Every year in early March, thousands of brands, geeks, marketers and techies descend upon the lovely and awesome city of Austin, Texas. South by Southwest is the conference highlight of my year. I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel last year with three of my friends who also happen to be pretty badass at what they do. The following blog entry is my thought on what's happening to SXSW and how as brands continue to penetrate it's fabric, they can actually make the experience and conference better for EVERYONE.
South by Southwest is hard to describe to someone who's never been. It's almost like you have to experience it first hand to truly understand the overwhelming scope, magnitude and craziness. In a nutshell, it's a five day interactive and digital (music & film, too) conference that brings together some of the greatest influencers, minds and innovators in our discipline. We talk social, digital, technological and cultural impact that our discipline is having on the world. At it's core, it's everything us geeks love.
Unfortunately, it's also slowly turning into a marketing and brand free for all. The same conference that launched twitter and foursquare, saw Elon Musk and Snowden and Neil DeGrasse Tyson speak is the same conference that is now overrun with indifferent brand ambassadors, begrudgingly handing you some sticker or tchotchke they clearly don't give two poops about. Now, don't get me wrong. As a former corporate ninja, I understand conferences like SXSW are dependent on brands and sponsors to help bring it to life. Money is a necessary evil to that allows something like SXSW thrive and continue. But, maybe it's time for us to step away from the Brand Kool Aid and take the conference back.
I know it's hard. SXSW has grown into a pop cultural phenomenon. (Thanks Lady Gaga for having someone throw up on you during your concert in 2014. That totally makes sense for SXSW and love that is what people took away from it) But, we MUST, as a technical and interactive community, make sure it gets back to its independent spirit and innovative roots.
Now, I don't want to slap the hand that literally feeds me during those five days. I love the parties and networking opportunities (aka free food and booze) that SXSW brands and partners offer. But, on the flip side, the sessions and connecting with like minded tech individuals is what REALLY gets me excited and passionate. Having been somewhat of an anomaly at P&G, it was like utopia for me. Meeting people who "GOT IT" and understood the power and need of holistic incorporation of QUALITY social and digital media was my happy place. Attending panels, workshops and just breathing in all that awesomeness makes me all kinds of warm and fuzzy. (and without my beloved bourbon!)
As a reformed social brand marketer, I completely understand the value of participating at something like SXSW. Having access to thousands of influencers and attendees is priceless. BUT, brands are screaming into and creating the white noise. SXSW has become overwrought with the unnecessary and superfluous, tragically asking everyone to "look at me and look how cool we THINK we are."
Moving forward, I challenge all brands and marketers to THINK about the VALUE they can bring to SXSW. Are you doing something USEFUL? One example I love giving is Cottonelle. (I know, cheap shot, but hey. It's seriously an EASY example) In the typical marketer mentality of "just being there is good enough" they created the Cottonelle Lounge. When I visited, i saw bored brand ambassadors and confused attendees milling about. Why? Probably because the manicures, massages and makeup tips they were offering had NOTHING TO DO WITH BATHROOMS AND TOILET PAPER!!! Instead of a pseudo-quasi hip lounge, they should have done something that is a direct tie and value to their product. Branding the bathrooms (and not just throwing some wet wipe packs on the counter), offering a better experience and actually trading in the industrial soviet grade convention center toilet paper for something softer would have made more sense. It's like they were BEGGING for a #derp, #facepalm and #duh.
So please, I implore you. If you are a marketer and are attending or even thinking about having your brand participate, STOP AND THINK. Are you or your brand going to add value? Learn something? Will you actually come away with a new perspective and the promise to USE your new knowledge for the greater social and digital good? Or are you going to be there, simply pretending to be part of the "cool crowd" and be "seen". If the latter is what you are doing, just be aware. That screams inauthentic and by default, totally uncool. And isn't that the exact opposite of what you're trying to do?
Own who your brand is. Offer value. KNOW how you can make the experience better for the attendee. And please, ENOUGH with the stickers and useless crap and give me (and the rest of us) something we actually need. Like better toilet paper in those convention center bathrooms......