The CMO's Guide to Business as Usual at SXSW

There's Just No Good Reason Why Your Brand Should Spend Any Money to Be Involved

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin

Starting this weekend, tens of thousands of people will descend on Austin, Texas, for nearly two weeks of speeches and showcases of music, film and interactive media. South by Southwest, or "SXSW," has become the must-attend show for artists and a wide swath of digerati luminaries. If you didn't already know this, you probably don't belong there anyway, and if you did know about it, you're either going to the gig, announcing something there, and/or you've committed your brand to sponsorship.

Has anybody talked to you about this shindig who wasn't trying to sell it to you? I thought it might be helpful to share a little C-level insight with you before the event starts throwing off coverage that either confirms or challenges your suspicions.

First, it's a trade show. Gloriously so, in the spirit of some generic widget soiree circa 1950, only instead of wearing Sansabelt slacks and loud plaid blazers, the conventioneers wear shades of black. The industry isn't as well organized or defined like those of the past, but broadly its trade is digital connectivity through hardware, software or content. It's heartening to me that folks still make the effort to get together in our era of remote and sometimes abstract virtual experience to do what working stiffs have done for decades: party and gossip. SXSW is an improvement on both fronts over past trade shows in that its for-profit organizers have stripped out any pretension of writing customer sales orders to allow attendees to focus on the exchange of ideas and experiences, whether drunkenly or sober. It's the trade show where New Media goes Old School.

Second, in lieu of sales orders, it produces lots of hype. Like the internet that has made it famous, the event exists to transmit stories, so the people there exchanging ideas and experiences are often interested in promoting them to their friends and acquaintances ("followers," in the language of the influence business). This is the event to see people being seen and then report what you saw, all in the special language of microblogging and insider references so it comes across as ever more sight-worthy. As for the stories so transmitted ... well, some big names in the buzz space were launched at SXSW, but one study I found suggested that the stories that stay above the clutter for more than a nanosecond are those with real substance and import (i.e. they're not buzz but business news). The show is less a conduit for insights than it is a launching pad for fleeting fame.

Third, it puts old definitions of payola to shame. The digerati who have promoted a worldview in which information relies on their influence have mostly put themselves up for sale to the highest corporate bidders. So has the show overall: Huge brand names sponsor events as well as an endless array of awards competitions and parties. Bloggers can be bought to fill events with bodies and then anoint news announcements with their imprimaturs. Thank goodness we no longer have to get the facts from those traditional news reporters who kept their biases to themselves. SXSW gives us a bevy of really smart people whose convoluted logic lets them take money and gifts proudly (so much so that government regulation has replaced the fear of shame and ill repute that used to keep those old reporters at least marginally honest). Everybody is spinning everybody else in an enormous corporate self-lovefest that makes past conventions seem like tame church services in comparison. Looking for news about the future? Yeah, just remember CES a few months ago. There's no real information coming out of this event other than how much fun it is to be living right there, right then. And brands still can't buy cool.

But it's a great party, and I find absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's also fundamentally a music event, and Austin happens to be one of the best places on the entire planet for live music, so it's legit at least on that front. There's just no good reason why your brand should spend any money to be involved. Consider the enabling technologies and cultural shifts the SXSW folks are doing a brilliant job of monetizing for themselves: peer-to-peer connectivity, collaboration, consensus and community that spans every distance of space and time. You don't need a tradeshow to operationalize those powerful forces. Do as the experts say, not as they do.

Oh, and I'm not planning on going to SXSW, but if you want to waste oodles of money underwriting my drinking problem, I'm up for grabs. Make me an offer. I'll blog until I pass out.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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