. But it went well beyond that. There were a number of sessions that were focused on NFPs and a number of sessions that touched on the value of a company taking part in altruistic endeavors and aligning with causes. For months I’ve been saying, “doing good is the new going green.” And this statement was well represented at SXSWi.

Location Based Services: Another huge theme. Nowhere was this clearer than in the exhibit space and in the SXSWi companies-to-watch. Many are based on location.

Lesson: Find ways to learn more and take part in these themes if you aren’t already.

FINAL TAKE: 
SXSW is great. 

When all is said and done, I’m very glad to have been a part of SXSWi and am grateful to my boss for approving me to attend. I’ve left fully inspired to write new papers and having met some great people that will certainly lead to new partnerships.

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